“Your fatwa does not apply here”: Muslim artists battle fundamentalism

Muslim playwrights, musicians and artists are battling for free expression -- and some pay with their lives

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"Your fatwa does not apply here": Muslim artists battle fundamentalism

It is a school play like none I have ever seen, not least because the girls onstage and their parents in the audience could die at any moment just for being here. At the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s Ninth Youth Performing Arts Festival, held in Lahore’s Muamar Gaddafy Stadium on November 30, 2010, I sit in the front row with the festival’s gray-pony-tailed organizer, Faizan Peerzada, and his pretty teenage daughter, Nur, who wears red tennis shoes and a jaunty cap. At least eight thousand people have died across Pakistan in fundamentalist terrorism, mostly at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban, in the previous three years. This violence hits Lahore hard: there were forty-four terror attacks here alone in 2010. The last World Performing Arts Festival the Peerzadas held in this place was bombed, producing rain of glass.

As I look at the promoter a few seats over, I wonder how much anxiety he feels, with a chorus of kids on stage in front of him, his own child beside him. They are all here because he has convened them. He told me earlier: “It is a very stressful thing. You talk more about security these days than the creativity.” I hold my breath, wondering whether they will get to the end of the show.

Faizan’s father, Nur’s grandfather—for whom the theatre company is named—was Rafi Peerzada, an anticolonial activist–turned–playwright who trained in England and Germany, where he mingled with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. He returned to Pakistan to revolutionize its theatre with a series of plays such as “Naqab,” about the bombing of Hiroshima. At his death in 1974, Rafi Peerzada’s children took over his theatre company and renamed it in his memory. Over the years, they have staged music, dance, and puppet festivals and a wide array of plays—everything from Rafi Peerzada’s own “Raz-o-Niaz” to Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park”—in different venues. Many of their productions are geared toward children, and all have the goal of preserving Pakistan’s rich tradition of performing arts. While the end result is often dazzling, the road to get there has not been smooth.



During the preparations for their annual World Performing Arts Festival in 2008, Faizan told me he had received a letter “with a kind of a bloodstained warning underneath this very strangely done signature.” A threatening call followed, complaining that, “despite the warning you are still continuing with the festival.” The festival proceeded nonetheless, and it was packed. The callers, however, followed through, too. “At about 9:20 p.m., I heard this first blast,” Faizan recollects. “I was standing outside when the windowpane fell. There was chaos, smoke. Nine people were injured. The concert had started and all other performances had ended. There were about 18,000 people still in the venue.” Luckily, many of them had already left the auditoriums and were standing outside, among them families with young children.

The theatre promoter himself went to the location of the blast to survey the damage. “Where it happened, the false ceilings had come down, lights were hanging, and glass was everywhere. If that hall had an audience, that would have been a sad thing because the impact was so big that a lot of eyes would have popped out.” While he conferred with police, the second bomb detonated. “A half section of a tree fell. We were about 25 yards away.” At this point in what was becoming the festival’s real-life drama, Faizan Peerzada got on his walkie-talkie and quietly organized the evacuation of the entire stadium. “We asked the whole audience to leave slowly, because a stampede can kill more than the bombs. When we were evacuating, the third bomb goes off right in front of the building.” Miraculously, no one was killed. But Rafi Peer audiences would know from then on that unscripted disasters could strike any of the company’s shows. Thanks to the Pakistani Taliban, enjoying the arts had become a life-threatening endeavor.

The perpetrator was caught quickly on November 21, 2008, found with a map that had three targets on it—those that had already been hit. The bomber had two children with him, one a peddler of potato chips who was about twelve. “In his box, he had just a few crisps and seven explosive devices,” Faizan explained. The juvenile jihadist was caught because he was dragging “this strange package” toward the main hall, full of snacks and IEDs. His attack was to be the evening’s main event. “That was the idea, that they divert us first and suddenly this kid goes in.” If the little boy bomber had been able to carry out his mission, the Rafi Peer audience would have been decimated by his potato-chip bombs.

Faizan was shaken but undeterred. “If you give up in front of these small mullahs, then nothing like the festival will ever happen.” As he put it to the BBC once in a quote that had stuck with me even before I met him, “If we bow down to the Islamists, then everything is going to be rolled back and they will always have their way, and then there will be nothing.

“We’ll just be sitting in a dark corner.”

Rather than shutting down for safety, Peerzada explains, he and the other directors of the World Performing Arts Festival decided that same night back in 2008 that, quite literally, the show must go on. “By one in the morning we made a strong statement that, ladies and gentlemen, this ain’t going to work. This festival is going to take place. There is nothing against Islam in this.” The next day throngs of people came out to show their support for the continuing event. Faizan Peerzada was simultaneously delighted and apprehensive. As he told me, “There was a young lady coming with two children. I walked up to her and said, ‘Do you know there was a bomb here, and today there is a threat?’ She said, ‘Yes, but I was here with my mother just like these two. And those images are still in my mind.’” The risk was worth taking to make sure her children could have memories of puppets and music. In contemporary Pakistan, such resolve is the sine qua non for maintaining cultural life. “All power to the [Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop] for sticking to their guns . . . and not caving in,” blogged Pakistani journalist Sonya Rehman. “My heart swelled with pride. It seemed art and culture in Lahore was not yet ready to give in.”

It was Faizan’s second experience of such an attack that year. Some seven months earlier, in April 2008, the restaurant at Rafi Peer’s main offices was blown up, after their International Mystic Music Sufi Festival. The Peerzadas did not surrender then, either: “The next day we had a performance.” This persistence elicited more threats. “They said, ‘You still haven’t learned your lesson.’ I said, ‘Well, I think lessons have to be learned by you.’ ” Nor did the audience give up. “Did people come? Yeah. The restaurant was filled. Outside we had barbecue.” Sadly, despite the resolve of audiences and festival organizers alike, the following year’s 2009 World Performing Arts Festival was canceled due to lack of sponsors and the inability of the government to guarantee the event’s security.

The repeated armed incursions against Pakistani arts festivals are not incidental. Artistic expression poses an inherent challenge to fundamentalists because it offers the ultimate manifestation of the temporal and the heterodox. It embodies freedom of thought. Art suggests that mere human beings may also be Creators. As a result, in Muslim majority contexts many artists have faced profound risks for the content of their work, or simply for producing art whatever its content, but they have continued nonetheless.

Despite the fraught climate, the Rafi Peer company has tried to promote intercultural exchange and the celebration of diverse local art forms. From 1992 to 2008, they brought twenty-four thousand artists from eighty-six countries to perform for Pakistani audiences. This was no easy task. Even when their events are not in the bull’s-eye, they have also been drastically affected by other terror attacks. After the September 20, 2008, bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, eight hundred delegates fled the company’s Silver Jubilee festival. Nonetheless, the indefatigable promoter and his family simply will not give up.

If This Cartoon Was Seen By The Prophet, He Would Have Had A Laugh

Faizan Peerzada seems to derive some of the strength to function in this security environment from his spirituality, which is suffused with mystical Muslim traditions. He is inspired by a peaceful interpretation of “the concept of Jihad from Prophet Muhammad’s very important speech out of Mecca, when Mecca was won. There were men and women together receiving the Prophet.” This coed welcome was not the only thing today’s Islamists might not approve of. According to Faizan, it was accompanied by music and dance. “And then in celebration the body movement, and in celebration you’re able to clap. In celebration you’re able to play the duff, you can play nay,” he says, referencing respectively the percussion instrument and the reed flute played for centuries across a wide swath of South Asia and the Middle East.

When I Google the names of these instruments, I find that a range of self-proclaimed cyber-imams have condemned them. Muhajabah.com instructs readers that “learning to give up listening to music is very difficult. It is truly a jihad. You may not be able to go ‘cold turkey.’” Moreover, the singing that often goes along with the duff is only halal—the Muslim version of kosher—“if it is done in a halal setting.” People should not listen to these instruments, or sing or dance along with them, in mixed gatherings. There should be no alcohol or other haram behavior. (Haram means sinful, a notion wielded by fundamentalists everywhere.) Except for the alcohol, which is banned in Pakistan, Rafi Peer events defy all these pseudodiktats. What is life without a little haram behavior?

Meanwhile, a few weeks before I meet Faizan Peerzada in Lahore, the Muslim Salvation Organization posts the even-harder-line view of a Mufti Ebrahim Desai from www.ask-imam.com’s fatwa department who claims that “[t]he use of the drum as a musical instrument is expressly forbidden. . . .” Apparently percussion is not permissible but an online fatwa department is.

In any case, the kitschy prohibitions decreed by these Internet imams have nothing to do with how Faizan interprets or lives his Islam. Dancing right in his chair, and playing air duff and nay to illustrate his story, he recounts: “All these things were present at the fall of Mecca, when Prophet comes down from the camel.” From that moment in Islamic history, Faizan sketches a tolerant, humanist Islam. “The first thing the Prophet Muhammad says is, ‘The smaller jihad is over today. Now begins the biggest Jihad.’ To fight with yourself to be a good human being. Your neighbor on the right and left must eat before you, as simple as that.”

As I have heard so many others do, Faizan laments the way things have changed in Pakistan. “Today we are burning our own buildings, killing our own people over an issue of somebody who makes a caricature sitting in a cold country called Denmark.” Citing a Hadith in which the Prophet had been kind to a woman who regularly accosted him, Faizan claims that “if this cartoon was seen by Muhammad, he would have had a laugh. As simple as that.” I think about Faizan’s words again in the fall of 2012, when seventeen people are killed in Pakistan, mostly by riot police, during protests over the Innocence of Muslims.

In December 2010, despite quite a few institutions—including Faizan Peerzada’s daughter’s own school—backing out of the event, the Ninth Youth Performing Arts Festival I attend in Lahore includes music, films, open-air theatre, college bands, and even dance. On the schedule is the University of Management and Technology Drama Club performing “aur kitne Jalianwala Bagh” . . . a play about the 1919 Amritsar Massacre when, on the order of a certain General Dyer, British troops gunned down about a thousand people assembled for a Punjabi cultural festival. “General Dyer is present in every era in different roles in our society,” the program explains. From LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) comes a performance called “Raks e Bismil: The story of Samad.” The synopsis appeals to audiences to “come join Samad as he will sing for the morally wounded of our society and offer sanity to malignant fundamentalism.” There will even be music by a youth band gloriously known as the “Preaching Hypocrites.” All of this is completely free and open to the public, making the festival a truly democratic expression of culture—but also a security nightmare.

Unquestionably, safety remains the preeminent concern. Despite his mysticism and Sufi vibe, Faizan is harried. “This youth festival has been a very big test. Nobody wanted to go back with the Rafi Peer name to this place.” But the festival director is pleased with the measures that have been taken. “I think the police have done a wonderful job. They have provided three-layered security with seven brigades for seven days.” In 2010, that is what it takes for Pakistani children to perform a school play.

The Girls’ School Play In Muamar Gaddafy Stadium

That night, I go first to see “Naang Wal” (or The Knot), a musical in Punjabi. According to the program, the play’s subtitle is “Don’t tie your tail to a coward’s.” The junior school annual show features the girls of Lahore Grammar School, who play the male and female roles and even tread the boards as mice and water buffalo. A very small actress smiles at me from the wings. All I can think is, “How did she ever become a target?”

In a country where the Taliban have burned and bombed hundreds of girls’ schools since 2007, these schoolgirls dance and sing onstage with heads uncovered. The pupil with the lead role, whose braids hang down her back, ought to be a Bollywood star in ten years. Her movements are precise and free of the mannerisms of amateur theatre. Even with the drama surrounding the drama, she holds everyone’s attention. Each minute that passes without incident in the venue, every line recited, every note sung is a little victory. Leaning far forward in his seat, as if he could leap onto the stage at any moment should the need arise, Faizan Peerzada watches with a mix of animation, pride, and tension visible on his face.

When the music finally stops, the audience exhales. For tonight, children’s theatre is still possible. The girls themselves bask in a much-deserved curtain call. One has quickly covered her hair for the occasion. The mothers in shalwar kameezes and shawls, and a scattering of fathers, fill the two-tiered auditorium with the peaceful boom of their applause. Some weep. Though the bombers made headlines here two years ago, this night and these people are just as important a story.

Faizan, his gray hair freed from its ponytail, now comes up to congratulate the troupe in Urdu. “I would like to thank all the parents in Lahore who trusted us in these difficult times.” He tells them he will soon be bringing back his World Performing Arts Festival. Then he shakes hands with every one of the girls. This ordinary gesture quietly rebuffs those who seek absolute physical separation between men and women.

After the performance, Faizan invites me for tea with Nur. As we sit around a picnic table drinking from tiny plastic cups, he explains that the play is about “good over evil. The two animals being tied together by their tails makes the strong one who joins weaker.” Tonight, I realize, the tails have been untied. The strong are here, perched in the exact spot where a bomb went off two years ago. Little girls with ponytails and flashing-light sneakers eat cakes and, of course, potato chips. Faizan tells me that there used to be many tables set out, but he points out that people do not want to hang out “somewhere where something like this happened.” Undaunted, Nur tells me that she wants to act and direct like her dad.

We move to the venue’s outdoor amphitheater for a youth music show that is part of the same festival. The table of the event’s sponsor, The News, features a sign that says, “Fun and games to keep your spirits high and let the gloom die.” Security is tight here, too. On the way in, even Faizan is meticulously searched. The first band plays rock in Urdu. Their finale, the most resonant version of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” I have ever heard, reverberates in the Lahore night.

The whole audience—made up of mutually curious clumps of teenage boys and teenage girls—dances, chants, jumps. Thank God for the mixing of the sexes! A few mothers are in attendance to watch over them. The audience gives its biggest cheer to a woman who comes out to sing in an updated Hindustani style, with a very high, thin voice. She is not great, but she has guts. Everyone looks as though they need this evening like oxygen. When I leave, I come across an open drawing space covered with graffiti. Someone has scrawled two words: No fear.

We All Live In A Burqavaganza

As my stay in Pakistan continues, I find that Faizan Peerzada is not alone in running this art/security gauntlet. On my last morning in Lahore, on the way to the airport for my flight to Karachi, I stop to meet Madeeha Gauhar, director of Ajoka Theatre Company. The walls of her chilly office display posters for Ajoka’s shows, interspersed with a large collection of drums and masks from across South Asia. Madeeha herself wears a blue shalwar kameez, earrings, and a floral shawl. It is only eight in the morning, and even though she looks fatigued from a recent journey, she offers me tea and talks animatedly about her work.

For years, the director and her colleagues have been regularly performing plays that challenge fundamentalism head-on. While Rafi Peer laudably continues its events in the face of attack, it tends to avoid deliberately controversial subject matter. Ajoka, on the other hand, goes for the political jugular. It is a consciously provocative enterprise, what Madeeha calls “a theatre of resistance,” that originally took aim at the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s but now challenges nongovernmental fundamentalisms as well.

Their 2007 musical, “Burqavaganza,” written by Ajoka’s playwright Shahid Nadeem (also Madeeha’s husband), caused a sensation. She proudly tells me its subtitle: “A love story in the time of jihad.” I like her summary: “It’s about a young couple who want to meet and do things which young people want to do and they are prevented by a horde of burqa-wearing individuals, whether just representing society or the police or the moral brigade.” In fact, most of the cast members—male and female—appear in burqas throughout the performance, including during musical numbers. At the end, all these coverings are removed to reveal another set of masks. Despite then-President Pervez Musharraf’s policy of “enlightened moderation,” the play was almost immediately banned by the government due to complaints from women members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist political party. (The Pakistani satirist Omer Alvie labeled the response “Fanativaganza.”)

A bold, multidirectional work of art, “Burqavaganza” is critical at the same time of mullahs, social conservatism, terrorism, Al Qaeda, and of the policies of successive U.S. administrations toward Pakistan. There is even a nasty, four-handed character named Burqa bin Batin, leader of something called the Burqaida Organization. The list of characters describes him as a “larger-than-life dreaded leader of a terrorist outfit.” Presaging the real-world events of May 2011, bin Batin will be killed under mysterious circumstances in Scene 22.

Yet, somehow, the play still manages to be both touching and funny in places. In Scene 3, a caller to a religious TV program confesses he finds it difficult to control himself “at the sight of naked ankles.” The young couple, Khoobroo and Haseena, sit side by side in Burqa Park but must resort to texting their affection. Nevertheless, “Burqavaganza” concludes on a somber note with the execution of the couple, both of whom wear colorful burqas. They are condemned for loving each other under cover of these garments, charged “[w]ith being in love. With being beautiful. With being joyful.” They are lashed, stoned, then hanged onstage.

Still, on the early December morning in Lahore when I meet her, Madeeha keeps telling me that the play is “fun.” After all, it is a musical. Even when Khoobroo and Haseena have been killed in their burqas, there is still time for an upbeat coda, one last song performed by all the now-unveiled characters, who include George Bush, Tony Blair, and Musharraf. Its lyrics simultaneously lampoon and mourn the whole state of affairs: “We all live in a burqavaganza / Hidden under the burqa is a whole world // . . . Lift the veil and see the faces // . . . Your minds have been covered by these veils / You should be ashamed of your actions / Burqa can’t hide your shame // . . . We all live in a burqavaganza.”

At this point, the now-unveiled politicians tear off another layer of masks, revealing “a panel with faces of beautiful women, children, flowers. In the background the hanged coloured burqas remain in the spotlight. Curtain.” Ajoka debuted this play onstage in Pakistan in 2007, as political violence was on the rise and the Pakistani Taliban were emergent. About a month before the play’s premiere, Zil-e Huma Usman, the thirty-six-year-old Punjab minister for social welfare and an advocate of women’s rights, was shot in the head while speaking to women activists. She died on the operating table at Lahore General Hospital. Her murderer said the mother of two was not sufficiently covered up in her shalwar kameez. The real “Burqavaganza” was right there, just outside the theatre door.

Madeeha Gauhar dates its birth not only to Zia ul-Haq’s time as U.S.-backed resident dictator from 1977 to 1988, but all the way back to the very founding of the state in 1947. As she stresses between sips of her tea, “I very strongly believe—and we have questioned that in some of our productions—that if you create a state in the name of religion then these things are bound to come about sooner or later and it came about very soon in our case.”

Ajoka has also produced work whose political message, perhaps surprisingly, proved less controversial than that of “Burqavaganza.” One example is “Bulha,” first performed in spring 2001. A historical drama in the Punjabi language, this play tells the tale of Bulha Shah, the renowned Sufi mystic poet who struggled against the mullahs of the early eighteenth century and was declared a heretic. In the script, he sings,

Who am I, does anyone know?
In a mosque no worshipper
Nor a temple-frequenter. I am not pure, nor impure. . . .
What is good, what badness?
What is mirth, what sadness?

As Gauhar says, gazing at me intently, “Some of Bulha’s verses are actually blasphemous if you look at it in today’s context, where he questions the Sharia, where he not only questions but he openly rejects it.” These views spring from his Sufi mystic beliefs, which Madeeha summarizes: “Everything is between man and God. Bulha and all mystics believe that God is within you. So, it is the individual and your own consciousness.”

The play takes on current events in Pakistan, mirrored in Bulha Shah’s own freethinking life. Audiences watch him exiled for blasphemy. Mullahs beat his followers for eating carrots during Ramadan. A group of zealots assault them for singing a qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music that “is against Islam,” according to the decree of a religious teacher in the play. Sona, a young disciple of Bulha Shah’s who had been singing until the beatings began, rebuffs the zealots.

“Your fatwas do not apply here.”

Madeeha revels in the fact that even with this topical plot, “Bulha” is still one of Ajoka’s most popular works, proving that the spirit of freedom is alive and well among a significant constituency in Pakistan. Somehow, this play was not subject to the uproar that greeted the blistering “Burqavaganza.” Writing about the first production in the Friday Times in 2003, journalist Rina Saeed Khan exclaimed: “Bulha’s message is still powerful and even more relevant today—and his compassionate vision of Islam is exactly the kind that we should all be propagating in these troubled times. . . . I’ll say, give me Bulha over Bin Laden any day.”

In the play, a character who is being led away to face a death sentence asks, “Why aren’t there more like you, Bulha? If there are, why don’t they speak up and if they do, why can’t we hear them?” I realize I am meeting the Bulhas of today on this trip. Madeeha Gauhar is herself just such a figure, though she seems far too down-to-earth ever to make that claim. The Ajoka director tells me about yet another outspoken production, the teleplay called “Mujahid.” Despite its taboo subject matter, it was broadcast on P-TV, a government-owned channel with a vast viewership. “Mujahid” tells of a young boy who comes back to Pakistan from Afghanistan after the “jihad” in 2001 and shows how difficult it is for him to reintegrate into society. In the end, he blows himself up. The Ajoka Theatre Company seeks to explain, according to its website, the “extremist causes” and the “lack of hope for our youth” that make such unthinkable acts possible.

It took years to get the graphic “Mujahid” shown to the public. Even once it had been broadcast, the company’s travails were not over. “After that we got a lot of hate mail and SMS messages and banners put up on the road that were against us. The banners had my name and said, ‘You are a kafir and you are doing things against Islam.’” Madeeha knows all too well that being called a kafir, an unbeliever, can have dire consequences.

Given Ajoka’s rebellious repertoire, it is no surprise that their performances have also received bomb threats. So far, they have not been physically attacked, as happened to the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, but they face ongoing harassment and verbal assaults. Smiling, Madeeha tells me that stones are regularly thrown at the gate of their rehearsal space, because “there are bad activities going on and women coming in and there is music.” Notwithstanding the threats, the company refuses to cancel, or mute its message, because “that is what the fundamentalists want. They want this sort of thing to come to an end.”

When I ask why she personally continues, Madeeha replies, “It is basically a commitment to an idea and to a certain vision one has of the way one wants this country to be, which is that the only way we can really survive is if we bring in a sort of secular understanding of things. That is what makes us go on.” She is not alone. There are secular Pakistan Listservs, secular Pakistan Facebook pages, days, movements, institutes. Alongside them, Madeeha Gauhar battles for a better, freer future for her country, using only her talent and her theatre company. She fully understands that, as dancer Sheema Kirmani affirms in Karachi, “Now art is the only way we can fight fundamentalism.” In an era when so many successful performers in the West are busy hawking perfume, modeling designer frocks, or dancing with the stars, this is an entirely different vision of what it can mean to be an artist. But it is not a vision that is easy to realize.

Ajoka does not have its own theatre, and the troupe struggles to find the funding and space for its work. When I ask Madeeha what could be done to support people like her, she says, “Obviously financial support,” and she waxes hopeful about the possibility of constructing even a humble performance venue. The company does not sell tickets, and its shows are open to the public. This means the audiences are “surprisingly all sorts of people, from all classes. You have intellectuals, you have students, you have working-class people because we invite trade union organizations—a cross section of Pakistani society.”

Before I leave, she takes me out to see the yard where they rehearse and fills my arms with programs, scripts, and DVDs. My favorite is the poster from “Burqavaganza,” which features figures in burqas cut from diverse fabrics—from cloth of deep blue lapis lazuli and sultry crimson, from Pakistani and American flags. Even the Statue of Liberty wears a burqa, which covers her face but not her torch.

Alger Nooormal

Pakistan was not the only place where I met artists like Madeeha Gauhar and Faizan Peerzada battling jihadism. I met them all along the way, including in Algeria and in the Algerian diaspora. In 2008, when I went to interview Samia Benkherroubi and Aziz Smati in Paris, I was speechless at first, like the smitten young fan I once was. I had to restrain myself from asking for their autographs. Samia and Aziz were, respectively, the presenter and producer of my favorite Algerian TV show of all time, the marvelous “Bled Musique.” “Bled” is the Algerian version of the Arabic word balad—literally “country,” but its colloquial adaptation means “village” or “homeland.” As the title suggests, this show, born in 1989, was a kind of North African MTV. It carried Algerian youth music to a wide audience on the national station, ENTV. Everyone loved “Bled Musique.” The program used Algerian dialect, not the wooden, formal Arabic of ENTV. So this little show simultaneously revolutionized the music and lyrics considered ready for prime time.

I used to watch it in the living room in Dad’s old apartment in Algiers before he had to move out. I would check the TV program in Algérie Actualité to see when it would be on and then would refuse to make other plans that evening. Samia Benkherroubi was beautiful back when she graced the screen as a VJ. She still is when I meet her, with her wavy brown hair and angled face, wearing jeans and a striped shirt. But, as I get to know her, she turns out to be so much more than a pretty face. Today Samia is a committed feminist activist with a complex analysis of fundamentalism.

Aziz Smati is still a rock star, in a black vest and white poet’s shirt, and he graciously tells me what fundamentalism has meant in his work, and in his life, though he is clearly uncomfortable doing so. Samia explains later that he almost never tells his story. She first met Aziz when she auditioned for his show as an unknown college student and was surprised when she got the job without piston—what Algerians call connections. Today, she and Aziz finish each other’s sentences.

During the show’s heyday, which began in a late-eighties moment of political opening in Algeria, just as there was suddenly a plethora of new political parties and newspapers, there was also an explosion of local singers. Aziz tells me that, in addition to the well-known Algerian style of Raï music, a sort of North African hybrid hip-hop, “There was also rock in Arabic, rap in Arabic, house music in Arabic, all styles in Arabic, but on TV they only showed Middle Eastern-style music.”

Samia explains pervasive attitudes reflected in official TV restrictions at the time, and how they were challenged by the chanteurs of the day. “They sang love in a language that people understood. If you sing about love in classical Arabic—like Fairouz, Abdel Haleem, Warda. If you say, ‘ouhabak,’ I love you, it was fine. But, in colloquial, ‘enhabak, enmoutalak,’ I love you, I die for you, that was considered vulgar.” It certainly was deemed too raw for TV. “Bled Musique” challenged these barriers by playing the first Raï clips shown on ENTV.

The show’s creators and cast were inundated with fan mail. There was no Billboard chart in Algeria, so Samia asked the viewers to write in with their preferences, and they used those to rank the songs. It was a huge job. She would return to her dorm room with sacks of letters, getting her roommates to help her sort it all.

When I ask what their preferred tunes were, Samia instantly picks my all-time favorite: Hamid Baroudi’s haunting “Caravan to Baghdad,” a funky Algerian anti–Gulf War song from 1991. As she said, “We were enraged about what was happening in Iraq, and he expressed our anger. He stayed number one for a long time.” In those days, when Baroudi pleased the fans, I found being in Algeria a refreshing break from the anti-Arab racism I sometimes encountered in the United States. It was a relief to be somewhere where everyone was against that first Gulf War. In 2008, Samia and I try to remember the words of Baroudi’s hit, and she ends up singing a few bars. “Their cause has filled my eyes with tears. Nothing lasts, my God. . . .”

If you had told me in my early twenties while I was watching Bled Musique that I would someday be in the star’s living room, that she would sing “Caravan to Baghdad” just for me, I would not have believed it possible.

The Horror

That is not the only outcome I would not have believed possible at the beginning of the nineties. As the decade unfolded, as Bled Musique continued and was succeeded in 1993 by another Aziz-and-Samia music show called Rockrocky, things were taking a turn for the worse in Algeria. The post–October 1988 democratic opening had benefited Algerian fundamentalists, who prevailed in the 1990 municipal elections and began to implement their policies at the local level. No mixing of the sexes in public gatherings. No public dancing. No music at wedding ceremonies in public places.

So it was unsurprising that Aziz and Samia started receiving insulting letters. “Stop this show. You are against the Qur’an. Music is forbidden.” Samia especially remembered an obscene call that came to the studio attacking a Casbah-born woman singer named Hassiba Amrouche, a call she repeated with oral ellipses. “Why are you showing this ‘beep’? You’ll see what happens to you.”

Aziz situates Bled Musique in its era. “You can’t forget that this show came at the same time as the rise of fundamentalism. It was the time of the FIS—Front Islamique du Salut—who said music is forbidden, a sin, haram. Despite this, we continued.” The show’s crew were steadfast. They would not give in to the Islamic Salvation Front—the FIS. Samia recalls: “We were in the same mindset. The way to stay in Algeria and to continue fighting was to keep working. We didn’t listen to what they said.”

Ominously huge fundamentalist marches flooded the streets of Algiers at the time. Aziz described the participants: cohorts of bearded men in camouflage fatigues, including the so-called Afghans—Algerians who had returned from fighting in the U.S.-sponsored jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. “It was impressive to see them with their beards. They put on makeup even, black around their eyes, to make you afraid. It was at this time that we were doing this show talking about music while the fundamentalists were against music.” Because they offered young people different ways of being, those associated with the show became lightning rods for the fundamentalists, who insisted there was only one way. “They said, ‘One day your turn will come,’ ” Aziz remembers. “There were lists of people they would assassinate when they took power.”

I asked Samia and Aziz whether there was something inherently antifundamentalist about creating their programs in such an environment. “For us, making a show about music was completely normal,” Aziz answered. “There is nothing haram or illicit. Music has always existed in Algeria. Even our parents never said it was haram. Just because extraterrestrials come and tell you it is forbidden, I will not believe them. And I continued to do what I was doing.”

Meanwhile, it looked as though the FIS might prevail in the flawed 1991–92 parliamentary elections. Much of Algerian civil society called for those elections to be stopped, to prevent the rise to power of this totalitarian movement. On January 11, 1992, the military-backed government intervened to do just that. The fundamentalists, who had already been engaging in acts of violence, now escalated their jihad. “Then,” as Samia says, “it was an open war.”

The daily toll weighed heavily on her. “Every day we bought the papers and we saw who had been killed. Victims who were well known got them lots of media coverage. Then they attacked Mr. and Mrs. Everyone. Women for sure, if they had no veil. At first, they tried to justify—he’s a communist, he’s this, he’s that. Then they killed anyone, and anyone could be killed.”

She and Aziz tell me about the artists who came under fire from the fundamentalist armed groups. For them, these are not just the legendary names I recognize, but departed friends and colleagues. Rachid Baba Ahmed, the superstar producer from Tlemcen near the Moroccan border, had recorded many contemporary Algerian musicians, had released the Raï Rebels compilation albums that brought the music to an international audience, and had even worked with Bob Marley’s producer. He was gunned down on February 15, 1995. Aziz remembers, “He was full of life. They wanted to kill life, all that is beautiful, everything that represents life.”

I inquire about Cheb Hasni, the young working-class Raï singer who was assassinated on September 29, 1994. “He sang especially about love,” Aziz reflects. “He was loved by the youth. It was to make people afraid. ‘Everything you love we will kill.’ ” These killings were not incidental. This was part of an all-out jihad against music. “They came and gave a letter to all the music producers to say that now music is forbidden and you cannot sell it. They threatened the merchants who sold cassettes.”

Samia described the mechanics of the killings by the fundamentalist armed groups in her hometown, Blida, heart of the so-called Triangle of Death, the hardest hit zone of Algeria. “When I went home at the weekends, young people who were our neighbors suddenly had weapons. It gave them power. They didn’t have work or social status. Suddenly, one day they had beards and were respected because people respected religion. People didn’t know what it would bring. These young men could suddenly decide who would be killed.” There was one incident she would never leave behind her. “We had a neighbor who was assassinated at the end of 1993. Everyone heard him screaming when they came to get him, but no one went out. The next day they found his body, but not his head. They searched for his head for days and days. It was worse than you can imagine.” “Even American horror films couldn’t do things like this,” Aziz interjects. Talking over him, Samia assents: “It was horror, horror, horror.”

For all of Algeria, including Aziz and Samia, 1994 would turn out to be a life-changing year. The situation spiraled out of control in a crescendo of fundamentalist violence. In its often late and insufficient attempts to protect the population, the state responded with arbitrary arrests, torture, and disappearances. “It was hell,” according to Aziz.

Neither the TV producer nor his presenter had the means to take special security precautions. On Valentine’s Day 1994, a young man approached Aziz, then forty, on the street near his home as he waited for an early morning taxi to work. “Are you Aziz?” the boy asked. Assuming the kid to be a fan of his show, since he was regularly approached by teen viewers, Aziz said yes. But this young man was no fan.

He shot Aziz Smati four times, took the producer’s backpack, and ran, leaving him for dead.

I was in Algeria at the time and wept as I watched the evening news. So beloved was Bled Musique that even a young doctor at the Beni Messous Hospital, where Aziz was taken, wept outside the operating room. I cut Aziz’s photo out of the papers the next morning, still fearing that the producer would die. But, like Algeria itself, Aziz would not let the fundamentalists kill him. After a twelve-hour operation, he came back. As the newspaper Le Matin said on its front page in one of my old clippings, “Today, Samia and the Rockrocky team are not in mourning. Although the perpetrators of this attack and the supporters of fundamentalist terrorism might not like it, Aziz remains with us. To produce other shows, to strive for another culture.” But he would never walk again.

In 2008, when I ask him about what happened, Aziz speaks with characteristic humility: “I am just part of the 100,000 dead and I don’t know how many wounded.” I try to gently coax him to tell me more. “I received death letters. And they executed them,” he simply said. But then he continued: “So, I was the victim of an attack, which is why I am in a wheelchair. I was leaving my home. They wait for you. They know when you go out. They follow you and then when they are sure, they come to execute you.”

“How did you survive?”

Aziz repeats my question, thinking about it. “I don’t know. When I came to, the doctor said, ‘You helped us a lot because you were clinging to life.’” The producer explains why he fought so hard. “I still have things to say. It is too beautiful to leave. As long as they don’t touch my brain, I am still living.” He would spend one month in an Algerian hospital, then six months in a French hospital. As he thinks back on this time, a flash of darkness in Aziz’s eyes says it all. Then, shrugging, he smiles. “What do you want me to say? It could have been worse.”

Bled Musique’s creator has beaten those who sought to silence him. “Yes, I am not going to stay in a wheelchair doing nothing,” he asserts. “Otherwise, you have to throw yourself under a train. If I fought for life, it is not to do nothing afterward. It is to continue doing what I was doing.” He still directs videos, like the stylish and moving clip he made for a campaign against Algeria’s discriminatory family law by the women’s rights group 20 Ans Barakat (Twenty Years Is Enough!). Remaining defiant, Aziz Smati shows the women singers of “Ouech dek yal Qadi” (What’s gotten into you, Judge?) bare-armed in his video as they sing their denunciation of the law. Bareheaded women protesters sit in on the streets of Algiers, and Hassiba Boulmerka, Algeria’s gold-medal-winning runner, appears in the shorts that earned her death threats from the same fundamentalists who had taken aim at the video’s director.

In recent years, Smati collaborated on a multimedia book project about Algiers called “Alger Nooormal,” with Mohamed Ali Allalou, Samia’s husband, and the writer Mustapha Benfodil, both of whom I will meet farther down the road. Aziz compiled the soundtrack that accompanies the text. As he says, it is a CD “of the noises and songs of Algiers—young people who scream, chanting in stadiums, all mixed together.” I wonder how he was able to make these recordings. Algiers, with its hills and stairs, is not exactly wheelchair accessible. But he did it.

At the end of our long interview, Samia and Aziz try to explain the exact meaning in Algerian argot of “normal” from the book’s title—or, as they pronounce it, “Noooooormal.” “It is an Algerian expression. It means everything is okay.” It has ironic connotations, about learning to accept the unacceptable. Samia gives me an example.

“Aziz was a victim of an attack. It’s normal.”

Excerpted from “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism” by Karima Bennoune.  Copyright © 2013 by Karima Bennoune.  With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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