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Belgian Muslim Playwright Grieves Attacks, But His Show 'Jihad' Must Go On

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 26/03/2016 Charlotte Alfred
ATHENA IMAGE © EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

Ismael Saidi has spent the past year taking a darkly comic play about three young Muslim misfits who turn to terrorism to schools and theaters around Belgium.  

The events described in his play, Djihad , which is French for jihad, came crashing into real life on Tuesday.

That morning, the 39-year-old playwright and actor saw the news of a bombing at Brussels’ Maelbeek subway station and panicked. Saidi repeatedly tried to call his son, who was commuting to school. He finally picked up 20 minutes later. His son said he got off the train one stop before Maelbeek.

Twenty people were killed at the subway station that morning, and 11 others lost their lives in two suicide bombings at Brussels airport, the worst terrorist attacks in Belgian history. The Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility for the bombings.

Saidi was still on edge three days after the attacks, as the full horror of Tuesday’s events unfolded. One of his friends has already been confirmed dead in the metro bombing.  “It’s awful -- every day we are given a new name,” Saidi told The WorldPost on Friday. “You are just waiting: Do I know someone else?”

At night, Saidi goes to the Place de la Bourse, a central Brussels square where people have gathered since the attacks to hold vigils and leave messages and flowers in tribute to the victims. Somehow, it feels safer watching people come together in the square than sitting at home and watching the news, Saidi said.

“I found all of Brussels in the square, of all origins, of all colors,” he told The WorldPost. “If we are able to be together, then the terrorists have failed.”

This is the very same point that Saidi has made for months, through his play about a group of young Belgian Muslims who decide to join Islamist militants in Syria. Inspired by the 2010 British movie Four Lions, about British suicide bombers, he uses black comedy to humanize extremists and make a serious point about alienation and radicalization.

Comedy is a powerful weapon against extremism, in the connections it makes and the taboos it breaks Saidi said. “We can laugh about anything, however dark the subject, as long as we respect each other,” he told The WorldPost in an earlier interview this month. “And when we can laugh together, you can win the war against darkness.”

The play is an effort to understand why Belgian youth are heading to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq in such high numbers -- Belgium has the highest proportion of foreign fighters in Europe.

The problem is especially close to home for Saidi. He grew up in a Moroccan immigrant family in Brussels’ Schaerbeek neighborhood, the home of at least one of Tuesday’s suicide bombers, and where authorities believe the attackers cooked the explosives for the attacks.

Schaerbeek is not at all the terror hotspot described in the media, Saidi said. Some of the neighborhood is impoverished and has high crime rates; other parts are fairly wealthy. It is home to a large North African immigrant population, which could help fugitive terror suspects better to meld in with the community, experts say.

Yet Saidi knows well the challenges of growing up Belgian, Muslim and as the son of immigrant parents.

He and his friends struggled to reconcile the conservative form of Islam that some in the community espoused, and their love of music, art or girls. All these experiences became ingredients for the theater production, in which Saidi and two of his friends play and share the names of the principal characters, intentionally blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Saidi also directly experienced the lure of Islamist militants.  Militant recruiters sending young Muslims to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan approached Saidi when he was a teenager in the 1990s. They used the same tactics as the Islamic State recruiters today, Saidi said, and it worked on some of his friends, who went to Afghanistan and never came back.

“As a kid growing up, you are lost. And as the son of an immigrant, you are lost twice,” he told The WorldPost. “When someone who is a grown up and knows the Quran approaches you, and says that you’re wasting your time here, and that you can become a hero over there -- it seems like it will give a goal to your life, or at least your death.”

Saidi credits his high school with opening his mind to different ideas. “Education is the solution to everything, including radicalization,” he said.

Dihad debuted in December 2014, but Saidi initially faced some challenges getting theaters to show the play or get advertising on the metro, because people were nervous about its name.

Saidi refused to change the name, saying his whole point is that no group has monopoly over words or ideas, including jihad. The practicing Muslim notes that "jihad" in Arabic means struggle, and its first meaning in Islamic tradition is a personal battle against evil within yourself.

“That is what we are doing on stage -- trying to tell a story without hiding anything,” Saidi said. “So this is our jihad, too.”

But the play spread by word of mouth, and with some support from Belgian authorities. Weeks after Dihad opened, French brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi gunned down 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Belgian education ministry picked up on Saidi’s play, and helped the team stage it for school children in Belgium. The cast has now performed more than 130 shows to over 46,000 people -- around half of them students. The play has been translated into Dutch, and also performed in Holland and France.

The day before Tuesday's attacks, Saidi performed the play in Namur, a city about 30 miles south of Brussels. As usual, the cast and invited experts answered the audience’s myriad questions after the show.

“They are afraid, and they are trying to find answers to their fears,” he said of Monday’s post-show debate. “The Muslims are afraid that people don’t like them, while the non-Muslims ask: ‘Why are you so violent?’”

Saidi said these debates are exactly the kind of frank conversations that need to take place all over Europe right now, getting all people’s fears and misconceptions out into the open. The play will continue tours in Belgium and France in a few weeks.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Saidi again turned his pen on such misconceptions. While he grieved for his friend and his city, Saidi faced hostile comments on social media, questioning why Belgian Muslims weren’t out on the streets condemning the attacks. His powerful response was shared thousands of times on Facebook and reprinted in a Belgian newspaper .

“They don’t see Muslims, because we are just like everyone else,” he said. “I wrote this to say: I am like you. Today, I am crying, so leave me alone. Let’s mourn together, and then come back to me in a week and we’ll talk.”

Saidi’s Facebook post , translated into English:

Why aren’t Muslims taking to the streets en masse to condemn the attacks?

Because we’re driving the taxis that have been taking people home for free since yesterday...

Because we’re caring for the wounded in hospitals…

Because we’re driving the ambulances that are racing through the streets like shooting stars to try to save what life remains in us…

Because we’re at the reception desks of the hotels that have been welcoming onlookers for free since yesterday…

Because we’re driving the buses, the trams, and the subway cars so that life can continue, albeit broken…

Because we’re still looking for criminals in our police, investigator, and magistrate outfits…

Because we’re crying for the missing, too…

Because we are no more spared than anyone else…

Because we are doubly, triply bruised…

Because the same faith produced the executioner and the victim…

Because we’re groggy, lost, and we’re trying to understand…

Because we spent the night on our doorstep waiting for someone who will never come back…

Because we’re counting our dead…

Because we’re in mourning…

The rest is only silence…

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