Tale of three losers-turned-radicals

Belgian film-maker, playwright and stage director Ismael Saidi (left) and actor Reda Chebchoubi (far left) present the book adapted from Saidi's play "Jihad".
Belgian film-maker, playwright and stage director Ismael Saidi (left) and actor Reda Chebchoubi (far left) present the book adapted from Saidi's play "Jihad".PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE.

BRUSSELS • "We've been tricked, my brother," says Reda in the final terrifying minutes of Jihad, a short play ripped from the headlines about the odyssey of three young Muslims from the streets of Brussels to the horrors of IS-inspired martyrdom in Syria.

The playwright is Ismael Saidi, 39, a former police officer born in the European Union capital of Brussels to a family of Moroccan origin. He is much like at least four of the 10 attackers who killed 130 people in Paris on Nov 13, including the only survivor, Salah Abdeslam, who is still on the run.

In his no-frills play that runs a brisk two hours, Saidi tells the darkly humorous tale of three Brussels losers who are all too easily lured down the dark road of radicalisation and jihad under the wing of the Islamic State group in Syria.

Radical Islam is a sensitive issue in Brussels with some of the biggest terror plots in Europe of the last 25 years linked to the city and the troubled neighbourhood of Molenbeek in particular.

"This play is obviously a critique of my community. Who are these young people who sign up for jihad?" Saidi said one cool autumn morning, addressing journalists at a small theatre just a short walk from EU headquarters.

In the show, he goes by his first name Ismael and plays a hapless version of himself, along with the two other marginals, Reda and Ben, played by friends also using their actual first names.

"I criticise any excessive tendency towards victimisation. Especially the hypocrisy of those who claim they are not tolerated when they are not tolerant themselves," Saidi said.

In the play, Ismael turns to radicalisation after a teacher forbids his true passion, drawing.

"It was a Saturday at Arabic school," he begins in one of the play's early moments.

"The teacher discovered my drawings and hit me while shouting a quote of the prophet Muhammad that said all artists go to hell."

He abandons the pencil, commits to religion, which then quickly hardens into extremism.

His friend Reda, in another scene, talks of a longtime crush on Valerie, a native Belgian who is not a Muslim.

"Mom told me Valerie was fine to have some fun, but real life required a Muslim woman... so I left her," he laments to the audience, a diverse crowd from all ages and walks of Brussels life.

The third character, Ben, is a huge Elvis fan but on a trip to Memphis sees Aaron, a Jewish name, carved into the King's tombstone at Graceland.

"Even my favourite music was part of the great Zionist conspiracy," the character says as he takes the jihad road to Syria.

Djihad, the French spelling for Jihad, was first performed a year ago and was only supposed to run for five performances, but word of mouth quickly spread and the play has been seen by 45,000 people. It heads to France next year.

The other performers, Reda Chebchoubi and Ben Hamidou, are also of Moroccan origin and grew up in Brussels, the latter in Molenbeek.

Each performance is followed by a debate, where the temptations of radicalism are discussed freely with an audience often made up of high school students.

"I wrote this play for my mother and children," said Saidi, who believes that the play is appropriate for anyone aged 12 and older.

He said some of his own childhood friends turned to radicalism. He only avoided the trap through "the luck of key encounters". Young Muslims in Europe are pushed into a social "schizophrenia" living in ghettos that become their only identity, cutting them off from the rest of the city and the world, he said.

For Chebchoubi, the indignities of everyday racism make the siren call of radicalism all too attractive for the Muslims of Europe.

"We are victims of both a system that denigrates us, but also of our own people who take advantage of our ignorance," his character says at the end of the show.

Saidi decried an "illness" fuelled by an Islam that all too often embraces anti-semitism, sexism and the refusal to recognise marriages outside the faith.

"The problem in Europe dates from the 1970s when we gave the keys to the Islamic faith to Saudi Arabia," he said.

Many who left for Syria, including non-Muslims, did start out to help a population clearly in need, he added.

"But those that returned to Paris weren't exactly Buddhists."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Tale of three losers-turned-radicals'. Print Edition | Subscribe