Biennial for Performing Arts in Jönköping, Sweden, May 2013.
Halima Tahan Ferreyra*
Even though I have witnessed many performances from Sweden, they have been isolated ones, presented in the context of foreign festivals, whereas the Biennial for Performing Arts was my first encounter with Swedish theatre in its natural context, on its home turf. A colleague of mine, a Finnish editor, has asked me to write about the Swedish theatre. But how shall I evaluate it with the eyes of a foreigner, knowing that the theater—as globalized as the world may be—is what a community understands it to be?
So at the risk of straying from my amiable colleague’s request, I have circumvented the more general topic and opted to write about a single work: I Call My Brothers, by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, a joint production of Malmö City Theatre and the national touring Riksteatern. Of course the Swedish theatre is much broader and more diverse than anything that can be represented in a single work. So why this particular work? Because it has drawn new audiences; perhaps because it attempts to treat dramatically the challenges of today; and perhaps because its format bears a certain resemblance to theatre produced in small venues, removed from formal and commercial circuits, in my native Argentina.
True, it is not an exceptional work, and I will differ with some other international critics who saw the same show and found that it lacked theatricality, that it was closer to television than theatre. I feel that the play possesses strong theatricality, and that this is due more to the dramatic word than to format. What interests me more than any particular topic with which the play deals is the way it approaches the question of identity, its obsession with language, the comic keys within which a tragic theme unfolds, and above all, the manner in which it scenically explores the national in a country that has been changing its homogeneous physiognomy in pace with the greatly increased flows of immigration in this global era.
What follows are some comments of mine on Khemiri’s work. The play was produced also at the Stockholm City Theatre for the autumn 2013 to spring 2014 season, with the same director but with a new cast.
My first direct contact with the work of Jonas Hassen Khemiri—one of the resonant new voices of Swedish culture—took place in Jönköping City Theatre for the closing of the 2013 Swedish Biennial, with the presentation of I Call My Brothers (Jag ringer mina bröder), the playwright’s latest drama, produced in 2012.
As we waited in the packed theatre for the show to begin, amidst conversations in various languages, we looked over the program: A crime committed. A city paralyzed with fear. The main character in Khemiri’s new play wanders aimlessly through a landscape permeated with paranoia. How do you act normal? What does a potential terrorist look like? What happens when suspicious eyes are focused in your direction?
The first thing that struck us in I Call My Brothers were voices—voices coming from an empty stage, a kind of cell, flanked by extremely strong lighting that seemed to intensify the fantasies of the main character wandering through scenes saturated with paranoia. Despite the challenge of taking in the translation and the scene at the same time, trying to overcome the language barrier without losing the scene’s rhythm and tone, the power of the word notably imposed itself. It was that power of the word, the perception of its dramatic potency, which awoke our interest in this play, the texture of which interweaves language, ethnicity and identity.
I Call My Brothers has a precursor that we can’t avoid mentioning because it is part of the play’s process. I mean an article with the same title as the play, written by Khemiri, in December of 2010, for the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter a week after a suicide bombing incident in Stockholm.
In the play, “a daily task ends up in a police hunt” and a friendly gesture becomes menacing. The work puts into play the destructive action of paranoia, which eats away at the watcher as much as it does the watched, and it causes us to question our own prejudices and those of others, prejudices towards others and towards ourselves. There is a challenging blend of humor and pathos in these situations in which the character, rather than confronting the distinction between to be or not to be, must deal with that of appearing to be or not appearing to be someone normal. “Acting out” that normality well, something that will remove the character from suspicion is one of his main concerns. The protagonist speaks constantly; the act of calling is a key element to this play as is his cell phone, and the title brings to mind the predominance of that verb, which is clearly associated with communication, but also with identity.
The play insists on a dimension that is proper to the theatre: the oral; on this is based the theatrical nature of the piece, skillfully directed by Farnaz Arbabi. In 2006, this renowned artist, who is very familiar with all of the author’s work, directed Invasion!, Khemiri’s first play, at the Stockholm City Theatre. As for I Call My Brothers, Arbabi says that it is a “darker, more intense work with many things, including humor.” She continues, “I love Jonas’s words, their luminosity, rhythm; this speaks directly to the audience.” Arbabi and the excellent lighting designer Carina Persson knew how to transform these great textual possibilities into an efficacious stage event.
As for actors, according to Khemiri himself, there are many who don’t wish to work with his texts because they require a beginning here and an ending point there. In the case at hand, those who took on the challenge were Davood Tafvizian, Gloria Tapia, Pablo L. Wenger and Angélica Radvolt.
Khemiri is obsessed with the masks and duplicities of language. From a very early age, together with his father—who taught Arabic and French in a Stockholm secondary school—he discovered the possibilities of those linguistic worlds as well as the distinct treatment received by one who speaks the official language with a particular accent. He thinks that the reason he began writing is rooted in “all of that.” The aforementioned Invasion! could be considered “a study of language and its power.” It would never occur to Khemiri to use it as a vehicle for scrutinizing “the soul” of his characters; what he seeks to explore instead is its potential to manipulate.
Ethnicity and identity transverse the work of Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who masterfully incorporates the manner of speech patterns of immigrants, with their peculiar variations from the standards of the Swedish language—singular voices in which body and language converge, the body that is the measure of identity itself.
The literary obsession of this playwright, who began as a successful novelist, has had its rewards.Invasion! has won awards in Sweden and was taken to theatres in the United States, Norway, France, Germany and Great Britain. Following this first play came others of the same genre: God Times Five, We Who Are Hundred —winner of the 2010 Hedda Award, Norway’s highest distinction in the theatre—and Apathy for Beginners.
All the work of this writer, born in Stockholm in 1978 of a Tunisian father and a Swedish mother, is directly related to his life experience, his ethnic identity, which he describes as North African/Swedish, and to his multilingualism. Throughout his life, he has witnessed firsthand what it is to be exposed to sentiments of anti-immigration. An open letter he wrote to Sweden’s Minister of Justice has played a key role in this type of experience. The letter, known as Dear Beatrice Ask and published on March 13, 2012 in Dagens Nyheter, addresses the minister with “a simple request…I want us to trade our skins and our experiences. Come on. Let’s just do it.” The letter received record social media attention, reportedly garnering half a million clicks.
Subsequent to disturbances in May, 2013, primarily in Stockholm, The New York Times International Weekly of July 1, published an article titled “In Swedish Riots, Identity is the Crux,” about policies on identity which expose contradictions in the generous welfare state of Scandinavia, where societies have been considered paragons of Western humanitarianism.
Khemiri’s literary imagination, his dramatic world, create an allegory to these complex events. His plays do not imitate them, but rather refract them, rename them, leading viewers, perhaps, to form new ideas and test them against the events that served as pretexts to the work. His unique “language studies” throw these into question and subvert them in a challenging mix of humor and tragedy.
Translated from Spanish by James A. Surges.
 I published a more general article about Khemiri in the Buenos Aires daily newspaper, La Nación, section ADN, on October 11, 2013.
 In Spanish in the original “En los disturbios suecos, el eje está en la identidad” p.3.
*Halima Tahan Ferreyra (Ph.D.) is a member of the AICT and authoress of Teatro del Sur Proyect; member of a number of National and International Juries and writer in local and international media. At present, she is curator and coordinator in Rituales de Pasaje, a transdisciplinary programme in the Complejo Teatral of Buenos Aires.
Copyright © 2014 Halima Tahan Ferreyra
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