Two actors on a darkened stage, playing an erudite Muslim father and his beloved daughter who has left home to join the Islamic State jihadists, read the heartrending letters they have exchanged.
“Letters to Nour”, a book written and adapted for the stage by French-Moroccan writer Rachid Benzine, recently premiered in the Belgian city of Liege, one of a growing body of works tackling the impact of extremism in Europe.
The play will soon move to France for a series of shows, but after that it will return to Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region to be seen by a very different audience.
From March “Letters to Nour” will be performed at state schools for students aged 16 to 18, part of an effort by Belgian authorities to counter radicalisation.
The subject strikes close to home in a country where a small cell of young men from Muslim backgrounds plotted together to carry out both the November 2015 jihadist attacks in Paris and the March 2016 attacks in Brussels.
“The book, and then the play, were linked to a particular event: November 13, 2015, at the Bataclan,” Benzine told AFP, referring to the Paris concert venue where jidahists shot dead dozens of people.
“I felt there was a double rift. First, because these were young people from my background but who were targeting French society,” he said.
“And then that these were young people who killed in the name of a god that I believe in.”
“Our views are always reductive. It seemed to me that fiction would allow us to tell things another way,” added Benzine, a professor from the Paris suburb of Trappes, which has produced many jihadists.
‘Paradise for Muslims’
He sits at a wooden table reading aloud a letter from Nour — which means “light” in Arabic — his cherished daughter, a philosophy student who has decided to go to Iraq to join the jihadist husband she met on the internet.
Nour, played by Belgian Tania Gabarski, admits that she lied to him about making a family visit in order to flee her home country, and says she is now in a “paradise for Muslims.”
“I am not a submissive woman, I have chosen to carry out a mission,” she says to her father, whom she views as naive. He begs her to return and abandon the life she has chosen.
Benzine said he wanted to create “a moment for thought, a conversation with the arguments from both sides, so we can hear the father’s point of view but also that of the girl, who doesn’t have any economic problems or social problems and is bright, but who has nevertheless decided to join Daesh”, the Arabic term for IS.
‘We didn’t see this coming’
The story unfolds over the course of 14 letters as Nour realises that her dream is turning into a nightmare. After giving birth to a baby girl she is confronted with a dilemma that will inevitably have a tragic outcome.
“But barbarism will not have the last word. There is no need to lose hope in humanity,” said the author, who visited several young people imprisoned after their return from Syria and Iraq while researching the play.
But Benzine added that it was essential to understand “why we didn’t see this coming — and what these youths have to say to us.”
“Daesh’s ideology is based on four dreams: a unified Muslim world, dignity in the face of humiliation, the dream of purity, and salvation,” he said.
“Many young people feel that if they can’t give meaning to their lives, they can give meaning to their death.”
But Benzine, who said he has long advocated a “critical reading” of the Koran, cautioned that the appeal of IS ideology also raises difficult questions for those trying to warn against radicalism.
“What hope are we able to offer our young?” he asked.