In the lobby of Abdel Nasser’s stand-up show Retourne dans ton pays (“Go back to your own country”) at the Molenbeek cultural center, I asked two twenty-something girls why they came.
“It is someone we can relate to”, one of the girls said. She continued: “We went to see classic French plays. But now there is a scene with artists like us. A gap is closing between two worlds, and people are opening up to this one”. Then her friend’s eyes lit as she blurted out to me: “May I ask you something? No offence – but why did you come when it doesn’t directly relate to you?”. And so the debate ironically begins right before the show that speaks against sending people “home”.
Somewhat bemused, I told his story to Abdel Nasser a few weeks later during our interview. Sipping on a Coke at the Quick of Toison d’Or, he looked confused. Neither a specific niche – say, the young urban generation of ‘Belgo-Moroccans’ –, nor a social agenda were on his mind when he left the corporate world to write plays, he asserted.
He stressed one point, though: the venue choice is not random. One day he’s in Molenbeek and the next at Théâtre Molière of Ixelles. He wants to take his audience they would not have visited otherwise. For Abdel, the social mix must be normal: “we are all Belgian, we all pay taxes for these prestigious buildings. We should take ownership of them”. Here, it is more convincing that the shows are meant for everyone – even if you don’t understand the Arabic words thrown here and there in the play.
I still felt like an outsider during the show, one that peeps into another world. Why should it be a bad thing? Abdel Nasser left the door ajar for us non-niche folk. He didn’t yell “are there any [enter ethnicity of your choice] in the rooooom?”, shutting the door for the rest of us. For his loyal audience, he is a leader. For the others, he’s given us a gentle introduction to his world – a Belgian experience that many don’t see.
So if I had to answer the girl’s question today, what would I say?
No, the show does not relate to me. I haven’t experienced racist discrimination in years. No one’s ever given me the stink-eye after the Brussels terror attacks. But many people in this country face blind racism daily. So yes, it does affect me as a Belgian and most of all, as a human being. And that’s why I’ll continue to go these shows that let me understand these experiences.
Let me know what you think of the show. Next ones are on March 4 and 5, at Théâtre Molière.