Photo credit: Kais Ben Farhat

Two strangers awake with a start, finding themselves in an unfamiliar place. Frightened, they interrogate one another and explore their strange surroundings. Little by little, Samira and Raouf understand that they are no longer on earth and are being held captive and observed by aliens. Trapped inside their human cage, they finally realize—amidst jolts of electricity when they fight, portions of food and water when they show signs of intimacy—that their only chance of survival is to procreate.

Actors Moncef Zahrouni and Amina Ben Doua are Raouf and Samira, the protagonists of Our Friends the Humans (Nos amis les humains), translated into Tunisian dialect and adapted from the book by Bernard Werber. April 25 and 26, Zahrouni and Ben Doua performed the play, with acting direction and technical support from Walid Hassir and Sabri Atrous, at El Teatro in Tunis.

Photo Credit: Nawaat

Zahrouni, who first read the book as an adolescent, explains that the story’s « very long dialogue » does not necessarily translate into a captivating stage performance. In contrast with previous film and theater adaptations of Werber’s work, « we wanted to make a real science fiction play, » Zahrouni explains, adding that science fiction is uncommon in Tunisian theater. Inspired by the contents of the Golden Record which was cast off into space on NASA’s Voyager expeditions in 1977, the team created a technological composition of sound, light, and images projected onto the stage to achieve an other worldly setting: a human cage floating amidst planets and starfields, in a galaxy far beyond the milky way.

Sitting in the dressing room after the show, Zahrouni and Ben Doua laugh at how opposite their personalities are, both off and onstage. Each one is so like the character he/she plays—except that Raouf and Samira are like oil and water. Zahrouni sums up their differences: « She is a believer, I’m not, she’s very romantic, I’m not, or I have my own way, my own interpretation of romance. I overanalyze, talking about pheromones and hormones… No, » he says, assuming the voice of Raouf, « you just like that guy because you smelled his pheromones, you have some kind of compatibility in your molecules… » It is Raouf, the misanthropic scientist who finally deduces and almost immediately accepts, with no small amount of triumph, the momentous historical moment that they are living. Turning to face the audience—which has unwittingly assumed the role of the aliens—he formally greets his invisible captors and introduces himself as ambassador of humankind.

Photo Credit: Kais Ben Farhat

Samira, on the other hand, the cabaret dancer who has been singing, dancing, posing before imagined cameras, does not hide her disappointment that she and Raouf are not in fact on the set of a reality television show. Standing squarely before who she had presumed to be simple spectators, she takes her turn addressing the aliens: « Do you know how to cook molokhiya? Do you know how to make harissa? sahn tounsi? leblabi? fricasé? No?! Ok so do you know how to achieve a coup d’Etat without shedding so much as a drop of blood? Do you know how to undertake a Jasmine revolution? You see, they don’t dare respond because they know they are inferior! »

Many of the play’s jokes are unequivocally Tunisian. Asked about the process of transforming the book’s protagonists into Samira and Raouf, Ben Doua, in reality a radio and television personality, responds that she had not even read the book when Zahrouni handed her his initial translation. « When Moncef presented me with the first draft, we had to be able to adapt it ourselves in the characters. Samira had to be a Tunisian woman, a cabaret singer but a pious woman in order to develop on different themes that concern Tunisia—faith, religion, freedom, women’s rights. »

The actors underline the particular importance attached to women in the play. To illustrate, Zahrouni points out the figures represented on the play’s poster, the same nude man and women depicted on NASA’s Golden Record. Only on the poster, the woman has been modified, her head—originally turned towards the man—rotated forward, and her genitals drawn in.

Referring to the exaggerated, affected air that Samira puts on before she realizes that her audience is not who she had imagined, Zahrouni describes how the character’s « body language and visual expressions are a part of our culture … She is seduced by the world of pop music and celebrity, » he continues, and « even though we’re sinking into the globalization of pop culture, a Tunisian popstar moves in a different way…she’s still got a different body. » He describes these movements and expressions as code filled with cues and meaning for a Tunisian audience, whereas French or Americans for instance might have an entirely different interpretation of the role.

Photo Credit: Nawaat

And the team does indeed plan to take the play abroad. Although there are a few possibilites, they have yet to decide where. « Even if we are addressing subjects of taboo and realities here, others might be interested to discover the concerns, problems and limits of Tunisian society, » reflects Ben Doua. What’s more, the play retains the book’s fundamentally universal element: « These two humans… two people who find themselves in a tragic situation: taken by aliens, lost in space, trapped in a cage…how will they react? what are the problems and questions to which they must find answers? » Pulling the audience between comedy and drama, caricature and suspense, Our Friends the Humans invites us to reflect on our societies, our world and ourselves.