Multi-talented Tunisian artist Meher Awachri (1984) just returned from the sixth edition of the Fujairah International Monodrama Festival in the United Arab Emirates. Here he performed his meanwhile internationally known monodrama D-Sisyphe [‘décisif’, English: decisive], a piece inspired by The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. al.arte.magazine was given the opportunity to learn more about this widely acclaimed work and the artist behind it.
Meher, please tell us something about yourself as an artist.
“My first experience with drama was in 1997 when I started performing with different Tunisian amateur theatre companies. Because of my love for drama I decided to go to a special high school that focuses on theatre. In 1999 I wrote my first contemporary piece The Wings and shortly after I entered the professional field of acting (Les Diables, 2000). The Olive Leaf (2009) was my first experience as a professional dancer. After high school I studied theatre at the Superior Institute of Dramatic Art of Tunis. In 2011I concluded my studies with my graduation project D-Sisyphe, which I performed in several countries including the Netherlands and Germany.”
How was the concept of D-Sisyphe born and what is the piece about?
“As I said, D-Sisyphe was my final project at university, a project in which I wanted to draw upon all my theatre experiences up to then, both as an amateur and a professional. It all started with a text I wrote based upon The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. In the piece I wanted to discuss the questions that the book raised in my mind: about my life in Tunisia before the revolution during the time of dictatorship, about the problems within Tunisian society and about my problems with society. Camus compares the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus. In D-Sisyphe I created a Tunisian version of Sisyphus: Khmais, a Tunisian construction worker. Khmais spends a night at the construction site overthinking his life. Loathed by his wife and son, rejected by society and abandoned by God, Khmais sees the wreckage of his life. He seems to have lost his faith, and even though this painful realization frightens him, it also gives him strength. Khmais undergoes a major change as he eventually dares to face the very same hell he had always been subjugated to. He rebels. Inevitable he suffers the same fate as Sisyphus: Khmais is punished, rejected and perpetually tortured. However, this time the hell is his own choice.”
What message would you like to convey with D-Sisyphe?
“The main topic of the piece is construction. It’s about the construction of a new future, a new society, a new Tunisia. In Tunisia and many Arab countries we just build without thinking about what we need; there is a lack of vision. With this piece I want to push people to ask questions and contemplate on what we need. Do we really need democracy in Tunisia for example? People call for democracy and freedom, but do they really know what these things entail? Political parties propose big programs and say they will do this and that without having a clear answer why they want to do so. In my opinion, if we want this revolution to be a success, we need to ask more questions in order to formulate clear goals.”
D-Sisyphe is performed in Tunisian Arabic. Do you feel there was a difference in how the work was received in Tunisia, other Arab countries and in Europe?
“I didn’t feel that it was differently received in Europe. When I perform D-Sisyphe abroad the piece is subtitled in English. My first performance in Europe was in Kiel, Germany, at the Thespis International Monodrama Festival. I won the first prize there, so I believe it was very well received. When I performed in the Netherlands I did one show without subtitles because there was a technical problem. I was very nervous at that time, but the audience really liked it and gave me a standing ovation. Also lots of people stayed for the after talk and they wanted to know more about the piece; I was really surprised about that. However, there was a problem with the language when I performed in Sharjah, which is actually an Arab country. They didn’t understand the Arabic, because the Tunisian dialect is very different from their dialect and apparently they also did not understand the English subtitles.”
Could you tell us something about the theatre scene in Tunis?
“In Tunisia we say our theatre is the best in the Arab region. I think there is some truth in this, maybe fifty percent. Compared to other Arab countries, Tunisia has a long history of theatre; especially in the ‘60s and ’70s Tunisian theatre was flourishing. This was partly driven by Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali’s predecessor. He was the first president who talked about the importance of theatre. Under his reign theatre was subsidized; all segments of the population went to the theatre. This all changed under Ben Ali; theatre was no longer subsidized and it became a luxury good, only accessible for the higher classes of society. Furthermore, since the last couple of years contemporary theatre had to make room for big stand-up comedy productions. Private investors who know nothing about theatre and arts started to invest in stand-up comedy. This resulted in a considerable increase in rent for rehearsal spaces and theatre locations, leaving little room for small-scale productions. A lot of Tunisian artists turn to the West for funding. However, the West is mostly interested to fund art with a political message, especially now with the Arab Spring. In order to get funding artists customize their art to meet the demands of the funding organizations; the result is a demand-driven art scene.”
Where do you find inspiration?
“There are lots of things that inspire me, such as the movies I see, the music I listen to and the books I read. However, what inspires me the most is what I experience in daily life. I love photography, because it enables me to study daily scenes more closely. I sometimes go out and take pictures and realize how much reality resembles the scenes on stage. I go sit in a café and observe people. Some people are waiting for the bus, while others are walking by or having a talk. It’s if I were seeing a play: there are characters, a story, a beginning and an ending.
If you could sit down to coffee with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
“It would definitely be Pina Bausch. I think I have a spiritual relationship with this woman. When I saw her video Cafe Müller it was a life changing experience for me. The way she moved her body was just incredible; something I had never seen before. I instantly fell in love with her and to this day she inspires me.”
Tell us something about your goals for the coming year. What can we expect to see from you in the future?
“All my future projects will be very different in form from D-Sisyphe. As D-Sisyphe turned out to be to a success I think many people would create something similar in form if they were me. However, I’m not like that. There are many different forms of art; I value all forms. To me experimental theatre is not better than realistic theatre or contemporary dance; every form has its own magic. My goal is to find myself in different kinds of forms. Although the form may differ, the link between of all my projects will be my questions about life, about the society I live in, about the relationship between Tunisia and other Arab countries and about the relationship between the Arab region and the West.”
This post is also available in: Dutch