French Moroccan author and director Mohamed El Khatib
French Moroccan author and director Mohamed El Khatib Zirlib Collective

Amid all the spectacle and exhibition of TBA, the description of French Moroccan author and director Mohamed El Khatib’s performance stood out to me for its dry simplicity. The promotional material made no mention of stagecraft or costumes or frenetic display. This was a lecture-performance involving family history and a variety of documents. My inner archivist urged me on.

In Finir en beauté, El Khatib uses administrative documents, notes, emails, texts, fiction, and nonfiction, to discuss his mother’s death, and through this story, to examine the way we grieve and how we remember. The story of a parent’s death is as common as it is bewildering, and El Khatib's tale will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time bedside with a loved one who is terminally ill. His mother's death from liver disease is not extraordinary, but El Khatib’s observation and gift for narrative allows him to tease out the subtle particularities of his experience—both the absurdly humorous and heartbreakingly tragic—to deeply moving effect. ("In the particular lies the universal.")

The props and production details were kept minimal: The stage at the Lincoln Hall Boiler Room Theatre at PSU was simply arranged with a television, a black wall onto which translations of El Khatib's talk (conducted in French) were projected, and a small table on which sat a video camera, some prayer beads, notebooks, and papers. El Khatib arrived onstage and began with an understated "Bonsoir." When the audience responded, he joked that if everyone spoke French, he could forego the English captions behind him.

El Khatib quickly proved to be a skilled orator, engaging the audience with diverting anecdotes, as if we were all friends meeting for drinks to catch up. Details and stories began to aggregate: his mother's amusing and vague description of what El Khatib does for a living, the difficulties of translating words like hepatic from French into Arabic, the family's serious discussion about putting cans under the legs of the hospital bed to help move their mother's blood, the decision as to which sibling should donate a piece of their liver, the plans El Khatib's parents have made to repatriate their bodies to Morocco after their deaths, the absurdities of national bureaucratic systems, and dates. El Khatib repeats dates again and again throughout: Time imprints on you, he says. And yet, he tells how his mother claimed to have been born in 1371, after Hejira, and how she had earlier refused a liver transplant because the necessary hospital stay of ten days was too long when she had a young son (El Khatib) at home. He was 16 at that time—a fact that is funny, and tragic, as well as culturally and emotionally complicated.

The narrative often explores the simultaneously terrible and amusing way in which, while his mother’s death was unfolding, everyday life around El Khatib continued on: He was away on an island when death came for his mother, he receives a condolence email at the end of which is a request that he help with some choreography, soup bowls needed after the funeral go missing. It is always in objects that sadness takes refuge, he tells us. His grief does and does not register on the world around him, even as that world imprints deeply on him.

He recalls the misguided attempts of others to make him feel better. He recalls feeling that although everyone was nice to him, he felt lonely. The piece concludes with a powerful evocation of grief in the face of the profane mundanity of life when he describes discovering at the funeral that the Imam was praying with one hand and texting with the other. What begins as another humorous anecdote in the story of losing his mother becomes suddenly tragic and appalling. Almost palpable shockwaves of empathy reverberated among the crowd for El Khatib as he stood from the kneeling gesture he'd assumed while dramatizing the moment of discovery at his mother's graveside. He looks at the projected photograph showing his mother when she is young and healthy, and he runs off stage.

This piece exemplified so much of what I love about TBA: unexpected, fresh, and boldly exploring art that crosses genre and media boundaries.

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