The Tempest Society1 is inspired by the forgotten story of the agitprop theater group Al-Assifa (“The Tempest” in Arabic), active in Paris from 1973 to 1978. The group was composed of North African factory workers, members of the Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (MTA, Movement of Arab Workers), and French students supporting their cause. The MTA was originally created in the aftermath of May 1968, focusing on North African workers in France, in order to raise awareness of the living and working conditions of immigrant workers. The first initiative of Al-Assifa was a weekly newspaper, distributed in Arab cafés in Paris, that addressed issues pertaining to the condition of immigrants. But the high percentage of illiteracy among the North African working class in France led the group to change their strategy and develop a “theatrical newspaper,” engaging workers through plays and oral storytelling.
The theatrical performances staged by Al-Assifa took the form of fragmentary pieces, developed from conversations and improvisations, such as their first play, Ça travaille, ça travaille, et ça ferme sa gueule (Work, Work, and Shut Your Mouth). A combination of short sketches, the performances restaged situations of oppression: the factory, the assembly lines, housing conditions, illiteracy, racism, and so on. Performed in factories on strike and in public spaces, Al-Assifa's performances were subject to comments and public debate with the audience, reactivating the “Al Halqa”2 tradition—the most ancient form of public performance in Morocco—in which the audience is an active part of the storytelling, turning the public space into a collective performative civic platform.
Al-Assifa toured for six years, raising support among immigrant communities and solidarity among artists and intellectuals such as Peter Brook, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. The group eventually broke up, eroded by internal tensions essentially linked to artistic and strategic orientations: “Are we a group of activists or a group of artists?”
The Tempest Society takes as a starting point this forgotten part of immigrants' struggle for equal rights, displacing it in time and geography to better investigate its current relevance. Neither a documentary nor fiction, but a hypothesis, The Tempest Society follows three individuals from different backgrounds—Isavella, Elias, and Giannis—that form a theater group by the same name in present-day Athens. They gather in a former warehouse turned into a theatrical space, to examine the current state of Greece, Europe, and the Mediterranean area, turning the theater stage into a civic space. Taking inspiration from Al-Assifa and reactivating its methodology, the members of the Tempest Society and their guests examine, stage, and perform their own stories of oppression and resistance.
On the stage, Ghani, a spokesperson for a group of three hundred undocumented workers that, in 2011, held a collective hunger strike in Athens and Thessaloniki around demands for equal rights at work, recalls the strategies developed by his group to conduct the struggle as well as the organization of solidarity. Katarina, an Athens-born young, still-undocumented Ghanaian, elaborates on racism and stateless citizenship. Elias reflects on his position as an Afro-Greek. Malek, a young Syrian refugee who worked in Athens with a group of Syrian children, tells how they engaged with theater in order to turn “sadness into beauty.” Gazmend Kapplani, an Athens-based Albanian novelist, physically absent but present through his writing, meditates on Europe’s refusal of its essential cosmopolitism. Brought together, those multiple positions eventually articulate a call for a new collective to come into being.
Excerpt from “Calling the Ghosts: A Conversation between Bouchra Khalili and Omar Berrada,” published in The Tempest Society (London: Book Works, 2019). 202 pages.
Following The Tempest Society (2017), the original video installation commissioned for documenta 14, which took Athens as a site to reflect on radical equality, democracy, and theater as a civic space, the book brings to light the specific history, the archive, and the ongoing resonance of the agitprop theatre group Al-Assifa in the context of urgent economic, political, and humanitarian upheaval. With contributions from Abdellali Hajjat, Hendrik Folkerts, Pothiti Hantzaroula, and interviews with Philippe Tancelin, surviving members of Al-Assifa, Bouchra Khalili, Omar Berrada, and Alexandre Kauffmann, and Isavella Alopoudi, Elias Kiama Tzogonas, and Giannis Sotiriou, the performers in The Tempest Society.
Omar: How did you first come across Al-Assifa? What personal relationship do you, Moroccan-born whose parents immigrated to France, have with this particular story and its legacy?
Bouchra: To answer your question, I need to give a sense of context. I have inherited a double history: the history of anticolonial struggle and the history of immigration. My mother was born the very week that negotiations for the independence of Morocco began. My father was born colonized, six years earlier. Both belong to a generation that hoped that in formerly colonized countries independence would be followed by progressive regimes. You and I were both born at a time when that hope was already shattered. What remained were the stories. And that's how I first heard of the MTA.
Years later, for whatever reason, but it must have been a good one—maybe a resonance with a current context—I remembered the story of the MTA. I started to look at it more in depth. And that's how I realized that not only was it the first autonomously organized group of North African workers in France, but its members created the first theater troupe that brought together North African workers and French students. What immediately interested me with Al-Assifa was its perspective on art coming from immigrant workers, who identified primarily as activists but who nevertheless were rethinking art as a space for the civic, as a platform from which belonging was freed from nationalism in favor of radical solidarity and radical equality.
Omar: The Tempest Society seems to me, in part, an exercise in resurrecting a political moment along with some of its protagonists, like Mokhtar Bachiri—a resurrection that relies on what I would call a “complex evocation,” involving photographic documentation, a montage of narratives, the enfleshment of history into bodies and voices, and a certain reflexivity in the telling. Do you see this as a work of history? Of testimony? Of critique? Of translation? Do you feel any kind of “responsibility” to tell this story?
Bouchra: I don't know if I can call it a resurrection, unless I literally follow Godard's motto: “Cinema authorized Orpheus to look back without causing Eurydice's death.”3 In Histoire(s) du Cinéma, he also stated—quoting Saint Paul—that “the image will come at the time of the resurrection.” But an image in wait for a resurrection is an image in latency. It is the resurrection that allows it to become a representation. My task is simpler and much more modest. It starts from the awareness that the whole story cannot be reconstituted. It is lost. This is a matter of fact. So the question becomes: what can we do with what remains? If you remember the ending of my Foreign Office,4 Inès says “we have inherited only disenchantment and history in pieces.” Therefore the question is: how do we combine those fragments, not in order to tell the whole story but to bring together what can be shared—knowing and acknowledging that there are missing parts? And how can we share it? In the same film, Inès quotes Kateb Yacine speaking about the French language as the spoils of war. But images, traces, sounds, stories in pieces can also be seen as spoils of war, so how do we bring all the fragments together? How can we turn them into one food basket that belongs to everyone and that can be shared by all? That's what an image is for me: a combination of fragments that can circulate among the ones in need of the missing image. It won't replace the whole image, but it can help figure out what can be said about it.
Digital film, commissioned for documenta 14. 2017. 60 minutes.
Transliteration from formal to colloquial Arabic is in keeping with the Maghrebi dialects used in Al-Assifa’s performances.
Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du cinéma, chapter 2: “Seul le cinéma,” 1997. Godard suggests a definition of cinema as an art of resurrection. He subtly refers to Orphée, the film by Jean Cocteau that differs from the original Greek tale, as Eurydice is resurrected by “death,” portrayed by Maria Casarès. The film inspired many filmmakers, including Chris Marker and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office (2015), mixed media: digital film, 15 photographs, 1 silkscreen print.