(Daniel Boffey’s, Constanze Letsch’s, Philip Oltermann’s, Helena Smith’s, and Kit Gillet’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/12.)
Ismael Saïdi, Belgium
A comedy about jihad? At first, no one wanted to touch it, says Belgian playwright Ismael Saïdi. “They didn’t think anyone could laugh at that.” Called Djihad, the French word for jihad, his play follows three hapless Belgian Muslims who feel compelled – for a range of tragicomic reasons – to travel to Syria, where their eyes are opened to the reality of holy war.
Echoing Four Lions, Chris Morris’s 2010 film, the satire highlights some of the absurdities of the terrorist cause and the frustrations of those drawn to it. Saïdi, whose parents are Moroccan, had plenty of material to work with. He was born in Brussels, in the suburb of Schaerbeek, an area caricatured as a breeding ground for terrorists.
“People coming from Muslim countries to Belgium was very new,” he says. “When you are young, you feel any difference in a negative way – you are afraid, you want to be like the others. You want to be the good, beautiful guy. And I was not. I didn’t know how to play soccer. But later, I felt being different was a positive, an opportunity.”
Unsure of what to do after school, he responded to a police drive for recruits from migrant communities. He expected to stay a month but, after a bumpy start, saw out 16 years. “At the beginning, we were two or three people among 2,000. Some colleagues don’t want to drive with you – they don’t feel comfortable, they don’t trust you. After three or four years, things were better.” Eventually, he left to pursue his writing.
Saïdi started Djihad in 2012, after watching French far-right leader Marine Le Pentalking about young people going to Syria. “She was saying she didn’t care about them. She didn’t want them to come back. I thought that was awful. You have to understand why people go there to fight – as they will come back to kill people. And I saw a picture on Facebook of a friend from when I was at school. He was in Syria in front of an Isis flag with a Kalashnikov in his hand. I was thinking, ‘How can this be possible? How can he be a terrorist? He was with me at school. He played with me. He went to the cinema with me. What happened?’ That’s the reason I wrote it.”
Its first performance, at a small venue in 2014, sold out without any advertising. Then, in the wake of the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, schools started to get in touch with him. Parents who had taken their children to see the play were recommending it to teachers as an eye-opener.
Of the 250,000 who have now seen Djihad, 150,000 are teenagers. Saïdi is touring with a sequel, Géhenne, which follows one of the three Djihad characters into a Belgian prison. “People laugh at lot,” says Saïdi. “And at the end they cry.” Daniel Boffey