Jewish comedian withstands boycott calls in his native Tunisia
Tunis - “A performance of shame,” shouted some 50 protesters outside the tightly guarded Carthage Museum. “Tunisia for all,” others retorted in support of the event’s host, Tunisian-born French comedian Michel Boujenah.
Boujenah, one of the thousands of native Tunisians with Jewish origins, became a controversial figure in his homeland after making statements in support of Israel. When it was announced that Boujenah would perform at the International Festival of Carthage this year, the event drew an unprecedented level of controversy and many called for it to be boycotted.
The show, titled “Ma vie Rêvée” (“My Dream Life”), ended up selling out, with many Tunisians rallying around the comedian’s right to express himself freely. Despite the presence of protesters outside the venue, Boujenah’s performance July 19 proceeded with few disturbances.
“I love you,” Boujenah said to the crowd near the end of his performance. “Tunisia is a small country without oil resources but it is a big nation with its people.”
Centred on the idea of “imagined life,” much of Boujenah’s performance focused on his childhood in Tunisia. He reminisced about the honey pies of La Goulette, Tunisia’s warm sun and his pleasant memories of Kheireddine. Boujenah’s jokes filled the room with laughter but also conveyed a message of love and peace.
“I do not want to die. I do not like what happened at the Bataclan and what happened on the beach in Sousse,” Boujenah said. “I love peace. I love to laugh with everyone and at all things. I do not want to leave the stage. I love Tunisia from all my heart and I come here to look for the little Michel who lived in this country, in La Goulette and in Gammarth.”
More than 600 people attended the show. Some introduced themselves to The Arab Weekly as devoted fans of the stand-up comic. Others said they came to honour Boujenah and show their solidarity.
Not everything was peaceful and heartening. Regardless of the attendees’ intentions, they were subjected to a barrage of insults from dozens of angry protesters outside the venue.
“Zionists! Traitors,” demonstrators shouted as police tried to keep them at a distance.
The protest was expected. Since it was announced that Boujenah would perform at the festival, several Tunisian forces united and called for its cancellation. Among those calling for Boujenah’s performance to be cancelled were the Tunisian General Labour Union, various political parties and civil society groups.
Jilani Hammami, a deputy of the leftist Popular Front alliance argued that Boujenah’s performance was “a concealed attempt to normalise ties with Israel. Despite being of Tunisian origin, Michel Boujenah is known for his support of Israeli practices against Palestinians.”
Even the centrist liberal Republican Party ( Al-Hizb Al-Jumhuri) issued a statement calling on the Ministry of Culture to cancel the show.
“Neither the Tunisian origin of Boujenah, nor his Jewish faith can induce us into tolerating his support for the Israeli occupation and the crimes committed against the Palestinian people,” the statement said.
Boujenah, who is not a citizen of Israel, has often expressed support for the Jewish state.
During a 2009 interview, he said: “We diaspora Jews have no qualms about declaring our admiration for Israel. A justified admiration, as the people to whom I belong want peace more than anything.”
Such comments were enough to mobilise a protest July 13 in front of Tunisia’s Ministry of Culture. A second protest took place in Carthage the day of the performance, July 19.
The boycott campaign was not without its critics, however. Prominent politicians, academics and cultural figures called on the public to separate the artist’s political views from the art he presents to the world. Some said Boujenah ought to be officially honoured in his native country, which he has always defended and promoted.
The Tunisian Ministry of Culture steered clear of the controversy, leaving Tunisians to decide for themselves whether to attend the show. The Court of First Instance in Tunis rejected a motion to enforce a cancellation of the show.
“The programming of the show is a decision issued by an administrative body at the Ministry of Culture. The judicial authorities are not entitled to annul administrative decisions nor to impede the work of the administration and the continuity of public services,” said Sofiene Sliti, spokesman for the Tunis Court of First Instance.
In a statement to the media on July 19, Boujenah reiterated his unconditional love for his native country.
“The first time I played in Tunisia was in 1980 at the open-air theatre at the Belvedere,” he said. “I have a lot of admiration for the Tunisian people.”
The show was attended by prominent figures and celebrities, including French Ambassador to Tunisia Olivier Poivre-d’Arvor; René Trabelsi, a Tunisian businessman of Jewish faith; Tunisian actor Lotfi Abdelli; and film-maker Ibrahim Letaief.
“It is a nice show that was quite stirring, especially towards the end. Democracy gives everyone the right to come here and express himself,” said Letaief.
There have been growing calls to boycott or ban works by Jewish or Israeli artists in Tunisia in recent years. On July 14, the summer blockbuster film “Wonder Woman” was banned in Tunisian cinemas because of the background of its lead actress, Gal Gadot, who served in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
In 2014, Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French Jewish philosopher and vocal supporter of Israel, was met at the Carthage International Airport by protesters who shouted: “No to the Zionist power in Tunisia.”