"We are going to be judged, condemned perhaps. But we have… | NTGent
Perzen Triomf van Empathie c Kurt van der Elst 7700

"We are going to be judged, condemned perhaps. But we have to do this"

| 19 June 2024
"Is that still a relevant topic?", theatre-maker Chokri Ben Chikha regularly heard after he decided to create a show about the more than 70-year-old conflict between Israel and Palestine. Then the massacre of 7 October 2023 followed and Israel began a genocide. "We could have remained silent. But that's not what artists do," says Ben Chikha. 'PERSIANS. Triumph of Empathy' premieres on June 20 at NTGent.

After October 7 happened, did you hesitate to change the subject of the performance?

Chokri: "No, absolutely not. I feel even more need since that day. We have to talk about this conflict. There is a Jewish community in Belgium, there is a Muslim community, we have an arms factory, our universities work with Israeli institutions, we are president of the European Union... We are not neutral. We are involved. We have been for decades. The luxury of remaining silent, of hiding behind neutrality: we don't have it. Not even as artists."

Mareille (actor): "In a society that increasingly expects you not to step on anyone's toes, theatre is perhaps the only 'ring' where you can still listen in a respectable way to an opinion that is diametrically opposed to yours. That confrontation is very enlightening and necessary."

Hellen (dancer): "We are involved in horrific violence that we allow to continue. It is the responsibility of the West to mediate in this conflict. Countries that are not directly involved are the only ones who can."

As you rehearsed, the horror in Palestine grew week by week. How did that influence the creation of 'PERSIANS'?

Chokri: "When Israel decided to invade Rafah, we asked ourselves: what are we actually doing here? Wouldn't we be better off standing with the students occupying a university building here in Ghent? You want to create a serene atmosphere to rehearse. And for that, you need to shut yourself off somewhat from the outside world. That was very difficult in this process. I have been following five, six, seven news channels at the same time for weeks. You feel an enormous responsibility. To yourself, to the outside world, and most of all to the cast."

Hellen: "What can I do about this as an artist? You ask yourself that question constantly. Part of the answer is that on stage you can show tremendous layering. There is room for complex emotions, for humanity."

"One party is the oppressor, the others are the oppressed. But still people die on both sides. So: what can we do to stop the bloodshed? And shouldn't we step beyond our own opinions to do so? I hope that those who join the performance will remember mainly that: that we are all human beings. I hope that spectators dare to feel."

"Talking about empathy makes little sense if you do not first question your own perspective"
Chokri Ben Chikha - regisseur

The play was given the subtitle, 'Triumph of Empathy'. A reference to Greek author Aischylos' choice to write his tragedy from the point of view of the enemy, the Persians. Is empathy still possible in the conflict between Israel and Palestine?

Chokri: "When I was on the ground in January, I quickly realised that my quest for empathy was a naive one. That empathy may not be the right strategy to achieve greater justice. Almost all the Israelis and Palestinians I spoke to - academics, artists, soldiers, civilians,... - considered themselves empathetic. But if you inquire further, you quickly hear that this empathy is limited to certain people or groups."

"We have no idea whether Aischylos considered himself empathetic, or intended to be so. His tragedy was later interpreted that way, because the writer put himself in the shoes of the other party. But to what end? He was a soldier himself and his audience was full of soldiers."

Hellen: "Empathy is a complex value that, now perhaps more than ever, is often used as a power tool, to pit groups against each other. So politically speaking, it's a dangerous concept. On a human level, you get empathy by projecting your own feelings onto others. You think you know how they feel and therefore feel connected. But there is a danger in that too."

Mareille: "It's easier to be empathetic towards people you look like. But what if people look different? What if they have different ideas? Ideas you don't understand? Are those worth less? And who determines their value?"

Chokri: "Talking about empathy makes little sense if you don't first question your own perspective. Question history as you know it. Question the image you have of Israelis or Palestinians. Question what information you are missing and why. That deconstruction has to happen first."

An exercise you had to do yourself during the creation phase of 'PERSIANS'.

Chokri: "Absolutely. I was raised pro-Palestinian myself. I was taught at the kitchen table at home that Jews are the enemy. When I went to university and had Jewish fellow students, it was very difficult for me. Even now, I still feel that I am expected to put on a pro-Palestinian show."

Liah (dancer): "Since leaving Israel, I have come to realise that even those who experience the conflict from the inside, often do not know what is really going on. I did not know the fate of my neighbours because I was not told. The knowledge I was allowed to have, was limited. Chokri and I are going through the same process in that sense, from the opposite direction, which is hugely fascinating. Although there is also shame involved. The shame of feeling ignorant."

In what area does our knowledge of what is happening in the Middle East fall short at the moment?

Chokri: "Among other things, we are not sufficiently aware of the extent to which our view of the world is influenced by propaganda. The conflict, the war, the occupation ... there has been a war of words around Israel and Palestine for decades. When do you use which word? Do you say terrorist or freedom fighter? The creation of Israel: was it a miracle or a disaster, a Nakba?"

"The extreme right and the fundamentalists in the Muslim world are gaining ground on that front. They push complexity aside. It's simple, they say, you don't have to think for yourself. We have all the information ready for you. Neatly packaged in a glitzy video."

"PERSIANS  is the second part of my research on propaganda and art, after Flemish Primitives. I think it's very important to do that research with the younger generation. How can you make art without it becoming propaganda? And what makes propaganda art? What are the techniques that are so clever and sophisticated that we all succumb to them?"

Hellen: "If empathy does not work, it is also because we are taught it wrongly. If our education provided more opportunities to learn about other countries, cultures and opinions, other versions of history, we would have a broader, more cognitive concept of what empathy can be."

"The more complex the world becomes, the more people only want to see part of your identity want to see. Even on stage"

As in 'Flemish Primitives', in 'PERSIANS' you work with dancers on stage, Chokri. Why?

Chokri: "If you want to set stereotypes in motion, if you want to break them down - because that's what I'm really always about - then you need this mix of disciplines. You need to be able to make hybrid, multifaceted images."

Liah: "It's a smart choice to choose dance with this so diverse group. There is a code between dancers, even though we all went to different dance schools. You meet on stage and immediately notice that you share things."

Chokri: "Dancing is a shared language in a group with people who all speak a different language. Every culture needs that dancing by the way, to connect people. You go through certain emotions together, you make yourself vulnerable. It is not for nothing that ultraconservative regimes ban dancing first."

How important is it for this performance that the group of dancers has such a diverse background?

Chokri: "Of course, somewhere you feel that being on stage with such a diverse group is a statement in itself. But we also question that statement a lot."

Liah: "In every dance company nowadays there is someone with Asian roots, a black dancer,... in this case there is a Palestinian dancer and an Israeli one. It's good that there is a focus on representation, but the danger is that someone is reduced to their origin. We ignore what those Asian, black, Israeli, Palestinian,... actors really think or feel."

Chokri: "There is a hyper-focus on identity nowadays. It is often no longer about who you are as an artist and what you have to say. A shift was needed, but we have to be careful that with my Arab background I am not obliged to be a fan of Amin Maalouf or Tahar Ben Jalloun. If I feel like bringing Shakespeare tomorrow, I have that right."

"There is a wonderful expression by Amin Maalouf, which I am going to quote now anyway (laughs). Identity is like a drum, says Maalouf. I am a man, I have my age, my background, I am an artist, a heterosexual... all these things together resonate as my identity. You can't isolate one aspect. Sadly, the more complex the world becomes, the more people only want to see part of your identity. Even on stage."

What reactions are you hoping for from the audience? And which ones do you fear?

Liah: "I hope people want to talk to us afterwards. I want to see them, I want to hear them. I'm scared to share this performance, but at the same time I can't wait. I hope we can at least trigger something, open a conversation."

"We are not offering a solution. Even though it is a political piece for me, we are in no way promoting any opinion. It is not party politics. We are not preaching. And I hope people realise that."

Chokri: "We are going to be judged, condemned perhaps, but there is no choice. We have to do this. I have to do this. Otherwise I might as well not be an artist anymore."

"I hope people will stay until the end, come and ask us questions afterwards, and only then judge. But anyway, I think everyone will have a strong opinion, more so than in all my previous performances."

--- interview by Jonas Mayeur
--- photos by Kurt Van der Elst

With closed eyes, you can see whomever you’d like Only humans can fantasise Until it holds from the inside Beyond madness, tenderness awaits There's all that future, still