In this hybrid (essay/interview) article, Yana Meerzon analyzes the production Mahmoud & Niny, directed by Henri Jules Julien and presented at the Avignon Festival, July 14-22, 2019. Developed through a series of conversations and workshops with its major participants, Mahmoud El Haddad and Virginie Gabriel, this performance provides an urgent commentary on abuse of cultural and linguistic stereotypes in the situations of everyday intercultural encounters. Together with Mahmoud El Haddad, Meerzon examines how this experimental work turns theatrical subtitles into a powerful political weapon.
Keywords: Mahmoud & Nini, Mahmoud El Haddad, Virginie Gabriel
Mahmoud & Nini is an unusual performance. Two people―Mahmoud (a black Egyptian man who is homosexual and speaks Arabic) and Nini (a white French woman with short hair and complex ancestry)—sit next to each other, facing the audience. They use direct address to enumerate assumptions about each other and their cultures, all based on biases and stereotypes. It is unclear what it is, specifically, that the characters are seeking, but I am positive that this performance aims to expose the cultural ignorance of its spectators. It intends to demonstrate that whenever we encounter the other, we immediately turn to our personal biases.
Mahmoud & Nini does not necessarily propose taking action, nor does it provide solutions for avoiding the cultural miscommunications that serve only to breed fear and mistrust. Instead, Mahmoud & Nini poses its agenda through a more nuanced approach: with every question the characters ask and through the jokes they make, the onstage atmosphere gets more and more tight and uncomfortable, with the audience becoming more on-edge, but also more reserved in its reactions.
Mahmoud and Nini speak in their native languages—him in Arabic, her in French. There is a small screen above the two figures, onto which every line is projected into its complementary language. Mahmoud and Nini, however, do not seem to need these translations―they are only actors speaking the text. They do not really need to communicate or understand each other.
“Your hair is short―in Egyptian culture you would be considered a lesbian,” Mahmoud offers.
“I am an actress and can wear my hair as I wish,” Nini responds.
“Yes,” Mahmoud says, “but in Egypt if you are an actress, your hair is long and beautiful, and you do not look or act as a lesbian.”
“Women in Egypt wear hijab and are expected to do as they are told,” Nini continues. “They must take care of their families and children; whereas men can work, and smoke, and relax as they wish. In France, women can work, and they feel equal to men. In Egypt you should really start working toward these liberal practices . . .”
“My friends chose to wear their hijab, it is their choice, their free will,” Mahmoud responds. “Do I agree with it? I don’t know, it is complicated. My position is complicated―a black man in Egypt, a Muslim and a homosexual. I might disagree with their choices, but I cannot impose them.”
This exchange, growing more and more uncomfortable as it progresses, exemplifies the type of action that marks this project: the dialogue that probes our assumptions, spoken in the languages unfamiliar to the characters and mechanically translated for the audience, provokes us to fidget in our chairs and to look at each other and at the stage with growing uncertainty, suspicion and awkwardness. The actors’ frontal position re-enforces this idea of the mirror―that the words they say and the ideas they offer make their spectators, whether we want it or not, implicated into this story of prejudices and force us confront our own cultural preconceptions.
To better understand the logic of this project, I conducted several interviews with the makers and participants of this show. The conversations took place in July 2019, in Avignon, during its annual festival. The excerpts of my interview with Mahmoud El Haddad constitute the core of the following article.
The idea of Mahmoud & Nini was developed by the project’s producer and director Henri Jules Julien, a French theatre-maker who spent several years in Egypt. Fascinated by both Egypt’s culture and its theatre production (which was mostly unknown to the European producers or audiences), Henri Jules Julien took it as his personal responsibility to bring more artists from Egypt to France (Julien, Personal interview 2019). Mahmoud & Nini was “designed as an experiment in prejudices” (Julien, Program notes 2019). It originated from a series of meetings the performers held and from the questions they asked each other; they “wrote down lists of stupid questions they’d heard countless times, of preconceptions, of discouraging or revolting clichés. We laughed a lot, of course, mostly at ourselves” (Julien, Program notes 2019).
Translating those encounters into a dramatic text and space of a performance, however, presented each of the participants, including Julien himself, with various problems of ethics: “what right did I have to rephrase their questions, to ‘make them say’ what was important to me but maybe not to them, how legitimate was I in ‘representing’ Nini and Mahmoud, even if they’d become ‘characters’?” Julien asks (Program notes 2019).
As a result, the script oscillates between the post-colonial criticism of East/West gazes and appropriations as articulated by Edward Said’s Orientalism and Karl Marx’s ideas on who holds the right of representation of whom. Mahmoud & Nini goes further, beyond these obvious dichotomies; it asks more pointed questions, mostly about ethics of intercultural encounter and much like these: “who’s talking? who’s making whom talk? where does the one talking talk from?” (Julien, Program notes 2019).
The script also invites its audience to face the uncomfortable truth about living with the other amongst us, to paraphrase Ulrich Beck’s formulation of today’s world as a place for inter-, cross- and trans-cultural cosmopolitanism. These uncomfortable truths make the core points of my conversation with Mahmoud El Haddad:
Mahmoud, you have been doing theatre work for some time now, both at home and here in Europe. How did your story begin?
I always wanted to study theatre, but I ended up studying law. But this did not last too long, as I joined a theatre club. From then, I started working as a professional actor, both in theatre and dance, looking for more training in contemporary traditions. This is how I met a lot of international teachers and artists, including Julien.
What kind of theatre did you do in Egypt?
It was very diverse work: from acting in the government sponsored theatre to commercial work, participating in a classical repertoire but also in the interdisciplinary work. Contemporary theatre scene is not very large in Egypt, so I decided to start my own company Act Two. We made three productions Incomplete Alliteration (2014), Red Does not Suit You (2015) and Four Seasons (2018).
How did your work change when you became an independent producer? Has it become more political, more experimental?
The idea of doing political theatre in Egypt has disappeared by now; it was somewhat possible to do political theatre a little earlier, but not today. What interests me is the idea of human communication—how do we communicate with each other? The play my company produced was called Four Seasons. We performed in the venue Rawabet Art Space which, at the time, was reserved for staging the independent work, and which has been recently closed. In Egypt, to produce a play you must go to the Ministry of Culture and get your text approved by the censor. Often, the people who have the power to approve or disapprove of your project are functionaries who do not really understand what art is about. So, it is really difficult to push anything through. To produce Four Seasons, I decided not to go with the system. We chose a smaller venue away from the city centre; we did not advertise it properly, just through social media, like Facebook. We invited friends but did not sell tickets officially or use any other marketing.
How risky was this decision? Was it possible for you and your team to get into serious trouble with the authorities, like to be imprisoned?
It was risky; it was possible that someone would learn about our project, come to demand a special permission and stop our performance. But, still, we decided to go on. In Four Seasons, we did not touch upon politics, but for others who would do more political topics, it was possible to go to prison. Our show was based on improvisations with four actors asking questions about how we communicate with each other and why there is constant misunderstanding between us. The world is becoming very fast, but we’re not used to it. We say things and go into extremes, but, in fact, we say nothing: we are shallow. We had scenes with no talking, just texting, using emoji or just one word for different contexts. We played Four Seasons several times, first in 2017 and then in 2018, and then Goethe Institute chose it for the opening of their festival, Shubak el fann. But it was a little sad for me, as I already left for France in January 2018.
The play Mahmoud & Nini is about miscommunication as well. It seems that this topic haunts you. Let’s talk about how it came to life.
Our director, Henri Jules Julien, worked in Egypt as a producer. He saw me in the play Last Supper that was also presented in Avignon, in 2015. Julien said he would like to work with me and invited Virginie Gabriel to collaborate. At the time, I had already started working with international artists and directors and traveled to Europe. So, this invitation was very welcome. However, my French was not very advanced, and it was really difficult to communicate with people; something that we explore in the production, in depth.
What language did you use in the rehearsals? Was a translator present in the room?
At the beginning, we used some English, as Julien speaks English very well, and he would act as our interpreter. We started improvising scenes with Virginie, putting on a mask of the character and asking all those offensive and stereotypical questions in French. Julien would translate them for me into English, I would respond to them in English and, then, he would retranslate my responses to Nini.
In performance you use surtitles—French for the texts spoken in Arabic and Arabic for the texts spoken in French. But I could not fully figure out their function. I understand the French translations are there for the benefit of your French speaking audiences—not characters—because, although Mahmoud and Nini do not know each other’s languages, they don’t really need those translations. It is clear that you turned surtitles, a technical element of a theatre production, into the major strategy of your dramaturgy. Using surtitles for the audience only, when the characters do not see or react to them, demonstrates that, often, in the situations of intercultural encounter, we do not really communicate with or listen to each other. So, how did you come up with this idea?
At the beginning, I and Nini were sitting facing each other, with a translating machine between us. So, in the rehearsals, we would say things and the machine would translate everything back and forth. But, then, it became very unproductive and not very powerful. We decided to change our positions and turned to face the audience. Talking to each other and facing the audience created a very different dynamics between us and suggested new meanings. We kept this idea of using this mechanical device of translation but only for the audience. At some point, Nini switches into Lingala, one of the languages she speaks, and the machine comes into stupor; it simply stops translating and starts using question marks instead of words. This gives us a chance to comment on the limitations of any mechanical translation. I like this idea and I have worked on it before—in Four Seasons, the play that was built around the Babel tower parable, we had a scene with people speaking different languages, not able to communicate, understand or agree with each other.
Cultural stereotype is often the basis from which we begin communicating with strangers; we impose our assumptions on them, even when we mean well. In Mahmoud & Nini, you openly explore this practice. It works very well, in my view, as, during the show, it was visible and tangible how the atmosphere in the room would change: at first, people were relaxed and went along with the jokes, but, then, as the topic became more and more risky and offensive, people got edgy and even a little anxious.
This is exactly what we hoped would happen: a sort of awkwardness. The play begins in a very light way, with the characters starting to slowly know each other. Word by word, however, things get offensive or even racist, so the atmosphere grows very tense. The idea is that people in the audience could relate to this in some way, or at least recognize comments we make on stage as something that they would hear or say on a daily basis. This sensitivity to the racist comments varies from one country to another. In Egypt, for example, there is definitely racism, but not everyone can recognize it. Often, people make racist comments, but, to them, these are just innocent jokes everybody makes. In France, racism is very strong. When people make these offensive comments, they actually mean it.
Yes, racism can be very different in many countries, and, whether we like it or not, it exists everywhere, even in Canada, the country famous for its tolerance and political correctness. Sometimes, the comments come from a good place, when people sympathise with another person, but, unfortunately, they still come across as patronizing and dismissive. I find some of this in Nini’s dialogue, when she talks about the niqab or when she talks about women’s rights. The responses that your character makes are equally problematic. Can you talk more about this?
This is one of the major things that we wanted this play to address: neither of these characters is evil. Nini does not want to hurt anyone; she is very curious, but also very naïve. She really means well, but she is coming from the privilege of the West, so she is the one who feels the right to ask questions. Dramaturgically, Nini is the leader of the action, not Mahmoud; he simply responds to her questions. The people who come from places in the world where they are made to feel lesser (for example, from the African world) carry this diminishing feeling with them: they have to explain their world, give excuses. Yet, those who question them do not see problems and negativity in their own communities.
What’s interesting is that we never really hear this other. I think that is the point your production makes. We can analyse, criticize, disagree or agree with Nini’s character, because we know where she is coming from; we recognize the discourse. However, we are at a loss when it comes to your character. Could you talk about this discrepancy?
It comes back to the notion of power: Nini is the one mostly asking questions. If Mahmoud starts asking questions about religion in France, he will come across as very offensive. In the previous versions of the text, Mahmoud would ask Nini if she believed in God and how it was possible that she did not. This came across as very extreme, and, in real life, someone like Mahmoud would never dare to start asking French people this sort of questions. At the same time, it was interesting to break this pattern. During the rehearsals, we would take each other’s places and speak about religion, social life, sexuality, from the position of the other, from the place of cultural assumptions.
How did your audiences react to such provocations? Have you presented this work to French-speaking audiences only or to immigrants as well?
The play premiered in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, in Switzerland, to a very French-speaking audience. After that, we were in Nimes (FR), Saint Nazaire (FR) and Paris, and now Avignon. About 90% of our spectators have been French or English speaking, with the odd 10% of Arabic speaking folks. We went to places where people do not usually go to the theatre, we played in schools outside of Paris, for young people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It was interesting to hear what they had to say, as we always held talkbacks. The same questions would often come up: Are you really a Muslim? they would ask. Are you really gay? Are you really Arab? Is it like a real story? These students were really interested in the reality behind this fiction.
Then, we went to different community centres, where people gather to be together with other refugees or seekers of asylum who now live in France waiting for their documents. Most of them were Arab speakers, and their reactions were always very interesting. In those parts of the show when we spoke about religion or multiculturalism, they would be very involved, but, then, we would talk about homosexuality and they would completely shut down or even leave, because, as Muslims, we do not speak about these issues.
Sitting at the Maison Jean Vilar on the hot afternoon of the summer 2019, it was not only I who felt strangely uncomfortable. The audience was predominantly white, middle-aged and French speaking, much as Avignon’s general festival crowd tends to be. I bet they recognized and identified with lots of prejudices that the characters would articulate. But I think, Mahmoud, this play was as important for you in your personal journey into the West as for us, looking at you from the auditorium. How do you see your place in French theatre? Do you have plans for the future?
I don’t really know, but I hope it will be good! I am participating in L’atelier des artistes en exil. We did a dance show last year, and this year we’re doing a new play. I’m also working on my own play, which, again, will be about communication, something between dance and theatre.
In Mahmoud & Nini, the characters speak of politics and asylum-seeking procedures in France, about religion and terrorism, about the Charlie Hebdo incident and even belly dancing. At the end, Nini proposes they switch places―perhaps, it is time to look at each other from a different position? Perhaps, it is time to dance?
Perhaps, Mahmoud asks, it is time to stop translating? No, Nini responds, we must continue with the practices of translation. To try to understand each other we must translate again and again, and so they remain in their original spots, facing the audience, speaking in Arabic and in French.
NOTE: I would like to express my special gratitude to Moriana Kachmarsky and Aisling Murphy for helping me transcribing the interviews, writing and editing this text.
El Haddad, Mahmood. Personal interview. 18 July 2019.
Guilloux, Marion. “Mahmoud & Nini. Interview with Henri Jules Julien.” Program notes. July 2019
Julien, Henri Jules. Personal interview. 19 July 2019.
Mahmoud & Nini. 2019. Unpublished script.
 Mahmoud & Nini: Show in Arab and French with French and Arab surtitles.
Text and direction: Henri Jules Julien, with Mahmoud El Haddad, Virginie Gabriel.
Dramaturgy: Youness Anzane, Sophie Bessis.
Translation: Mireille Mikhail, Mahmoud El Haddad, Criss Niangouna.
Production: Haraka Baraka, in co-production with Centre de culture ABC La Chaux-de-Fonds (Suisse), Le Tarmac Scène internationale francophone (Paris), CCAM Scène nationale Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy.
With the support of Théâtre Athénor Saint-Nazaire, Drac Île-de-France, Arcadi, Ville de La Chaux-de-Fonds, Institut français d’Égypte, and in partnership with France Médias Monde.
*Yana Meerzon is Professor atthe University of Ottawa. She has published on theatre of exile and migration, cultural and interdisciplinary studies. Her books include A Path of the Character: Michael Chekhov’s Inspired Acting and Theatre Semiotics (2005) and Performing Exile – Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film (Palgrave 2012). She has also co-edited several book collections and special issues of journals on these topics. As of this issue of Critical Stages, Yana is the editor of the journal’s “Essay Section” (www.critical-stages.org).