MARSEILLE — His slow, warm voice is that of a storyteller. The same is true of his hands, which accompany the poetic language with arabesque gestures. But Selman Reda isn't here to tell old wives' tales.
The script is his own creation, rather, a monologue called Ne laisse personne te voler les mots (Don't Let Anyone Steal The Words), which the actor from Marseille wrote and has performed more than 20 times since December in local theaters, middle schools and high schools.
The show addresses very contemporary themes, both sensitive and controversial — from the way the Koran is interpreted, to the excesses it can lead to. And hovering over the whole play is the question of how to be a Muslim in secular France, a country still traumatized by recent terror attacks.
On this day, Reda is performing before an audience of 14-year-olds at the Collège Louis-Pasteur in Marseille. In recent years, the middle school — located in the eastern part of the city — has welcomed students from the poorer northern neighborhoods. "Their parents are looking for a peaceful haven," says Lucile Plevin, a French teacher who organized the show. In her classrooms, Muslims and non-Muslims learn side by side. And so "the question of Islam is a primary concern," she says.
Reda, 40, was born in Morocco but has lived in France since he was four. Slim and with a shaved head and peaceful smile, he only recently focused on theater. Behind his soft flow, there's an imposing strength to Reda's words. Standing on a large table, the actor plays his own father, acting out the day he kicked Reda out of his house. "You don't want to be a good Muslim. You're not my son," he says. Reda was just 16 at the time and wondered, "What kind of god asks a father to kick out his own son?"
In front of the students he tells the story of his father, a Moroccan worker who came to work in the vineyards of the south of France. At home, his father imposed rigid religious practice and limited young Reda's freedoms. "He told me: You don't have to know 'how' or 'why.' You must follow the rules of Islam."
He recalls a man who would beat him whenever he'd hold his glass with the wrong hand — the hand of the Sheitan — and who forbade him to listen to music or have non-Muslim friends. "The important thing is to make students understand that we can practice religion as we see fit," Reda insists.
Michel André is the founder of the Marseille City Theater and directs the show. He says Reda's story "resonates with teenagers" because he shares his experiences from when he was their age. "The connection is immediate, whether Muslim or not," André says.
This cathartic one-man show is mostly based on the actor's personal story. But what really triggered the writing process was Reda's meeting with Islamic scholar Rachid Benzine, in 2015. Benzine emphasized that the Koran is a 15-century-old text, a transcription of an oral message that was developed in a specific context and needs to be delved into to better understand.
Benzine offered certain insights that the actor, by integrating video clips of their conversation, shares in his show. He also gives out an educational booklet as part of the performance. "After the terror attacks, I felt a personal responsibility for my community, a need to speak to a young audience," Reda explains. "I did not want to be overly theatrical. I wanted to stick with a documented, educational approach."
How can we set someone free if we've just killed them?
But when he faces the students, the actor is still very much an actor, turning his stage into a desert, evoking the tribes of the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the quest for water, the rules of the raids. "The violence of the Koran is not a Muslim violence, it is the tribal violence of the Arabian peninsula in the sixth century," he says.
One by one, Reda analyzes the words that impact our daily lives. He traces their etymology and examines their connotations. "The Koran has become opaque for us, but for the people of the time, it was very clear," he says.
Reda speaks Arabic perfectly. Kafir, which is usually translated as "unfaithful," thus gets readjusted to "one who does not believe in signs" or even "the farmer." He defines Sharia as "the path to the source." As for the use of the "sword," from an excerpt from the Koran often used by the Islamic State (ISIS) to justify its atrocities, Reda considers it a false interpretation. His alternate reading leaves the teenagers speechless: "The Lebanese edition says: 'Kill the accomplices ... If they then repent, let them go ...' Nothing shocks you, here? How can we set someone free if we've just killed them?"
By highlighting such paradoxes, Reda shows how obviously erroneous the translation is. During the debate that follows the show, he responds calmly to students, owning up to his faith in God, assuring them he is "not here to say what to believe or not."
"I haven't had any negative reactions yet, though one time a student asked me if I'd bought my Koran second-hand," he says with a smile.
Amber, 14, who, like her friends Chirine and Yasmine, regularly goes to a mosque. "I'm more comfortable talking about the Koran with him than with someone who is not Muslim," she said afterwards. "I listened and I learned.” Earlier, Amber had claimed that she "would be better off in a Muslim country to practice her religion," to which Reda kindly but firmly responded, "What greater freedom would you have there than right here?"