Mokhallad "When I read Coetzee’s book The Childhood of Jesus, I had the feeling he was writing about me. It’s about a child who arrives in a new country without a father or mother. The child has to discover the new world. This was very recognizable to me: when I came to Belgium, I also felt as if I had been born without a father or mother. Without a language in which to ask where I had to go or what time it was. That period has a kind of timelessness in my memory which I recognized in Coetzee: you don’t know if the story is taking place in the past, the future or right now. It is important for me to talk about this, about the feeling of a child who is alone without anybody being able to understand him. To me, it was as if Coetzee had lived amongst people who had to move to a new country…”
David "Such timelessness is very applicable to your productions, I think. Maybe it also has to do with the stories you choose.”
Walter "Might it also be a consequence of the rather minimal role that language plays in your productions? What’s your view of this?"
Mokhallad "I make visual theatre. Language was almost entirely absent in the beginning. I also literally didn’t know how to communicate with people. For instance, when I first came here to live, I lost the key to my apartment; explaining that on the telephone was incredibly complicated for me. It was almost the same as being present in this world or not, as being visible or invisible. To be or not to be.
“The visual aspect was a beginning step. When I arrived in the city, the first thing I did was look around at the people, the trams, the cars, the shapes of things. I listened to people, heard their language, but didn’t understand any of it. As a result, a new language came into being for me, a language that consists of different languages running through each other – Dutch, French, Spanish, Arabic – which I sometimes use simultaneously in my productions. The visual aspect is a very universal language, close to visual art, which has always inspired me. What fascinates me is how you can become acquainted with a culture through the images that culture creates. Every time I visit a city, I also go to the local museum and look at the images there and what they can tell me about that culture, about that place. They are signals, signs or gestures of that culture, just as a child that is crying because it is hungry is also a signal. I have ‘grown up’ with these elements here in this new world. And so I gradually developed my language of theatre.”
David "Then do you also mean that the productions you made in Iraq had more dialogue?"
Mokhallad "Most definitely, I used Arabic texts a lot, and what’s more, I didn’t have to explain the codes. Sometimes one word was all that the audience needed to understand what I was getting at. Here, I have to work much more on finding ways for the audience to understand what I mean. And sometimes they simply don’t get it. That happens…”
David "That also happens with artists who do speak the language!"
Walter "I’ve always wondered why you don’t seem to be afraid in this cultural temple full of the stars of Western cultural history. You come in here and dare to cut up the works of Shakespeare or Coetzee, who is indeed a South African, but nonetheless talks about a part of Western culture. Is your visual approach the key to being less frightened about that?
Mokhallad "No, it’s something else. At school I grew up with Greek theatre, with Shakespeare and so forth. But I learned all of that through books, through photographs and illustrations, and it always remained more of a kind of fantasy world to me. It was only when I came here that I saw that Shakespeare could be a real world, one that deals with universal themes such as death, power, doubt, the search for truth, love. Blood and killing. It was almost as if Shakespeare had lived in Iraq. The question I then had to ask was how I could present this Shakespeare in my own language, with my history. So I decided to use my own background for the figure of Hamlet, in addition to what Shakespeare himself writes about him. And Romeo and Juliet, for instance, could just as well be about two people who die because of the war and not only for the sake of a forbidden love. Shakespeare is a double layer that lies over my own culture, my own history, as it were.”
Walter "Have you staged Shakespeare in Iraq?"
Mokhallad "No, but I did play Hamlet and Macbeth – in a more classical production, because at the time we wanted to get away from reality, as I said before. The double layer that I now apply to Shakespeare was certainly not in that."
David "I do think it’s incredible that Shakespeare – an icon of Western culture – was an escape from reality there, and here he’s become a way for you to deal with your own reality."
Mokhallad "Yes, that’s the essence of theatre-making for me at this point.”
Mokhallad "I feel like I’m standing on a border. By the sea or on the edge of the Sahara. Sometimes I’m standing in the midst of the world without having a fixed place in it. Everything is moving, just like I mix up dance and language and colour and light and movement in my shows. Just like I also ask myself what a person’s identity is: when you leave your country of birth, do you leave your identity behind or take it with you? Do you leave your culture behind, or take it with you? I am in between all those things. Coming from a very old civilization as I do, I think I’m looking for a contemporary civilization.”