Fadhel Jaibi sat in the half-light of his office dressed in the hues of a threatening sky. Coffee appeared and the playwright set the scene for his latest work.
It took him 20 uninterrupted minutes of fluid words and intonations, a few dramatic pauses, a ripple of eyebrows to denote curious narrative twists and then “boom” -- the character of an inspired and deranged Islamist blows herself up to protest a government that no longer hears its people.
“And this,” he said, “is where our play begins.”
One would have thought, with the coffee half-drunk and cold, that this was where the play ended, but with Jaibi the subtext is just as important as what makes it to the stage. It is often what we don’t see that defines who we are.
Censors prefer less insight, so when the men with red pens excised his clever passages, Jaibi, who is effusive and suspicious, egoistic and poetic, rode loudly into literary battle.
“I was warned this play was dangerous. The cultural minister wanted to make 286 cuts. Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Whole scenes,” said Jaibi, scratching gray stubble and adjusting his tortoise rimmed glasses. “He said we couldn’t speak of Islam, political police, torture, or the left. Imagine a script that weighed 8 kilos cut down to half a kilo.”
Mon Dieu! Jaibi speaks in French, a remnant of Tunisia’s colonial past. The pain from the censor’s demands still haunts his eyes.
“But the cultural minister,” said Jaibi, spitting those last two words out as if he’s recollecting a lover caught in an affair, “made the worst mistake of his life. He forced artists to get mobilized.”
This is Tunisia, where fading European panache mixes with an Arab regime that represses its citizens yet welcomes tourists, preferably those carrying dollars and euros. Tunisians are shrewd about their history, and the government of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali is unnerved that fragments of it have slipped uncomfortably into the present, such as how to suppress an Islamist revival in a nation that already licenses mosques and spies on young men with beards.
Jaibi’s new play, which has two names, “Hostage Bodies” or “50,” which connotes the 50th anniversary of Tunisian independence from France, agitates the strands of recent history. The plot unfolds like origami, but simply told the play is about how the daughter of Tunisian leftists travels to Paris, gets radicalized by Islamists and returns home as an Al Qaeda sympathizer amid a thicket of moral and political soul-searching.
“I like to deal with the here and now,” Jaibi said. “This play attempts to put Islamic extremism into context. . . . I understand the dangers of fundamentalism.”
What intrigues Jaibi are the ideological movements that challenge the mainstream, be they leftists of the 1970s, of which he counts himself as one, or the Islamists of today. He finds it interesting, if not ironic, that many Muslims have embraced Islam not at home, but in Western countries where religious and personal freedoms are more protected than in the Middle East. This has led to jihadist networks, especially in Europe, but more broadly it has resulted in a renewed religious devotion among Muslim immigrant communities trying to retain their culture while fitting into the West.
“Muslims can’t learn about Islam in Tunisia. It doesn’t exist. They have to go to the West,” he said. “For many Muslims, and this is the paradox, Islam is a Western ideology. In the Arab world, Islamists are crushed and oppressed. Only in exile do you find your identity.”
For decades, Jaibi has traveled the world directing his plays -- Japan, France, etc. -- and he would often hear the same question: “But can you show this kind of work in Tunisia?”
Yes, he could, but in some sense he felt he was being manipulated. “People abroad think we Tunisians live in a democracy,” he said. “But the regime uses us as window dressing,” allowing a few provocative works to be staged to prove to the West that the country extols freedom of expression.
Until, and this is where he smiles in a cutting blend of bemusement and anger, he brought “Hostage Bodies” home this year after a successful run in Paris, where, he said, he was hailed as courageous for the “radicalism of my ideas.” He performed the play before the Tunisian Orientation Commission, a euphemism for censors. The members liked the production, but the Cultural Ministry and a few political hard-liners wanted a closer look at a script they believed trod too close to the dangers facing the country today.
“In 34 years, I was never censored,” Jaibi said. “We started petitions. Opposition members backed us. Word went out through [text messages] and the Internet. It spread around the world. The official press accused me of being a bad citizen. It was debated in parliament and went to the Senate. It took eight months, but I won.”
Acts and lines were restored, but the government was firm on one point: The suicide bomber explodes somewhere other than in front of the Tunisian flag.
“I didn’t want to change that, but I did and now the blast goes off in front of red flowers, which happen to be the same color as the flag,” he said with the mischievousness of a schoolboy or a man who pulled a fast one on his boss.
The phone in the office rang. Jaibi answered it. The coffee was gone and he had to prepare for another performance of “Hostage Bodies” at a theater a few blocks from the secret-police headquarters at the Ministry of Interior, which sits on a wide boulevard reminiscent of Paris.
“The official history of Tunisia is not the real history. We want the real history,” he said. “The truth is that the regime and the left share responsibility for the rise of Islamic extremism. The regime attacked the left and created a vacuum for the Islamists. But the paradox is that now the secular left has formed an alliance with Islamists to fight the regime.”
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.