Interview with Mokhallad Rasem

Theater Malpertuis interviewed Toneelhuis maker Mokhallad Rasem about his new production Zielzoekers (Soul Seekers).

How did it feel to be back in a refugee centre again?

It was confrontational. Some of the things that happen within the walls of a refugee centre are quite intense. This residency of mine called up memories I couldn’t hold back. At the same time, I became increasingly fascinated by the absurdity of the rhythm of this place. It’s so different from the rhythm of the outside world. Everything is also rather volatile there; situations, people, emotions are constantly changing. One moment it’s boring, the next moment it’s all action. There’s understanding, then there are arguments. Happiness turns into sorrow at the drop of a hat.

This absurdity is rooted in uncertainty. Nobody in there knows what lies ahead of them. Nothing is clear. All they can do is wait. The residents have the feeling they are on a crossroads without any indication of directions. Which way are they supposed to go? A dimmed sense of time and fear determine the rhythm in a refugee centre.

What did you want to achieve with this residency?

In the first place, I was doing research for my production Zielzoekers. The stories and occurrences in the centre were a source of inspiration. Besides that, I had been thinking for a while about how, based on my own experience as an asylum seeker, I might be able to mean something for people who are now in the same situation. During my stay I offered a listening ear. Whoever who wished to could tell their story. I wanted to support these people by laying a stone on which they could build the foundation of their new life. A foundation of hope and faith. I hope to offer them a sense of positivism about the future.

Is there a reason to be positive, then?

For the people there, the word ‘papers’ symbolizes happiness. They believe that everything will be different once they have been handed their residency papers. That they will be happy then. Some of them are so concentrated on getting them, they are totally blocked. There is a woman who’s been in asylum centres for two years already and hasn’t been able to learn the language. She’s completely caught up in the uncertainty about those papers. I want to show these people that happiness does not only depend on papers, on external circumstances. That you have to create your happiness yourself. That you have to grab the chances that are offered to you here with both hands.

In the meantime I myself also see a very beautiful side of life in an asylum centre. Where else can you find a place where a mix of people from different social backgrounds peacefully coexist? Where people manage, through the good moments and the bad, to live together harmoniously? Where every language, culture, identity and individuality is respected? If you look at this community from a positive perspective, you see Noah’s Ark – and even more, Utopia.

The residents mainly are homesick for what they left behind. Their homeland: that is, or was, Utopia. 

True enough, but no matter how painful it may be, only when they have put some of that past behind them will they be able to build a future for themselves. They have to reset their own systems, as it were.

The residents all said to me, ‘Mokhallad, the food here doesn’t taste good.’ ‘Is that really true,’ I challenged them, ‘or is it the memory of the food from your homeland that is preventing you from enjoying the Flemish cooking?’ It was the latter. I told them, ‘You have taken a step in your life. Now you must try to understand this new world.’ When I said that, I saw tears in their eyes. I realize very well that it takes time to accept something like that. I often compare them to a house that has been locked up and is waiting to be opened up again. And yet they themselves are the key.

In an interview with Etcetera you once said, ‘I don’t want to talk about politics. I just want to be on a stage.’ The problems you are examining in Zielzoekers nevertheless go pretty far in the direction of politics.

It’s my responsibility as an artist to give a voice to these people and show their portrait to the world. I don’t feel the need to stand at the barricades. With Zielzoekers – and with my other productions also, for that matter – I most of all want to tell a human story, not a political story. Even though these stories certainly are the consequence of political decisions.

The performances take place in churches, which again is not exactly a neutral choice.

In a church, souls are born and go to heaven. A church is a place of rest for soul seekers. Everyone is equal there. In houses of prayer, humanity prevails, whether it’s a church or a mosque. That humanity is universal. How many priests in Europe have opened their churches to offer refugees a place to sleep? That has nothing to do with religion, but with respect and compassion for fellow human beings.

Will the production be recognizable for the people you interviewed? Will they recognize themselves in it? 

I want to make a show in which everybody can recognize themselves. It indeed will include recordings of interviews with the residents, but it will mainly be a new story. I want to create a special world with my production, a world in fantasy and timelessness determine the rhythm. Is this the present or the future? Reality or imagination? A dream or a nightmare? Every spectator can interpret it as they wish. After all, every person is a ‘soul seeker’, everybody has a different idea of what the soul means.

Marlies Corneillie

Also interesting productions:

Grensgeval Theatre Archive


Guy Cassiers / Toneelhuis / Maud Le Pladec / Bachelor dans Koninklijk Conservatorium Antwerpen AP Hogeschool / CNSMD Lyon

Zielzoekers: Open Door Event Archive

Zielzoekers: Open Door

Theater Malpertuis / Toneelhuis / Rode Kruisopvangcentrum voor asielzoekers Menen / cc De Steiger Menen / Mokhallad Rasem