When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Geopolitics

Islamic Antidote To Radicalism: A French One-Man Show On The Koran

In the southern city of Marseille, actor Selman Reda draws on his personal experiences to explore the ins and outs of being Muslim in secular France.

Reda takes his audience back to the Sixth Century.
Reda takes his audience back to the Sixth Century.
Gilles Rof

MARSEILLE — His slow, warm voice is that of a storyteller. The same is true of his hands, which accompany the poetic language with arabesque gestures. But Selman Reda isn't here to tell old wives' tales.

The script is his own creation, rather, a monologue called Ne laisse personne te voler les mots (Don't Let Anyone Steal The Words), which the actor from Marseille wrote and has performed more than 20 times since December in local theaters, middle schools and high schools.

The show addresses very contemporary themes, both sensitive and controversial — from the way the Koran is interpreted, to the excesses it can lead to. And hovering over the whole play is the question of how to be a Muslim in secular France, a country still traumatized by recent terror attacks.

On this day, Reda is performing before an audience of 14-year-olds at the Collège Louis-Pasteur in Marseille. In recent years, the middle school — located in the eastern part of the city — has welcomed students from the poorer northern neighborhoods. "Their parents are looking for a peaceful haven," says Lucile Plevin, a French teacher who organized the show. In her classrooms, Muslims and non-Muslims learn side by side. And so "the question of Islam is a primary concern," she says.

Reda, 40, was born in Morocco but has lived in France since he was four. Slim and with a shaved head and peaceful smile, he only recently focused on theater. Behind his soft flow, there's an imposing strength to Reda's words. Standing on a large table, the actor plays his own father, acting out the day he kicked Reda out of his house. "You don't want to be a good Muslim. You're not my son," he says. Reda was just 16 at the time and wondered, "What kind of god asks a father to kick out his own son?"

In front of the students he tells the story of his father, a Moroccan worker who came to work in the vineyards of the south of France. At home, his father imposed rigid religious practice and limited young Reda's freedoms. "He told me: You don't have to know "how" or "why." You must follow the rules of Islam."

He recalls a man who would beat him whenever he'd hold his glass with the wrong hand — the hand of the Sheitan — and who forbade him to listen to music or have non-Muslim friends. "The important thing is to make students understand that we can practice religion as we see fit," Reda insists.

Michel André is the founder of the Marseille City Theater and directs the show. He says Reda's story "resonates with teenagers' because he shares his experiences from when he was their age. "The connection is immediate, whether Muslim or not," André says.

This cathartic one-man show is mostly based on the actor's personal story. But what really triggered the writing process was Reda's meeting with Islamic scholar Rachid Benzine, in 2015. Benzine emphasized that the Koran is a 15-century-old text, a transcription of an oral message that was developed in a specific context and needs to be delved into to better understand.

Benzine offered certain insights that the actor, by integrating video clips of their conversation, shares in his show. He also gives out an educational booklet as part of the performance. "After the terror attacks, I felt a personal responsibility for my community, a need to speak to a young audience," Reda explains. "I did not want to be overly theatrical. I wanted to stick with a documented, educational approach."

How can we set someone free if we've just killed them?

But when he faces the students, the actor is still very much an actor, turning his stage into a desert, evoking the tribes of the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the quest for water, the rules of the raids. "The violence of the Koran is not a Muslim violence, it is the tribal violence of the Arabian peninsula in the sixth century," he says.

One by one, Reda analyzes the words that impact our daily lives. He traces their etymology and examines their connotations. "The Koran has become opaque for us, but for the people of the time, it was very clear," he says.

Reda speaks Arabic perfectly. Kafir, which is usually translated as "unfaithful," thus gets readjusted to "one who does not believe in signs' or even "the farmer." He defines Sharia as "the path to the source." As for the use of the "sword," from an excerpt from the Koran often used by the Islamic State (ISIS) to justify its atrocities, Reda considers it a false interpretation. His alternate reading leaves the teenagers speechless: "The Lebanese edition says: "Kill the accomplices ... If they then repent, let them go ..." Nothing shocks you, here? How can we set someone free if we've just killed them?"

By highlighting such paradoxes, Reda shows how obviously erroneous the translation is. During the debate that follows the show, he responds calmly to students, owning up to his faith in God, assuring them he is "not here to say what to believe or not."

"I haven't had any negative reactions yet, though one time a student asked me if I'd bought my Koran second-hand," he says with a smile.

Amber, 14, who, like her friends Chirine and Yasmine, regularly goes to a mosque. "I'm more comfortable talking about the Koran with him than with someone who is not Muslim," she said afterwards. "I listened and I learned." Earlier, Amber had claimed that she "would be better off in a Muslim country to practice her religion," to which Reda kindly but firmly responded, "What greater freedom would you have there than right here?"

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

Geopolitics

Utter Pessimism, What Israelis And Palestinians Share In Common

Right now, according to a joint survey of Israelis and Palestinians, hopes for a peaceful solution of coexistence simply don't exist. The recent spate of violence is confirmation of the deepest kind of pessimism on both sides for any solution other than domination of the other.

An old Palestinian protester waves Palestinian flag while he confronts the Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan near the West Bank city of Nablus.

A Palestinian protester confronts Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the West Bank village of Beit Dajan on Jan. 6.

Pierre Haski

-Analysis-

PARIS — Just before the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a survey of public opinion among the two peoples provided a key to understanding the current situation unfolding before our eyes.

It was a joint study, entitled "Palestinian-Israeli Pulse", carried out by two research centers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, which for years have been regularly asking the same questions to both sides.

The result is disastrous: not only is the support for the two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side — at its lowest point in two decades, but there is now a significant share of opinion on both sides that favors a "non-democratic" solution, i.e., a single state controlled by either the Israelis or Palestinians.

This captures the absolute sense of pessimism commonly felt regarding the chances of the two-state option ever being realized, which currently appears to be our grim reality today. But the results are also an expression of the growing acceptance on both sides that it is inconceivable for either state to live without dominating the other — and therefore impossible to live in peace.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest