Bousselmi, Meriam

When Tunisians took to the streets after the death of the vegetable dealer Mohamed Bouazizi’s, Meriam Bousselmi was right up there with her fellow citizens. Born in 1983, the author and director – who coincidentally completed her legal studies during those fateful weeks – found hope in the events: finally, or so it seemed, the desire for an unrestrained life had broken free, just as the dramatist had envisioned in many of her plays. Her hopes were soon dashed, however: in 2011, she was honored with the “Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi Award” in the category Best Theatrical Performance in Arabic for her play “Mémoire en retraite” – a parable illuminating the mechanism that buoys dictatorship, as seen through the eyes of the oppressed –, yet by 2012 she and her troupe were chased from their rehearsal space by a group of Salafists and her plays could no longer be staged in Tunisia. Nowadays, her new rehearsal space, which was difficult to find in the first place, remains shuttered, and Meriam Bousselmi’s works are premiered outside of Tunisia on the world’s leading stages. Through her works, audiences can discover one of the most exciting and important young voices in contemporary Tunisian drama, which is itself one of Tunisia’s newest genres. Even the work of the great director and dramatist Ezzedine Gannoun, who died in 2015, did little to change the situation. Gannoun’s El Hamra Theater in Tunis was a site for artistic and political debate and a source of inspiration for Meriam Bousselmi. Formal theater training is as rare in Tunisia as a tradition of drama criticism; that can explain why Meriam Bousselmi, who writes plays in French as well as Arabic, is active both as a writer and dramatist. Faced with a predicament, she turned the situation into a blessing: All of her plays can be viewed as critical interventions that use inventive artistic devices to bring politics back onto the stage; starting from the role of the individual in society, she explores the boundaries of human freedom and the possibilities of a society beyond the mechanisms of repression and power. For example, her monodrama “What The Dictator Did Not Say” is a dramatic treatment of the illusions and disappointments of the Arab Spring, only this time told from the point-of-view of an unnamed man forced from power. Offering a philosophical argument, the monologue probes the psychological framework that underpins everyday repression, demonstrating that freedom cannot be imposed by an external force, but can only come from within. A striking emancipatory strength also gives life to her play “Sin of Success,” which looks at the role model of the repressed woman and examines the impossibility of female success in a male-dominated society. It is based on her own experience when, after being awarded an important prize, her male producer was called to the stage to accept it instead of her. Using a play-within-a-play structure, the text continually switches levels, oscillating between fiction, commentary on fiction, and the reconstructed biographical events experienced by the actresses; in the play, the characters’ views overlap with those of the six actors. The relationship between genders, especially regarding the taboo of virginity, is also a central theme of “A Rough Draft Life” (“Brouillon de vie”): the 2007 winner of the Literature Prize of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, in its postmodernity the book resists being classified in one particular genre. Nowadays in Tunisia, the currents have shifted for women in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which means that Meriam Bousselmi’s artistic defense of forms not only of female resistance is all the more urgent, yet poses even greater risks than before. For that reason, “Sin of Success” (“Sünde Erfolg”) premiered in 2013 in Cologne, Germany, while the “Truth Box” – which is a kind of public confessional that can be installed at various sites – premiered the same year in Berlin. The piece, which is continually being expanded, offers a collection of intimate confessions of people hailing from a wide variety of backgrounds and classes. During the piece, audience members become listeners, while the private becomes a res publica, thus turning the theatrical space into a kind of ancient agora that reminds us what a public space can be: a place for equality, plurality, and the freedom of language, values, and experiences. Moral judgments have no place in Meriam Bousselmi’s work; instead, she considers her work to be a site for inciting the audience and learning how to engage in the dialogue so urgently needed in her homeland. The revolution may be over for now, but social unrest continues unabated. The tug-of-war between conservative Islamic factions and the liberal forces of society is a day-to-day struggle, even for the arts, in negotiations for freedom, boundaries, and privileges. Bousselmi isn’t afraid to fight the battle: According to the author, “Because theater cannot change the world, it is up to us to change the way we make the theater.” (In: taz, 16.11.2013, interview with Christoph Zimmermann)

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
Translation into English: Amy Pradell

Foto: Bohumil Kostohryz