Even as Belgium has emerged as a hub of Islamic terror networks, a Belgian Muslim is the theatrical toast of the town as he tackles jihad, racism and culture wars with humor.
BRUSSELS — Ismael Saidi insists he's just a regular guy, even if the 39-year-old former policeman and practicing Muslim is the singular theatrical sensation in Belgium.
Jihad, Saidi's play in eight acts, has been sold out since late December 2014, as audiences eat up the tragicomic adventures of three lost souls who swear only by Allah, even though none of them has ever read the Koran. They're recruited and decide to go fight in Syria to save their Muslim brothers. From Brussels to Homs, by way of Istanbul, their journey quickly turns to chaos.
The last show of the year was Friday Dec. 18, in the trendy Varia Theater in Brussels. Saidi, who likes to keep an eye on everything, is the only one in the troupe who knows all the figures' lines by heart. They have put on 111 shows for 40,300 spectators. Plans for 2016 are in place: They will travel to the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, with a translated version of the play, and also to France.
The audience cries at Jihad. But the story of this warring nightmare also makes them laugh. Every now and then, Saidi uses jokes to ease the tension. "A halal mayo sandwich? How did you do it? Did you behead the jar?" one of his characters says. Saidi likes to "fool about," his friends say. But it doesn't prevent him from being spot-on. We're made to laugh about everything: racism, prejudice, ignorance, dogmatism, stupidity. Nobody's spared, especially not Muslims. "We've been manipulated, brother, not only by the system, but by our own too," one of the wannabe jihadists warns towards the end of the play.
Ismael Saidi (left) on stage — Photo: Facebook page
This form of insolence has earned Saidi a few enemies. He defines himself as a "Muslim from here," before quickly changing his mind. "Say instead that I'm a Judeo-Christian Muslim." But on social media, this believer who prays five times a day, who observes Ramadan, who abstains from alcohol and pork, is often seen as a traitor to the cause. "As far as I know, all of those who returned from Syria to commit these attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 weren't Buddhist or true Bretons," he says. "My play therefore also needed to be a self-criticism of the community to which I belong."
The second of five siblings, he was able to observe how his parents, who arrived from Morocco in the late 1960s, made Belgium home, despite the discrimination they endured and still endure. Even insults are covered in a colorful part of the play: "Next time you're driving, try and refuse to give way. What the other guy will tell you depends on your face. If you're white, he'll say "asshole." If you look like us, he'll tell you "go back to your country, you fucking Arab.""
Roxanne Rensonnet, Saidi's Latin teacher who he always invites to his show's premieres, says, at 12, Saidi was the mascot of the school's theater group. "He was a repartee master, and he used to laugh at everything, especially himself," Rensonnet recalls. Growing up in Schaerbeek, a poor Brussels suburb, Saidi never lacked anything, especially not books and comics. A fan of Alexandre Dumas, he used to picture himself as D'Artagnan. He knows the Asterix stories by heart and admits a fondness for Cacofonix, the bard who "gets beaten up because he always has something to sing or say." A bit like him, actually.
Anger as creative muse
His father, a cab driver, created his own company, a modest business that nevertheless did well enough to provide for the family. Perhaps that's why it angers Saidi when some immigrants play the victimization card.
It was in fact a fit of anger that led him to write the show in August 2014. Saidi was working at home with the TV on. Marine Le Pen was being interviewed. When journalists asked her about young people going to Syria, the National Front leader said it didn't bother her as long as they didn't come back. "This sentence shocked me," Saidi says. "Who's she talking about? These youngsters with a face like mine?" Ismael quickly started writing on his computer.
Jihad references many moments in his past. Racism? Yes, he experienced it while working at a telemarketing company where he was given a fictional name, Michel Henrion. Saidi sold everything, and a lot of it: vacuum cleaners, books, armchairs, etc. One brand's revenue went through the roof thanks to him and some of his friends. But when a representative of the company came to congratulate the team, Saidi's boss recruited white Belgian actors to pose as the crack telemarketing sales team because the visitor hated blacks and Arabs.
He once came close to radicalization. As an awkward teenager trying to define his identity, he considered adding his name to a list that the imam in his mosque passed around after prayers. At the time, young Muslims were going to Afghanistan, and some of his classmates were among them. He recently recognized one in a picture, holding a Kalashnikov. "You have to understand them," he explains. "They're being offered the chance to become a knight, a defender of Islam, and they want to believe it."
He recalls troubling times in Brussels growing up. "I remember Roger Nols, Schaerbeek's mayor, coming to the main square on camelback to show the town's inhabitants what would happen if they granted foreigners the right to vote," he says.
His passion for music saved him, even though it means he'll burn in hell, as his imam says. His friendship with Gabrielle, a young woman he later discovered was Jewish, was also decisive. "She's a great girl," Saidi says. "I understood then that the hateful things some say about Jews could only be bullshit."
A play of "public interest"
Two politicians — Joëlle Milquet, a regional education official and culture official Fadila Laanan — were the first to believe in the power of Jihad. The two women were positive that the play could help remove taboos in a Belgium that was still shocked by the Brussels Jewish Museum shooting in May 2014. The Paris attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January 2015 forced them to act quicker than planned. On Jan. 13, 2015, Laanan officially declared Jihad a play of "public interest." A month later, Milquet described the play as an "educational tool" and subsidized 30 performances as part of a wider plan to tackle radicalism within schools.
But word of mouth had already begun in earnest, especially among the Muslim community. The Dec. 26, 2014, premiere took place in a part of Brussels famous for its shopfront prostitution and drug trafficking. The show was sold out, and some people even had to sit on the stairs. "There were many bearded people who had come to take me down," Saidi says, laughing. "But as the play went on, the faces relaxed."
In Brussels, on Hôtel-des-Monnaies street, the Jewish Community Center (CCLJ) is under constant military surveillance. Saidi and his troupe performed Jihad there on May 22, again a sold out show. Géraldine Kamps, editor-in-chief of the center's publication Regards, remembers the audience as "visibly satisfied." The young woman was the first to have interviewed Saidi about his play. "We had one Facebook friend in common," she says. They've been phoning each other regularly since then. "You don't think that I'd let go of a Muslim who sees further than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and accepts contacts with the Jewish community, do you? It's a rare specimen," she says, laughing.
More seriously, the journalist believes that Ismael Saidi could become a sort of bridge between communities who don't interact in Belgium, a country where Saudi Wahhabism is strong. "He embarrasses right-wing radicals a lot because he's reassuring, whereas Muslims in general are supposed to be scary," she says. "His principle is that Belgian identity is our common denominator." But she's wary of his voice becoming too commonplace. "People now ask his opinion too much, about everything."
It's true that his repeated appearances on television are making other artists who long for the same public support jealous. Still, Jihad has very few critics. Who would have believed such a triumph? Certainly not Saidi. Initially, the father of three who has been married for 20 years to Myriam, whom he met at police school, "just wanted to leave something behind" to his children and parents. With his play, he's done that, and more.