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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Alek Baylee Toumi

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To purchase Madah-Sartre

Title: Madah-Sartre
Author: Alek Baylee Toumi
Genre: Drama
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 122 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Madah-Sartre - US
Madah-Sartre - UK
Madah-Sartre - Canada
  • The Kidnapping, Trial, and Conver(sat/s)ion of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir
  • French title: Madah-Sartre
  • Translated by the author
  • With an Introduction by James D. Le Sueur

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing premise, but only partially effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Most of Madah-Sartre focusses on -- as the sub-title has it -- The Kidnapping, Trial, and Conver(sat/s)ion of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as Toumi has Sartre and Beauvoir return from heaven to attend the funeral of assassinated author and journalist Tahar Djaout in Algeria in 1993 and then get carjacked and kidnapped by the GIA (the radical Islamist Groupe Islamique Armé). Sartre, refusing to see the errors of his ways, is sent to a Doctor Madah, a "professional converter of atheists", and much of the play consists of the exchanges between these two characters. (Beauvoir, meanwhile, is kept with the women -- and also pressured to convert.)
       A secondary plot-line follows the travails of a taximan trying to bring medicine to his mother (and then trying to find medical help for himself) in the Algeria of that time, demonstrating what the civilians in this brutal and corrupt nation have to put up with and how difficult day to day life has become.
       Toumi begins the play with a warning, to focus on a distinction that is clearer in the original French, that:

The victims are Muslims, while the killers, the assassins, the terrorists are Islamists.
       The play focusses on the costs of 'Islamism' (as he means it) to this society -- and means to show how very misguided they are.
       Sartre is the perfect person to take on, because he is worse than a mere atheist: he is an intellectual (indeed, "the prototype" of one), and critical thinking of the sort practiced by intellectuals is not something Madah and his ilk can stand for. Still, Madah engages in discussion with Sartre, trying to convince him why he must convert. Needless, to say, Sartre gives better than he gets, and makes mincemeat out of most of Madah's 'arguments'.
       Toumi has the characters argue both in terms of ideal absolutes ("It is the will of God"), as well as real-world examples -- with Sartre undermining many of Madah's arguments by pointing out basic flaws, contradictions, and the high cost (to others) of putting this idealism into practice (and how it still allows for brutality and rape and other unconscionable outrages ...). Much of recent Algerian history (and French colonial and post-colonial involvement) is discussed, offering a fairly solid overview of the conditions that gave rise to the mess the country was in in the mid-1990s. (Footnotes also explain those incidents, groups, and individuals that foreign readers might not be familiar with.)
       It's hardly surprising that Toumi is clearly on the side of Sartre in these arguments, but having things so one-sided doesn't necessarily make for good drama. And by not giving Madah and his cohorts all the arguments at their disposal Toumi also undermines the overall effectiveness of the contest.
       Too often Madah's response is merely:
MADAH: (silent ... stunned)
MADAH: (silent)
       He doesn't have the answers to many of the questions and claims Toumi gives Sartre -- or rather: Toumi won't let him have the answers. One would expect more of a "professional converter of atheists", who's surely heard it all. And, indeed, the true believer's complete deference to an almighty (to explain and excuse all) would work just as well much more often here than Toumi allows Madah to fall back on it.
       There are also some unfortunate choices Toumi makes, most notably in giving dead Sartre first-hand experience of the great beyond:
SARTRE: I am an atheist, yet ... I do live in heaven.
       (Needless to say, Madah's response is a silent: "(stunned)".)
       Indeed, Sartre can report exactly what goes on there:
SARTRE: God pulled out my file, then SHE said ...
MADAH: (terrified) Ah ... She ... ???
SARTRE: Yes. She said here's all the good you did in your life. Here's all the evil. Well, the good things win by far over the bad things you did. Perhaps you were an atheist, but you were sincere. You see ? There are two criteria: the actions of an entire life and your sincerity.
       Toumi wants to have his cake and eat it too: not only are the Islamists wrong in their interpretation of God's will and wishes, he even has Sartre offer first-hand experience of God's actual will. This doesn't leave the god-fearing Islamists with much of a leg to stand on, and is the sort of overwhelming argument that makes everything else moot. Given the play's premise, it is a 'plausible' scenario -- but it's not much of a real-world answer to the Islamists. Indeed, it grounds the argument far more firmly in their favoured territory -- interpretation of what God wants -- than the terrestrial arena where Sartre's other arguments are far more powerful.
       Not only that: the Islamists may well claim to act with 'sincerity', too -- and thus find in Sartre's explanation an excuse for the "bad things" they do and did.
       Toumi does considerably better when he focusses on the Islamists' everyday abuses, and steers clearly of the theological. Toumi uses both Sartre's own biography (which includes supporting a very mixed bag of all sorts of causes) and the Islamists' actions in Algeria well. The French post-colonial legacy, as well as contemporary politics -- from the right wing in France to the Saudi influence in the Muslim world (and even American commentator "Lush Rambaugh" ...) -- are also addressed. All in all, however, it is a lot to pack into one drama, and much of the discussion could certainly bear more elaboration.
       Madah-Sartre is also a quick-paced and very varied play. Seven acts, a lot of action, song and dance routines, and considerable wordplay ('Islamism'-variations such as "Vichyslamism", a call for Simone de Beau-voir to become Simone de Beau-veil, Rushdie as "a dirty 'Sal-man'", etc.). Toumi tries a great deal, and not everything works -- and he can go overboard with some of what does.
       It's a very ambitious take on Algeria in the mid-1990s, and does offer some rewards because it does pack so much in (and some of the presentation is effective), but Toumi stacks the decks against Matah in a way that makes what would anyway be a very one-sided debate look almost unfair, somewhat diluting the power of the piece. Certainly of interest, but not entirely successful.

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Madah-Sartre: Other books by and involving Tahar Djaout and the situation in Algeria: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Algerian writer Alek Baylee Toumi was born in 1955. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

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