An evening with Dieudonne

Last night I, while on a trip to Paris, I entered the pit of the enemy – the small theatre, located in a mixed Mizrachi and North African Muslim neighbourhood, where Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, lately infamous in the Jewish community for his invention of the Quenelle salute, performs the “comedy routine” that has made him internationally well-known and drawn the ire of the French state and Jewish communities worldwide. I agonized over the decision to buy a ticket and give that man some money, but decided, at the end of the day, that it was important for someone Jewish, and someone Zionist, to see for himself what was going on in his theatre, and to see it in the context of the local atmosphere which watching his videos on the web would, by definition, lack. And the trip was not unfruitful.

At the very beginning of the show, mocking those who call him a “Neo-Nazi” (and ironically warning the audience to stop laughing, or they will be marked with the taint of Nazism as well), Dieudonne asked himself a rhetorical question: What does it mean, anyway, to be a Nazi in the 21st Century?

His style actually answers that question more than Dieudonne might think. First, the atmosphere: the door is guarded by two black men, one wearing a Black Panther T-shirt and the other in the type of Tuxedo and bow tie normally associated in the United States with the Nation of Islam: but this being France, and the door guard certainly not an NOI member, his suit is lavender, not black, and the bow tie a slightly lighter shade of Lavender as well: while incorporating the power and intimidation factor of the NOI outfit, this guard adds something new: a whimsical style. The inside of the theatre is decorated in faux urban spray-paint, and afro-funk music is playing, the line to get in is cramped, and the whole atmosphere is redolent of Fela Kuti, the famous anti-establishment Nigerian musician now celebrated on Broadway. Kuti’s agenda, though, while against the establishment, was for a humanist world in which people could connect with each other on what Kuti felt was a more authentic, precorporate level — Kuti knew exactly what he wanted, not only what he was against. And Dieudonne certainly isn’t taking the real risks Kuti took when facing off the Nigerian regime: there is a difference, after all between mocking a dictatorial regime to its face, and annoying the French Government, whose sanctions are limited to ordering the comedian to cut off a line or two of his act, or making a bitter statement or two about him in the local press.

The audience, surprisingly for me, was mainly white: one woman in a Hijab sat with her boyfriend in the back, and a number of people sitting around me appeared as though they could be North African, but as far as I could tell, the overwhelming majority of the spectators were young, some in couples and some in groups of three or more men, well dressed, and very European in appearance: one can never be sure in assuming these things, but the atmosphere was certainly not the angry young men of the Banlieu the press had led me to expect it was: and at Forty-five Euro a ticket, it certainly would be out of budget for a typical poor resident of Paris’ impoverished suburbs. These were urbanites, out for an evening of mockery and good times. The bar, ostentatiously, offered Halal meat, but alcohol as well: and other than some more false spray-paint pretending to support Hezbollah, there were no references to Israel, Islam, Palestine, or Zionism in the act I saw.

The whole place reeked of an desperate attempt to build authenticity without being authentic: perhaps, were I not Jewish, I would almost feel bad about robbing these people of their anti-Semitism, which, other than a directionless hatred of an ill defined establishment, seemed like the only value the audience shared in common. What seemed to feed his act the most was the half hearted attempt of the government to shut him down: alternately clown and victim, the crowd cheered when he brought up the “Shoahananas” his trademark mixing of the word Shoah with the French word for Pineapple in an attempt to cover the Holocaust in sardonic mockery. Since he has been forbidden, I believe, from using that word in a more public forum than the confines of his small theatre,  the shop in the foyer sells t-shirts with a burning pineapple: a pun on the way shoannanas sounds in French, where it can be easily confused with the words “Chaud ananas” hot pineapple. Throughout the show, he played with the limits of what he was and wasn’t allowed to say, pretending to be a Jewish critic while playing Hava Nagilah, denying being anti-semitic while making clearly anti-semitic statements, making it clear that he wasn’t an anti-semite yet but was reserving his opinion on the matter, and getting a great reaction from the crowd: the closer he came to the edge, the more they loved it.

But there was no content to this anti-semtism: other than some cheap shots about Jews not showing up because they didn’t want to pay the 45 Euro for the ticket, and other than the mocking juxtaposition of the Holocaust with a Pinneaple, the whole performance had no meaning: not evening a meaning developed through irony, since it was never clear exactly what it was about what he was mocking that disturbed him. Even his impersonation of his Jewish critic began with his solemn invocation that “he who laughs last laughs best” followed by the words “Blah blah blah blah blah”. There is nothing the Jews actually have to say that Dieudonne thinks it’s important to combat, or even to hear.

His take on the Nazi salute, the Quenelle has the same lack of coherence: with the left hand to the right arm, and the right arm downward, the Quenelle is clearly a sort of photocopied negative of the Heil Hitler salute, but in the case of the Nazis one knew clearly what that salute meant, who one was supporting and what one believed in: although Dieudonne made, during his performance of his show, the Quenelle salute, many times, always to the delight of the audience, never once did he try to qualify the meaning of this salute: he made the salute in the context of what he felt as his and his supporters right to make it, which, together with his deprecatory comments about Jews, Gays, and the French elites, all mixed together in a fuzzy performance that entirely represented the hollowing out of the values of other people, without any understanding of what might or should replace them. This is why he and his audience can both be anti-Semitic and at the same time present themselves as fighting for the great liberal values, and why 250 people, steeped in hatred, can go, instead of to a rally where books are burned, to a small urban theatre where they think they are having a good time, whose audience appears indistinguishable, at first glance, from that of a New York stand up club. In mocking the Shoah, the people in the audience think they are mocking everything they believe they are told to think and feel, and can therefore indulge in passionate and cathartic hatred without an ideology or plan.

The 21st century Nazi, to answer Dieudonne’s question, is a Nazi without the Fuhrer, without the belief in Aryan supremacy, without a belief in anything, in fact, except that the world is organized to frustrate his desires, and therefore, since he hates the same things the fascists hated – the comfortable life of the middle classes – even his own comfortable life – political freedom and economic development – but does not love the things the Nazis loved, he can be French, Cameroonian, or even Jewish – as seen by Gilad Atzmon’s latest article where he supports practically everything Dieudonne says. The 21st century Nazis almost raises his hand in a Heil Hitler salute, but not quite: he hides his hatred in ambiguous symbols that are constructed to be able to mean whatever the 21st century Nazi says they mean, whether he find it convenient to operate in the register of being merely anti-establishment, merely anti-Zionist, or openly anti-Semitic.

The Quenelle, the fake graffiti, the Holocaust Pineapple, the support of Hezbollah (which I doubt 80% of the audience knew anything about), and the “I stick it in your eye” attitude, all from the safety of the 11th Arrondisement,  all point to this general desire which underlies the latest casual forms of anti-Semitism: why or what we hate is unimportant, and we are ready to mix the icons of resistance with our own total lack of any meaning to create a feeling that we are against something, but never letting you know what: except that it has something to do with Jews, always useful for the purpose. The image that keeps returning to me is the bald door-guard in the Lavender Nation of Islam costume: he’ll evoke the Nation of Islam but the Lavender colour of his bow tie and suit lets you know that he certainly doesn’t believe that Elijah Mohammed is the messenger of God…

What’s behind all this? That’s a difficult question to answer. Dieudonne himself gave me the subject for a hypothesis in the one part of the show that had nothing to do with racism and hatred: he himself played the straight man in this bit, arguing with his wife that the GPS system in his car was piloted by an internal pivot and mocking her idea that it could be connected to a satellite system: “Are you really telling me”, he asks his wife in the skit, “that this crappy 120 Euro machine can command a satellite”? This is the language of the excluded, the language of the people left out of society, people who can not bring themselves to believe that something as expensive and essential as a satellite can be working for their benefit: someone like Ras the Destroyer, the character in Ellison’s Invisible Man, who, drowned out by an airplane when giving a nationalist speech on a Harlem street corner, curses it bitterly and swears that one of these days, blacks will have their own airplanes too: but while Ras had good reasons to be embittered, and while he was really excluded from American society, and the airplane really did drown him out, the catch here is that the 120 Euro piece of crap GPS system really is controlling  a satellite, and Dieudonne’s audience, while pretending to be rebels and outcasts, are well-dressed middle class Parisians out for a night of vicarious mockery. In the 40s, the Jews were the victim of economic misery and social upheaval: in Dieudonne’s post-modern act, he tries to turn them into the victim of middle class existential malaise. Consistency is unnecessary, even, in the context of his act, a vice: nevertheless, his point is clear.

About the Author
Barak Ben-Shem is a Jewish "Israeli-American" (Born in the US to Israeli parents.) He has run an investment fund for the last ten years and before that ran a private equity fund in Romania. He is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, studying sociology.
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