On Dancing on the Hyphen 

  • Stephen BARBER

Dancing on the Hyphen: Essays on Arab Theatre presents an invaluable collection of Khalid Amine’s latest essays on the contemporary and recent performance cultures of North Africa. The collection is striking in its breadth and depth, spanning nuanced and original investigations extending from women’s empowerment through performance, Shakespeare’s incorporation and transformation in Moroccan theatre, and most significantly, an extraordinary analysis of the theatre works that respond to and interrogate the ‘Years of Lead’ in Morocco.

Khalid Amine has responded with unparalleled imagination and engagement to the ‘Interweaving of Performance Cultures’ project initiated by Professor Erika Fischer-Lichte at the Free University Berlin. Following the 1990s’ intractable impasse of debates around intercultural theatre, the project’s envisioning of intersections and weldings of international and local performance cultures, proposed in a forward-looking and cogent perspective, has inspired both theatre scholars and theatre artists (among many others, Nora Amin and Rabih Mroué). Khalid Amine’s in-depth understanding of the Interweaving project and its potential, along with his knowledge spanning North African and many other international performance cultures, undoubtedly makes him the scholar now most attuned to develop the project into the future.

Khalid Amine cites in a note the preface by Roland Barthes devoted to the novelist and philosopher Abdelkébir Khatibi’s Maghreb pluriel: ‘Ce que je dois à Khatibi’ (‘What I owe to Khatibi’). Barthes goes on to assert that he and Khatibi are interested in the same things: ‘in images, in signs, in traces, in letters, in marks. And at the same time, because he displaces these forms, in the way that I see them, because he leads me far from myself, into his own territory, and at the same time more deeply into myself, Khatibi teaches me something new, and shakes my knowledge.’ What Barthes evokes is a familiar sensation to anyone who has had the opportunity to experience Khalid Amine’s own shakings of knowledge, manifested in these essays as well as at his public interventions at festivals and symposia. Perhaps this introduction should be titled ‘What I [or we] owe to Amine’.

I had the opportunity at the Arab Theatre Festival events held in Rabat in 2015 to join Khalid Amine and Erika Fischer-Lichte for a discussion of the Interweaving project in the framework of North-South movements of performance cultures, populations, influences and concepts. As with all concepts that shatter ossified thinking, the Interweaving project generated intensive discussion and even some alarm. It demands commitment to recognise innovation, and in performance cultures, as with other areas of urgent cultural reformulation, especially at times of turmoil, that commitment is a vital entity, illuminated in all of the essays in this collection, as well as in Khalid Amine’s involvement in the yearly Performing Tangier festival that brings together artists and scholars from North Africa and internationally for insightful sharings of performance cultures’ many futures.

Khalid Amine’s investigations into performance constitute what he refers to in the context of Khatibi’s work as a ‘border-thinking critique’; it exerts pressure on boundaries, overturning those that are restrictive or obsolete, at that same time that it juxtaposes and weaves those boundaries, and tests them against one another. That process is a philosophical one with social-theoretical dimensions, but it could also be mapped as a spatial one, operating across the real and spectral boundaries of urban space; as Khalid Amine emphasises, ‘Theatre cultures have always overflowed their fixed locations, for theatres were and continue to be interstitial spaces made by collaborations, meeting places of moving bodies…’.  The word ‘location’ itself is derived in its Latin origin as implying the preoccupation with setting boundaries (as with those of a tract of land) but once the idea of ‘moving bodies’ is added to it, in Khalid Amine’s formulation, it also indicates a corporeal traversal, a dynamic crossing-point which incites collaboration, a criss-crossing of influences and ideas, an open zone channelling currents of reinvention (in the way that Burroughs conceived of Tangier as an urban ‘interzone’), an amalgam in which restrictive boundaries appear to have disappeared altogether (anything is possible in performance), and an interwoven site for performance. Khalid Amine’s thinking on the subject of performance’s space is immensely rich with insights.

In many ways, the pivotal essay in this collection is Khalid Amine’s reflection on the ‘Years of Lead’ in Morocco, spanning their histories of incarceration, torture and humiliation (evidently most acute for female prisoners), and the many responses, oblique and direct, in Morocco’s theatrical and other cultures. Morocco’s ‘Years of Lead’ are not well-known internationally; perhaps one of the relatively few times that audiences in London, for example, encountered that era was when I invited the novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun to speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1996 on his friendship with Genet and his engagement with Artaud’s work, in the context of those figures’ respective incarcerations (the desert prison of Tazmamart recalls that of Genet’s Le Bagne), and he spoke too, in a few words, of his own arrest as a student protester and harsh incarceration over an 18-month period. In publishing a version of this essay in the prominent theatre journal, New Theatre Quarterly, ‘After the ”Years of Lead” in Morocco: Performing the Memory’ (Volume 32: 2, May 2016), Khalid Amine alerted researchers worldwide to that era. Many readers will anticipate that this investigation will lead to, and deserves, the space of an entire book in the future. Oppressive power may be exerted internally in a systematised or concentrational way, as well as from beyond a country’s parameters. Khalid Amine emphasises the ‘leaden’ as a tangible instrument of that power, and the word ‘leaden’ also indicates a generalised aura of malaise, a slowing-down into petrifaction. Lead as a medium implies a worthlessness, a rendering into uselessness of bodies and their capacity for life. It encompasses both corporeality and a wider social environment. Since, as Khalid Amine highlights, the ‘Years of Lead’ became a mediatised spectacle after their expiry, in televised transmissions of the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission, they acquired a further dimension, that crucially lacked the presence of the torturers (unlike parallel commissions in Rwanda and South Africa, analysed by the theatre scholar Ananda Breed in her book Performing the Nation). Theatre can itself form an act of restitution, whether propelled by anger or by the desire to account for loss. Khalid Amine’s insights into the ‘Years of Lead’ have profoundly revealing implications extending far beyond Morocco itself.

One of the special pleasures of this collection is Khalid Amine’s tracing of performances and adaptations of Shakespeare’s work in North African theatre, from their origins in nineteenth-century ‘private clubs and elite coffee houses’ to the contemporary moment. Shakespeare’s work possesses a malleability that makes it supremely open to reinvention; notably in Richard III and the figure of Hamlet, it possesses such a focus on the abuse of power, and on revolutions and their remnants, that it is always current and can be adeptly directed towards the dilemmas and turmoils of countries or regions in upheaval as they envisage new freedoms but risk confronting new despotisms. Shakespeare’s work allows for insurgent real-life characters to interact with ghostly, evanescing figures. It can also transmutate into the kind of enigmatic dialogues between stranded, abandoned figures now more usually associated with Beckett. Shakespeare’s work is the antithesis of the sacrosanct and the untouchable. In its fearlessness, it endorses the articulation of outrageous, absurd and invective situations and dialogues, and even the bringing-together of characters from different plays into arcane encounters, as with those of Nabyl Lahlou in Ophelia Is Not Dead. The interview with Lahlou included in this collection, 47 years on from his youthful work of 1968, manifests that same enduring lack of constraint (in which Shakespeare’s work could be perceived as complicit), in his dismissal of the Arab Spring as a ‘scam’ and his analysis of the engulfing ‘digital age’ in which ‘thought struggles’.

Bodies of work formed in collaboration, as with Khalid Amine’s long-standing collaboration with Marvin Carlson of City University New York (also preoccupied in his recent book, Shattering Hamlet’s Mirror, as with Lahlou in the interview in this collection, with the volatile oscillation in Shakespeare’s work between manifestations of real-life corporeality and illusion), serve to demonstrate that the future of performance cultures will not be determined in solitude, either behind national boundaries or inflexible categories. It requires an encompassing and pivotal meeting-point, an open and equitable space, of intersections, interconnections, interweavings. The essays in this volume amount to an urgent call for such an infinite space, rescued (if such a movement is possible) from a fixed location’s pre-conceptions of ownerships, hierarchies and boundaries.

In many ways, this essay-collection is itself a kind of festival, with its own distinctive space alongside the lineage of the post-2011 theatre festivals traced by Khalid Amine in his essay on Post-Arab Spring Countries’ festivals, which include the Performing Tangier festival. Rather than an insular study, it opens out, collaborates, shares, and generates new illuminations. A dance over hyphens always propels us, as Khalid Amine’s readers, into unforeseen zones.

  • Stephen Barber: Author of numerous books on international performance cultures, including three studies of the work of Antonin Artaud (most recently, on the final notebooks: Artaud: Terminal Curses, 2008), and books on the Japanese performer/theorist Tatsumi Hijikata, on the work of Jean Genet, and on the films of the Vienna Action Group’s performances. He has also published many books on urban cultures in relation to performance, film, photography and digital art; his most recent book (2012) is on the personal archive of the moving-image pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge. The Times newspaper in London called his books ‘brilliant, profound and provocative’, and The Independent newspaper described him as a ‘writer of real distinction’. He has held posts at the California Institute of the Arts, Tokyo Keio University, IMEC in Paris, and was a Fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Program in 2006. He is currently Professor of Visual Culture at Kingston University in London.

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