Performing in Zones of Contact and Friction

Khalid Amine & Jamal Akabli

“The past has been a mint of blood and sorrow./ That must not be true of tomorrow.”[1]

“The principle of the universe is movement… If it stops moving, it will return to non-existence.”  (Ibn ‘Arabi, The Book Unveiling the Effects of travels)

It would be erroneous to assume that the colonial encounter happened in the remote past and has had little bearing on the present. The experience of [de]colonisation did wound and scar the psyches, the cultures and the economies of the colonized and the coloniser’s as well. No longer wedded, the ex-colonisers and ex-colonised are, however, still betrothed in more ways than one could possibly envision given the fact that the ‘past’ cannot just be ‘post’. Because “imperialism did not end, did not suddenly become “past” once decolonization had set in motion the dismantling of the classical empires,”[2] the ideologies informing it still linger in the thoughts and practices that inform the ways with which immigrants are met today. The rupture, if there be such a thing, with colonialism has more to do with refocusing the epistemological and phantasmagorical lenses by which the Orient is viewed than with returning tracts of lands that were once raped. The deracinated human cargoes who fell prey to captivity alongside today’s threatening and threatened waves of immigrants journeying under duress constitute what Appadurai calls in his own way “ethnoscapes” that cross over not only geographical borders, but criss-cross cultural boundaries as well. The denominators of war and displacement have given rise to diasporas with a collective history that is as expansive as the ocean they were shipped on, a history anchored in one’s homeland and sprouting out [t]here and everywhere. Investigating diasporic communities in contact with the host countries has come to occupy the heart of Performance studies and the minds of a myriad of experts in the field. As such, the term diaspora evokes a plethora of global movements and migrations, sparking heated debates about belonging or territoriality as well as ‘unbelonging’ and deterritorialisation. Migrant identities are shaped by a shared history of migration, voluntary or force, and the hope for return to their homeland or settlement in the host country. Viewed in this light, the notion of diaspora memorialises and immortalises “the trace of a memory of dispersion, of separation, of enslavement, of contempt, of loss of identity and of transplantation”[3], and, one may add, of interweaving and friction.

Despite uprootedness, immigrants still bear their culture all along, claw to it and identify with it “as an experience rather than a condition”.[4]Because diaspora is intimately intermingled with notions “of loss, of suffering, and of exile from a place of origin, as well as the idea of religious punishment”[5]and banishment, recent conceptualisations have reframed the term to designate other victim diasporas such as “expatriates, expellees, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants and ethnic and racial minorities tout court”.[6]Diaspora, as Hall intends it, transcends “the old, the imperialising, the hegemonising form of ethnicity”, which “can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea.”[7]However, a diasporic memory need not be necessarily born out “of a collective misfortune but rather a shared experience of discontinuity, precarity, even denial of humanity”[8] in the country of settlement. This very concept is thereupon “invoked to mobilise support for a group identity or some political project”.[9] Having come into being, a diaspora “lives on …in a given place”, a mythical or physical place, establishing bonds “between those who want to group together and maintain, from afar, relations with other groups which, although settled elsewhere, invoke a common identity”[10] in the hope of establishing their horizontal comradeship, as Benedict Anderson would insist. In fine, a diaspora is then a nation caught in the trauma of dispersal, a post-trauma that survives in the collective memory of group with a shared past and a common future. Having run its course, perhaps because of being over-politicised, the term ‘diaspora’ has almost lost its vitality and validity and was supplanted by transnationalism.

Transnationalism is endowed with the power “to describe wider sets of processes that cannot comfortably fit within the diaspora rubric.”[11] In this way, it connotes the quotidian “of migrants engaged in various activities” such as “reciprocity and solidarity within kinship networks, political participation …and the transfer and re-transfer of cultural customs and practices.”[12]Transnationalists “build upon notions of mélange, hybridity or cultural ‘translations’ in which mobile persons are engaged”[13] and filial bonds are lost to a far greater cause, the cause of humanism. Constructionists here define the diasporic experience “not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of identity which lives with and through, not despite, difference, by hybridity.”[14]Young defines hybridity as that which “makes difference into sameness, and sameness into difference, but in a way that makes the same no longer the same, the different no longer simply different.”[15]This alloy, Bhabha goes on to add, “questions colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects. It displays the necessary deformation and displacement of all sites of discrimination and domination. It unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back on the eye of power”.[16]Hybridisation, Bhabha’s preferred word, is “an ongoing process”[17]that takes lieu “at ‘the edge’ or contact point of diaspora, describing cultural mixture where the diasporized meets the host in the scene of migration.”[18]Therefore, “conceptualisations of transnationalism” are not necessarily interconnected with “geographic and sociological” tropes of “‘space’ and ‘field’”[19]as diaspora is with the renegotiation of sacred and secular space, the crossing over of boundaries.  This crossing-over is an act of interweaving, a practice, a site of indecidability and indeterminacy, in which solidarity takes the form of action against hegemony. Taken out of its context, hybridity “blurs, in the name of difference, significant distinctions between different differences”.[20] There is no point at which to measure whether or not one has undergone a process of hybridisation, let alone the fact that we are all hybrids whether we like it or not. Divorced from the socio-political milieu into and out of which it is born, the hybrid moment cannot be caught historically, but it can, as is largely the case here, be rendered theatrically and performatively. What performance does is open more doors for “creativity, cross-breeding and cultural hybridization”.[21]

In a synthesis of globalism and localism, the project of interweaving promotes individual self-worth and open-mindedness all the while bending such values to solidify transcultural and transcommunal bonds. The focus is then triadic in perspective being centered on the relationship of which guest, host and home are constitutive. Be it what it may, this situation, wherein nations have to be identified as trans-nations, has spawned a generation of artists who, scattered as they are, straddle worlds asunder yet gather together at the forefront of creativity to come to grips with the status quo. Faced as they are with the double law of hospitality, which is “anxiously driven between the ethics of unconditional invitation”, as Homi Bhabha once put it, “and the politics of conditional interdiction –visas; entry permits; refugee tribunals; the border-police”[22],this new generation of artists from post-migrant backgrounds has embraced performing arts and their transformative power, turning an in-between space into a contact zone wherein scattering becomes a gathering. Migrant theatres also spell out hybrid narratives that articulate and explore cultural interactions and revisions of power relations across countries and cultures. In dancing over hyphens, migrant artists rewrite and perform the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dialectic, offering an alternative view of the self/other interrelationship. These initiators and creators are ever more visible in the grand festivals and biennials in a period of megalopolises such as Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and post-wall Berlin, which exemplifies the increasing significance of global-cities. In a period also shaped by “post migration conditions”, it is also apparent that artists of “colour” are no longer making traditional art to reflect the local culture of their countries of origin, but rather deploying a double-sided critical strategy in which instead of pursuing Frantz Fanon’s invitation to abandon the European game, they resort to identical postmodern strategies and ways of thinking to produce alternative theatre. They bring about a double subversion that strives to elude “wild difference”, working across-borders of different epistemologies and artistic practices belonging to self and other….to all and to none.

Across Borders and Thresholds: Performing in Zones of Contact and Friction taps into questions related to performing arts in today’s world. Is performance art the antithesis to theatre?  In the 1960s, it was often presented as mutually incompatible with theatre, satirising its orthodoxies and blurring its borders. Since then, performance art has emerged as an interdisciplinary art form that challenges categorization and fixity even when it comes to defining its own territoriality. It implies a productive disagreement with itself. More than being an artifact, performance art, like theatre, is an ephemeral event. Still, theater is one of the remaining cultural fortresses that stand against anemia, not to mention erasure, for it has a creative ability not only to resist socio-cultural changes, but also to adapt to the culture of the age and its new technologies and assimilate them in the context of a permanent renewal. Since the 1960s, theatre performances “have repeatedly disconnected individual theatrical tools from their larger contexts”[23].The re-appearance of what Erika Fischer-Lichte calls ‘emergent phenomena’ further undermines the production of meaning through theatrical representation. Thus, new dramaturgies have emerged suggesting new ways of interrogating theatrical presence and negotiating our roles as spectators and critics, just as they undermine the production of meaning through representation in a way that is similar to performance art. They tend to disintegrate neo-classical notions of character-dramaturgy and unity by disrupting their underlying dualism within performance. Now the practice of dramaturgy is so vast and complex that attempts at redefining the field have become a difficult undertaking. In Christel Wieler’s terms, dramaturgy is played out as “an exercise in holding things together.”[24]Questions related to theatre’s contamination by performance art, and more, have been at the heart of heated discussions. The role of theater and performance art in the public sphere has also become a key issue along with the shifting terms of public debates. The political motivations behind the excess of such a ‘performative turn’ in contemporary Arab theatre productions and the perpetual interweaving between theatre, performance art, visual arts and media —whereby each feeds and contaminates the other- are all at the heart of such discussions.

There are many parallels between the consequent failure of avant-garde art in Europe and America in the historical post-1968 moment and the refashioning of Arab Avant-garde aesthetics after the historical defeat of Jamal Abdel Naccer in 1967. The 2011 so-called Arab Spring has, indeed, intensified, or rather, radicalized the previous Arab Avant-garde critique of modernist regimes of theatrical representation, blurring more boundaries between theatre and performance art, re-injecting more “worldliness, or ‘historical actuality’, ‘figuration’, and ‘narrative’ into modernist ‘formalist’ self-reflexivity’.” If the retrieval of traditional performance cultures lies at the heart of Arab Avant-garde of the late 1960s, the present aesthetics of narrative performance are way beyond that. Thus, theatre has become not only “the place of a narrative act”[25], as Hans-Thies Lehmann puts it, but the narrative act itself has become both the theme and object of theatre, and “a means of ordering the world”[26]. This is evident in the works of Rabih Mroué, Lina Saneh, Nora Amin, Abdelmajid El Haouasse, among others.

This collective undertaking comes in as a double-edged dialogue that is both artist-driven and research-oriented. The cacophony of voices it brings together also aims to tease out some of the complexities related to borderlines and zones of contact and friction in contemporary theatre and dance. It is a call for more critical attention to forms in motion produced performatively within the negotiated terms of an on-going cultural engagement, forms so visible in Arabo-Islamic context.

Across Borders and Thresholds: Performing in Zones of Contact and Friction is divided into two main parts with each being further subdivided into a number of chapters. The six chapters making the bulk of first part “Crossing Borders and Thresholds” are devoted in their entirety to engaging with contemporaneous Arab theatre across Europe and the USA and in much of the Arab world as well. Whilst the first part is Arab-bound, the second part “FromDisjuncture to Conjuncture”, being composed of eight chapters, goes ‘au-dela’ to paint a vivid portrait of contemporary performances by artists other than Arabs caught in the throes of dispersal and trauma. Written by Marvin Carlson, chapter one, “Contemporary Arab Diasporic Plays in Europe and the United States”, lays emphasis on the growing interest Arab theatre has drawn of late, an interest born out of the influx of forced migration and a shared history/story of journeying under duress. These migrants found in theatres a sanctuary to voice out their concerns, past and present. In the second chapter, “Towards a Pensée Autre: The Performative Turn in Arab Theatre”, Khalid Amine unravels that which makes theatres unstable grounds, cross-roads of diverse cultures, and nodes of translation and accommodation. As such, theatre comes across not so much as an exclusionary terrain but rather as a contact zone wherein palimpsests of friction performatively mix and mingle to yield infinite differences in order to create immense possibilities as part of an ongoing interweaving project that speaks back to power from within and from without. In the third chapter, “The Fluid Boundaries between Narrating (Haki), Monodramatic Performances and Performance Arts in the Arab World”, Hadia Mousa goes back to the debate on the art of narration as seen through the lenses of Arab scholars and critics. Having laid down the theoretical background, Mousa went on to cite examples from the stage as performed by pioneering figures in their attempt to dress a traditional art form in a new (dis)guise and to don on many a persona to suit the action to the word and the word to the action, to quote Shakespeare. In a chapter entitled “Of Bitter Trees: Performing the Years of Lead”, Jamal Akabli revisits Bitter Trees, a scenic composition by Abdelmajid El Haouasse, which  audaciously revisits the odious and atrocious to stage and memorialise the long buried but hardly forgotten abuses scarring the deepest recesses of a shared memory and common history to come to terms with our/selves and shelve the past without shivering to leaf through it so that the slash could be turned into a dash that bridges the past with the present in such a way as would make the twain -‘our’ and ‘selves’ – a one harmonious and melodious entity. El Haouasse, both director and scenographer, summons a composite of elements that blend ensemble to awaken our senses in what one may call a short-lived transformative postdramatic experience with an everlasting taste to it. Within the same context of post-dramatic Moroccan theatre, in an article entitled “Postdramatic Shift in Moroccan Theatre: Sensory Language in Kharif”, Rajae Khaloufi looks into the major constituents of this paradigm shift commonly recognized as post-drama through an in-depth analysis of a Moroccan play entitled Kharif by Asmae Houri. Although seemingly local in scope, this plays raises universal themes to which all human beings can relate in a language other than the language we know, yet one that is comprehensible by all, one wherein text is relegated to the margin. In “Syrian Radio Drama – Women’s Rights and National Belonging on SouriaLi”, the last chapter in part one, Edward Ziter reconstructs the lives of displaced Syrian women through the radio drama We are All Refugees, broadcast and streamed on Radio SouriaLi, to deconstruct the plight of refugees in general and that of women in particular given their vulnerability.  In so doing, the series pushes the boundaries of what it means to be Syrian, thus constructing an imagined deterritorialised Syrian community, one carrying the past and living in the present.

Coming under the title “From Disjuncture to Conjuncture”, part two is composed of eight chapters, each of which grapples with performance from a different prism. Written by Abdelhaï Diouri and translated by Hicham Boughaba, “Art, Borders, and Boundaries (The 1952 Black Mountain College Event)” focuses on art and borders or boundaries, thus tickling the mind with a plethora of questions: what? How? To what end? What shape will it take? Where? Why? And the most important question of all: is art a seamless whole with well-defined boundaries? What about boundaries separating different kinds of art? And why? Isn’t art a unified entity? Isn’t “Art” a whole? By probing the “Event”, Diouri sets out to answer the above-listed questions to uncover and make us discover the transgressive function of art in a universe based on partition. In “Theatre and Performance: An Agonistic Approach”, Elaine Aston draws on Chantal Mouffe’s post-Marxist, Gramscian-informed framework for an agonistic approach to the struggles for democracy to draw up the fault-lines between the work of the performance artist and that of the playwright as well as between text-based theatre and non-text based work in the context of Brexit-driven Britain.  Written by Stephen Barber, “Borders, lines, Lovers: Mediating Migration’s Dynamics in Japan through Performance Installation” is concerned with a performance installation-work entitled Lovers. Through following its itinerary, Barber takes issue with questions of migration, transience, and borderlines. Preservation, contamination, loss, exclusion, among other themes, experienced in technologized-urban environments in Japan constitute the backdrop against which the author sets his arguments. In “Yael Ronen’s Post-Migrant Dramaturgy of Dissensus”, Stephen Wilmer discusses yet another facet of performance as crystallised through documentary theatre. In the aftermath of increasing immigration to Germany, Yael Ronen, the subject of Wilmer’s anatomy, has developed a dramaturgy of cultural diversity, mixing therapy with ethnography, thus creating a humorous form of dissensus as illustrated in three of her performances: Third Generation: Work in Progress, Common Ground and The Situation. Written by Ian Watson, “Bridge Building: A Case Study in Coming to Terms with the Other through Performance” looks at how the the Borderland Foundation in Poland works towards building bridges among nations via long-term activism, workshops, conversations, and much more. Located on the borders with Russia, Lithuania, Belarus and a short distance from Ukraine, the Suwałki region, an ethnically diverse community, has become a space of negotiated identities and performative democracy in what one may think of as a local story worth teaching the world at large. Samira Jamouchi, in her chapter “Felting Wool Together and Feeling Togetherness: A Performative Approach to Visual Art”, explores moments of togetherness during different wool felting sessions. The pivotal question throughout her enquiry pertains to the kind of togetherness the participants express and the transformative power inherent therein. Composed by Małgorzata Sugiera, “After Migrations: Performing Arts as Contact Zones” considers contemporary dynamic processes of globalization and cultural mobility and how such deterritorialisation shapes collective and individual identities.

As such, performing arts add on a new layer of meaning, a double meaning so to speak, thus museums come to be regarded as improvised contact zones. Art exhibitions, namely Unvergleichlich (Beyond Compare) in Bode-Museum in Berlin, Germany and Villa Empain in Brussels, and installations such as Friendship of Nations serve as instances exemplifying the theoretical concepts the author sets out to mull over and repackage in order to encompass the newest transnational phenomena in post-migration performative cultures. Authored by Daniel Celine Ramonal, “Finding the Mindanao Body: A Folk Dance Artist’s Reflections on the Dynamics of Dance Choreographies” examines the nature of dance choreographies offering reflections on the narratives of the indigenous and Muslim communities in Mindanao, Philippines, and their intangible cultural heritage. The reflections highlight the folk dance artist’s embodiment of learning conflicts as caught between the ‘tradition bearers’ of the communities and professional dance teachers of the modern stage all the while plunging into the process of ritual dance transmission and reconstruction in an expanding field of theatrical applications. As multi-perspectival as the debate is with yet more to come, Gabriele Brandstetter wraps it all up with an attempt at addressing a host of pertinent and unsettling questions ranging from how bodies in transition and border trespassing become inscriptions choreographers examine to negotiate the boundaries between the private and public sphere to how agency is generated through movement and bodily practices passing through how the experiences of aggression and violence are enacted from a cultural and gender perspective.

[1] Langston Hughes, “History”. Found in

[2] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 282.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

[3] Denise Helly, “Diaspora: History of an idea”, p. 7. In Haideh Moghissi, ed., Muslim Diaspora: Gender, culture and identity. UK: Routledge, 2006.

[4] Natalie Melas, “Pays Reve, Pays Réel: Créolité and Its Diasporas”, p. 104. In Marcus Bullock and Peter Y. Paik, eds., Aftermaths: Exile, Migration, and Diaspora Reconsidered.New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

[5] Denise Helly, “Diaspora: History of an idea”, p. 3. In Haideh Moghissi, ed., Muslim Diaspora: Gender, Culture and Identity. US and Canada: Routledge, 2006.

[6] Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction, p. 1. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

[7]Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, p. 401.  In Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds., ColonialDiscourse and Post-colonial Theory. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

[8] Denise Helly, “Diaspora: History of an idea”, p. 12. In Haideh Moghissi, ed., Muslim Diaspora: Gender, Culture and Identity. US and Canada: Routledge, 2006.

[9] Thomas Faist, “Diaspora and transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?” p. 11. In Rainer Bauböck and Thomas Faist, eds., Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

[10] Michel Bruneau, “Diasporas, transnational spaces and communities”, p. 35. In Rainer Bauböck and Thomas Faist, eds., Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

[11] Virinder S. Kalra, Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk, Diaspora & Hybridity, p. 34. UK: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005.

[12] Thomas Faist, “Diaspora and transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?” p. 11. In Rainer Bauböck and Thomas Faist, eds, Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

[13] Ibid, p. 21.

[14] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, p. 402.  In Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds., ColonialDiscourse and Post-colonial Theory. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

[15] Robert J.C. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, pp. 24-25. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

[16] Bhabha, The Location of Culture, p. 112. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

[17] David Huddart, HOMI K. BHABHA, p. 4. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

[18] Virinder S. Kalra, Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk, Diaspora & Hybridity, p. 70. UK: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005.

[19] Thomas Faist, “Diaspora and transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?” p. 17. In Rainer Bauböck and Thomas Faist, eds., Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010. Suffice it to allude to the titles of the sitcoms under study, Little Mosque in the Prairie and Aliens in America, which speak to this proposition.

[20] Arif Dirilik, “Of Diasporas, Hybridities, Places, and Histories”, p. 106. In Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, ed., Beyond Dichotomies: Histories, Identities, Cultures, and the Challenge of Globalization.New York: State University of New York Press, 2002.

[21] Denise Helly, “Diaspora: History of an idea”, p. 7. In Haideh Moghissi, ed., Muslim Diaspora: Gender, culture and identity. UK: Routledge, 2006.

[22]Homi Bhabha, “Our Neighbours, Ourselves: Contemporary Reflections on Survival”, p. 5.

[23] Erika Fischer-Lichte, Saskya Iris Jain(tr.),The Transformative Power of Performance: A new Aesthetics, p. 140. London & N. York: Routledge, 2008.

[24] Christel Weiler, “Dramaturgy as Performance of Holding (it) Together”,in Khalid Amine and George F Roberson (eds.),Alternative Dramaturgies of the New Millennium in Arabo-Islamic Contexts and Beyond, p. 22.Tangier:Collaborative Media International (CMI), 2015.

[25] Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Karen Jürs-Munby, p. 109. London: Routledge, 2006.

[26] Claudia Breger, An Aesthetics of Narrative Performance: Transnational Theater, Literature, and Film in Contemporary Germany, p. 3. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2012.

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