Geopolitics

“Jihad,” The Belgian Play Leaving Audiences In Stitches

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.

“Jihad,” The Belgian Play Leaving Audiences In Stitches
Marie-Béatrice Baudet

BRUSSELS â€" 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 â€" Photo: Facebook page

Self-deprecation

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 â€" Joëlle Milquet, a regional education official and culture official Fadila Laanan â€" 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.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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