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Benaïssa, Slimane (1943–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, THE LOSS OF PLURALITY LEADS TO FEAR OF THE OTHER

play french theater algerian

An Algerian playwright, scenographer, and actor, Slimane Benaïssa, after devoting most of his life to the writing and production of plays in Algeria, exiled himself in France in February 1993 following threats on his life by radical Islamists. A former collaborator of Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, Benaïssa is known for being the first playwright to bring colloquial Algerian dialects on stage.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Benaïssa was born on 11 December 1943 in the town of Guelma in the eastern part of Algeria, to a family of Berber origin. He received technical training in mathematics and electrical engineering but was eventually drawn to literary studies when he discovered theater in Algeria in the early 1970s, eventually obtaining a degree in mathematics and a second degree in Arabic literature. In 1977 he became head of the Regional Theater in Annaba, and in 1979 was appointed to the direction of theaters under the sponsorship of the Algerian Information and Culture Ministry. He quit that same year to establish Algeria’s first independent theater troupe. He adapted and translated plays by Bertold Brecht, Aeschylus, and most notably Kateb Yacine from French into everyday Algerian Arabic. As an actor, he performed widely throughout Algeria for two decades before exiling himself to France in 1993, where he began to stage his own plays, written in French.

His play Au-delá du voile (1991; Beyond the veil), written first in Arabic and then translated into French, enjoyed an unprecedented success in Algiers. It also made him well known to the French public, particularly following the Festival International des Francophonies in Limousin. This play was followed by Le conseil de discipline , produced by the Magasin d’Ecriture Théâtrale in Brussels, and was widely represented throughout Belgium and France, thanks to the initiative of the Ligue de L’Enseignement. In Marianne et le marabout , a piece created in October 1993 together with youngsters from immigrant backgrounds at Epinay-sur-Seine, France, Benaïssa reflects on the issues of immigration and exile through the voice of the main character, an Algerian woman residing in France.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Slimane Benaïssa

Birth: 1943, Guelma, Algeria

Nationality: Algerian; lives in exile in France

Education: B.A. (mathematics, Arabic literature)

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1977: Head of the Regional Theater in Annaba, Algeria
  • 1979: Director of National Theaters; Establishes Algeria’s first independent theater troupe
  • 1991: Writes Au-delà du voile (novel)
  • 1993: Moves to France; writes his first play in French; wins Grand Prix Francophone de la SACD
  • 1994: Writes Le conseil de discipline (play)
  • 1995: Writes Marianne et le marabout (play)
  • 1996: Writes Les fils de l’amertume (play)
  • 1997: Writes Un homme ordinaire pour quatre femmes particulières (play)
  • 1999: Writes Prophètes sans dieu (play), L’avenir oublié (play; with André Chouraqui), Les fils de l’amertume (novel)
  • 2000: Writes Ailleurs, ailleurs (play); named to the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie
  • 2001: Writes Mémoires à la derive (play), Le silence de la falaise (novel)
  • 2002: Writes Noir-Hamlet (play)
  • 2003: Wins Prix Méditerranée for La dernière nuit d’un damné
  • 2004: Writes Les Confessions d’un musulman de mauvaise foi (play), The Last Night of a Damned Soul (novel, English translation)
  • 2005: Writes Les Colères du silence (novel); granted an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne

Benaïssa is most well known for his play Les fils de l’amertume (Sons of bitterness), created at the Festival d’Avignon by the GRAT/Jean-Louis Hourdin company. Les fils narrates the parallel lives of a radical Islamist and a journalist whose life is under threat. At Avignon, Benaïssa himself played the character of journalist Youcef. More recently, his play Prophètes sans dieu (Prophets without a God), presented at the Théâtre International de Langue François (TILF) in Paris, has also met with worldwide success. The play was staged in Paris and at the Festival d’Avignon in 2001. It presents a conversation between Moses, Jesus, and the author as they await the absent Muhammad. Benaïssa received the Grand Prix Francophone de la SACD in 1993 and his work has won the recognition of institutions such as the Commission Internationale des Francophonies, the Association Beaumarchais, and the Maison du Théâtre et de la Danse d’Epinay-sur-Seine. In the year 2000, French president Jacques Chirac named him to the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie. As an actor, he has participated in C’etait pas la guerre (2003; It was not the war), Le Harem de Mademoiselle Osmane (2000; The harem of Miss Osmane), and L’Autre Côté de la Mer (1997; The other shore), which deals with the aftermath of the Algerian war of liberation. On 22 November 2005 he was granted an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris. His honorary speech revolved around oral languages threatened with extinction, poetry, and peace and reconciliation among peoples.

Following the eruption of the Algerian civil war (1990–1998) that claimed between 80,000 and 120,000 lives, Benaïssa exiled himself in France permanently in 1993. Both the Islamist threat and the openly political orientation of his drama made his work increasingly difficult in the Algerian theater scene that was dominated by a hegemonic state-sponsored culture. Benaïssa then decided to write in French, and began staging his plays abroad. In an interview, Benaïssa defined exile as “perhaps what you feel when you can’t express the freedom that you feel within yourself.” In 1997 in France, he received death threats and needed bodyguards following the presentation of his play Les Fils de l’Amertume (Sons of bitterness), a play about a terrorist who kills a journalist in Algeria. Les fils was his first play written in French, and he explained his choice of French as a way to reach multiple audiences. As a practitioner of an activist brand of theater, Benaïssa sees his plays as a way for Algerians in France to provide the French public with an opportunity to understand the true nature of the Algerian conflict and of Algeria as a pluralistic nation.

His novel La dernière nuit d’un damné (The Last Night of a Damned Soul) , written in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, explores the psychological, spiritual, and religious dimensions of terrorist acts. In this novel, Benaïssa denounces the perversion of religious motives and beliefs and explores the dynamics that lead to the rise of religious fanaticism and the attraction of Muslim youth in the West to radical ideologies amid their experience of unrootedness and alienation. The novel earned recognition in France, winning the Prix Méditerranée 2003. In his 2005 novel Les Colères du silence , Benaïssa explores the issues of exile and the search for identity through the stories of Hassan and Hussein, two Siamese brothers separated at birth who struggle to find their own identities.

THE LOSS OF PLURALITY LEADS TO FEAR OF THE OTHER

I come from Southern Algeria. I am the result of three cultures: Berber, Arab, and French. I see this mixture as something positive, but I think that the linguistic problem has been badly dealt with. Popular culture has been negated and power has closed on itself. This policy has led to the rupture of dialogue, which in part explains the current situation. The loss of plurality leads to fear of the other.

BENAÏSSA, SLIMANE. “LE PEUPLE ALGÉRIEN DEVIENT ADULTE.” LE WEB DE L’HUMANITÉ. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.HUMANITE.FR.

The most terrible risk is to remain silent. I think theater must be attuned with conflict. It must be contemporary. Theater is about not passing above people’s heads, or below their feet, but to target their hearts and spirits. There is no demagogy in this: it simply means to accept the public as it is. For one does not choose his public. If this were to be the case, I would certainly think differently.

CHOLLET, MONA, AND ANNE-SOPHIE STAMANE. “SLIMANE BENAÏSSA: DRAMATURGE ALGÉRIEN.” PÉRIPHÉRIES. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.PERIPHERIES.NET/ARTICLE211.HTML.

TAHER DJAOUT and Abdelkader Alloula were my friends. In four years in exile, I have lost thirty of my colleagues, all of them very dear to me. Fundamentalists take aim at our generation more than any other. We are the special witnesses of Algerian history. We are the children of the war, the sons of Independence. We are a transition generation truly important for the memory of Algeria. This is what they are trying to eradicate.

     MULLER, MICHEL. “SLIMANE BENAÏSSA: ‘ON LIQUIDE LA MÉMOIRE.’” LE WEB DE L’HUMANITÉ. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.HUMANITE.FR.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Benaïssa’s writings and plays have been viewed as examples of exilic theater because of their exploration of the traumas and memories associated with the experience of exile. His writings and theatrical plays bring to the fore the conflict of postcolonial Algeria and the inheritance of French colonialism in the context of postcolonial hybridity. Benaïssa’s theater uses the conventions and techniques of traditional popular theater, with a clearly political content. According to one critic, Benaïssa’s “dramatic process relies on an intermingling of voices (multiple characters), temporal frames (past, present, future), discourses (narration, dialogue, music), and styles (serious, lyrical, comic).” Les fils, Prophètes and Mémoires à la dérive were conceived as a trilogy that explores that intersection of history, religion, and memory. The plays expose the subjective and personal experiences of individual characters and their search for identity through the juxtaposition of multiple narrators. On the question of language and as a speaker of Arabic, Berber, and French, Benaïssa has explicitly advocated the defense of Algeria’s plurilingual legacy and denounced the excesses of monolinguism. He has defended the status of French as part of the historical heritage of Algeria and has denounced Algeria’s refusal to join other Francophone countries in the promotion and use of French as a way to modernize itself.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Benaïssa’s work has received worldwide attention and recognition since he started to stage his plays in France and other countries such as Canada. He is recognized today as one of the most important playwrights to have emerged from the Arab world and one of the most important representatives of politically engaged manifestations of exilic theater, thanks to his poignant examination of issues such as immigration, identity, and the clash of cultures in the postcolonial world.

LEGACY

Benaïssa’s most important contribution is his role as a creator and renewer of the Arab-Berber Algerian theater scene. As an author, he has successfully integrated traditional conventions and oral dialects in his plays. His commitment to the diffusion and use of oral dialects and his defense of minority languages is also a hallmark of his work. Finally, Benaïssa will most definitely be known for being one of the most important representatives of exilic forms of theatrical productions in the world.

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