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French Version

Dutch-Moroccan author rejects what the label 'requires' of him

'They just want your opinion because they want some confirmation of their own opinions'

"I don't have many expectations any more," Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali consults his empty coffee cup. "It's not very cheering." To ask Benali about Dutch identity politics is to walk in on a conversation that started without you.

Presently it's being held at the bustling cafe-bar of Amsterdam's De Balie art space.

Later this evening, the operatic adaptation of Benali's play "Yasser" will premiere here. As he ruminates upon matters of immigrant identity and the role of the artist, his face periodically ignites into an incongruous smile as colleagues and fans saunter by to say hi.

Born in the Moroccan village of Ighazzazen in 1975, Benali moved to join his father in the Netherlands in 1979. By the time he graduated with a history degree from the University of Leiden he'd won several Dutch literary competitions.

At 21 he published his first novel, "Bruiloft aan zee" ("Wedding by the Sea"), which went on to win the Dutch prize for the best debut work. It's since been translated into several languages, including English, French and German, and in 1999 it took France's prize for best first foreign novel.

After a four-year break, Benali took the Libris Literature Prize for "De langverwachte" ("The Long-Awaited") in 2002. "Laat het morgan mooi weer zijn" ("May the Sun Shine Tomorrow") followed in 2005. His forth novel, "Feldman and I," is being published next month.

Critics praise Benali's novels for this skill as a storyteller, his blend of mundane and fantastical (even mythic) elements, his loving use of language and his keen sense of humor that borders on the farcical.

"My work is about the relationship between individual and environment, individual and inner self and the tension between the two," says Benali. "The stories are always societal. Events are more important than characters. Weddings, births, the passage from day to night - are always central."

More recently Benali has won renown in the theater, with three successful plays to his credit.

First staged in 2001, "Yasser" is a dramatic monologue centering on Dutch-Palestinian actor Jasser Mansoer. He's in his dressing room preparing to play Shylock the Jew in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" - in which he acts opposite his Dutch girlfriend Marjolein in the role of Portia. Jasser is frustrated at forever being cast to play Jewish characters, and never having the chance to play his namesake, late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Earlier this year composers Ilonka van den Bercken and Guy Harries recast "Yasser" as a multi-media opera. Jasser (Sabri Saad al-Hamus) is joined on stage by Marjolein (soprano Jannie Pranger), a chamber group of Western and Middle Eastern instruments, camera and screen - projecting live and pre-recorded images.

Benali's newest piece, "Othello," just made its word premiere in Amsterdam. In this monologue, Othello (somewhat more cheerful than in Shakespeare's rendering) reflects upon the incidents that led to his tragic end. He reminisces about his relationships with his wife Desdemona and his nemesis Iago, his wife's murder and his suicide, returning again and again to his being a "Blackamoor" in a mostly white society. Contrasting society's representation of him with his self-perception, the dead Moor challenges his audience to put itself in his role and choose a path other than that of violence.

Benali is a frequent contributor to various Dutch newspapers and magazines. It was some work for Vrij Nederland that took him to Beirut this summer.

"The original assignment was to write about living in Beirut," he explains. "I was asked to be an observer, a fly on the wall. Then the war started and the paper asked me to blog what was happening.

"For me, frankly, this month was a blessing in disguise. The best way to resist the assault was to work ... I wanted to write from a perspective that undermined any kind of cliche, one that wasn't of any political use to anyone. The Dutch response was positive ... They were most impressed that people are still living, even during war. 'You mean Hizbullah supporters are human beings?' The impression is that during a war people should be victims."

The Dutch intelligentsia has embraced Benali, but he is critical of the factors underlying this reception and the role he's expected to play as a Dutch-Moroccan artist. He's noticed that, though Holland's is a "reading culture," it isn't necessarily a "thinking culture."

"People here read a lot but when the discussion becomes serious they say 'that's enough,'" he says. "It's too difficult for the readership to cope with knowledge. You must have humor in your work so people can have a laugh.

"There seems to be a real fear of culture. Autobiography is the favored genre. Intellectuals place emphasis on psychology in their analysis.

"Here you're always seen first as 'a Muslim author,'" Benali complains. "You're expected to be a cultural ambassador for Muslims. They want to invest you with this moral authority as a 'Dutch Muslim' but it's a false authority.

"It's like they're asking: 'Can you please say something that'll make us sleep again?' What's the point of having a Moroccan writer come forward and say everything's okay?"

Benali views his job as being to creatively undermine his assigned role.

"In Holland it's all about belonging to clubs - a running club or a sewing club. I don't belong to any club," he says. "People expect me to speak as a Muslim or a Moroccan yet I'm giving you my own opinion. I use my tricks, my language skills, to undermine the role they've assigned me.

"The problem is that everything's connected to Islam. It never really becomes an intellectual discussion because that would invite argument and people don't want that. Whenever journalists want the 'Muslim Dutch perspective,' they never go to an intellectual. They find some old man at a mosque.

"It's a racist discourse. They just want your opinion because they want some confirmation of their own opinions.

"Many Dutch are worried about 'the Muslim problem.' They never think that the problem might rest with them, not the immigrants. But as soon as you ask them to psychologize in these terms they become upset.

"The problem for Muslim kids isn't Islam. If a Moroccan kid is angry and turns to crime or the mosque, it's because he can't find a job ... Then people ask me to give them the recipe for successful integration. The recipe is under their nose. All they have to do is do something with it."

Creative responses aside, Benali feels that he has become more radical.

"In the past two years increasing numbers of people see themselves as victims when you're actually ruling the world. I'm angry, too, about the fact that the victims of these conflicts are seen as the terrorists. Then every conflict is seen as a contest between equal opponents, while underneath the rich are all getting richer. This complex of masterful victims will become harder and harder to break. There's no room for an alternative point of view.

"Here at De Balie last month they had an event commemorating September 11, 2001. That's five years now they've been having the same event. They have everything, yet at the same time they represent themselves as victims."

Benali smiles at one of the musicians working on "Yasser."

"It's a huge mistake to ask an immigrant: 'To whom are you loyal?' Better to ask: 'Can you use your loyalties to help create a better environment in this country?' Yet it always comes back to this demand that immigrants abandon their roots. It's like asking them to betray their mothers. It's such a mistake. As soon as you lose your love for your mother, you become capable of anything."

Beirut,10 24 2006
The Daily Star
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