Jalila Baccar: In Defense of Freedom and the Theater
Published Monday, June 11, 2012
Some months back, Jalila Baccar was banned from entering Palestine to receive the Mahmoud Darwish Award for Creativity that she won along with Palestinian poet Zuhair Abu Shayeb.
The Tunisian playwright, known for her political struggle and commitment since she was a student at the Faculty of Arts in Tunis in the 70s, is still paying for her political positions.
The actress and playwright was born in the old city of Tunis in 1952. Her father was an employee in the government administration and her mother was an illiterate woman dedicated to her family and children and eager to give them love and affection.
During her early years, Baccar discovered the joy of stories. Her father used to tell her about Tunisia’s old and contemporary history, opening her eyes to Carthage, Kairouan and the Hafsids.
Her mother, meanwhile, used to tell her stories about the women of Tunisia. Through them she came to be enthralled with the history of her country and took on the task of defending it and its activists.
Baccar learned about the theater in elementary and high school. She found in it an eloquent means of expression. She got attached to the world of theater and eventually found herself playing roles in amateur plays.
The turning point in Baccar’s life came years later, when she met Fadhel Jaïbi, who would become her husband and life partner, along with Fadhel Jaziri, Rjaa Farhat, Raouf Ben Omar and Samir al-Ayadi.
With these people Baccar formed a theater troupe that succeeded in establishing new foundations for Tunisian theater. The beautiful girl left Tunis for the first time in her life to accompany her troupe to the South. There in Gafsa, they presented the play Borni Atra, which gained wide fame, in addition to Juha and the Confounded East and Mohamed Ali El Hammi.
The oldest member of the troupe was less than 30-years-old. Regardless, they managed to lay the groundwork for a new theatrical vision under the slogan “Here and Now.”
As such, differences between the methods of Baccar’s modernist troupe and the classical style of the Municipal Troupe of Tunis, established by Ali Ben Ayed and the Brechtian experiment of Moncef Souissi, were clear.
It appeared as though the “troublemaking” members of the young troupe were unable to conform to the official cultural institution, which they soon left to create the experimental “New Theater” in 1976.
The New Theater was the first independent theater in Tunisia and it was preoccupied with experimentation and modernization, creating an important turning point in the history of Tunisian and Arab theater.
In this new project, Baccar became an essential partner in the group along with Jaïbi, Jaziri and Ben Omar, in addition to Habib Masrouki and Mohamed Driss.
Alongside the five of them, Baccar ventured into the laboratory of collectively writing a text before it is transferred onto the stage. The most important works of this period were The Wedding, The Investigation and The Washer of Anecdotes, which was the group’s last play.
Masrouki then died, Driss left to Paris and Ben Omar withdrew leaving only Baccar, Jaïbi and Jaziri on stage. The new-old troupe staged The Mother which was banned after its first show. But the experiment continued with Arab and The Lute Player.
After that, Baccar and Jaïbi separated from Jaziri creating, with theater producer Habib Belhadi, the group “Familia” in 1993.
From that moment, Baccar became internationally known. She co-wrote Yahia Yaich (Long Live), the work that predicted the fall of the dictator, with Jaïbi. With her colleagues, she toured the play that tells the story of an official who is suddenly deposed from office and placed under house arrest, throughout Arab and international capitals.
The play is a systematic deconstruction of the political and psychological structure that ruled Tunisia until recently.
Baccar is an artist who broke the mold, who refused Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali’s medals, awards and invitations to attend formal parades. Even hours after his departure she declined the post of minister of culture in the transitional government.
“They offered me the post of minister but I refused. My real and natural home is on stage. That is the only job I know how to do,” she tells us. Baccar does not change, no matter how much her roles as a mother, lover or activist change and no matter where she stages her plays.
She is the kind of artist who presents each show as if it were the first. Despite her long experience, she insists on doing intensive rehearsals before the opening night. “We should not be complacent with the audience,” she reiterates this phrase that she has repeated again and again.
“We will not be silent, we will not be silent... We will not submit and we will not kneel,” is another phrase she became famous for since she uttered it last year in response to the Salafist attack on and vandalism of Afric’art Cinema.
This phrase has become a slogan for Tunisian intellectuals who, along with Baccar, are trying to take the country into the light, confronting those who want to pull it back into darkness.
After her famous comment on the Afri’art Cinema incident, Baccar was one of the first people to condemn the Salafist attack on artists and intellectuals who were outside the Tunis Municipal Theater. At the time, Baccar who quickly joined her theater cohorts like a soldier rushing to the battle front, fearlessly raised her voice in protest once again.
Baccar was even more daring when she asked the current Tunisian Interior Minister to apologize for the attack by security forces on protesters on the martyrs’ anniversary (April 9). She also demanded that there be an investigation to determine the identity of the attackers and hold them accountable.
Baccar has become a guardian of liberty and an icon for enlightened Tunisians. She is a force to be reckoned with in the new Tunisia where intellectuals and the elite have gathered on one side and obscurantists on the other. Many pin their hopes on Baccar and her strong positions in light of the rise of Islamists who rode the coattails of the “Arab Spring.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.