Review: OMI MOUNA (or My Fantastic Encounter with My Great-Grandmother)

by Lynn on October 4, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

On-line (and in person in Victoria Park Tent, as part of IMPACT 21 in Kitchener, Ont. I saw it on-line, Oct. 3 where it closed, playing Oct. 1 and 2.

From Montreal

Playwright, actor, director, Mohsen El Gharbi

Translated by Leanna Brodie

Lighting by Armando Gomez Rubio

OMI MOUNA is subtitled, “Or, My Fantastic Encounter with My Great-Grandmother.”

From the Programme Notes: “Inspired by real life events, Omi Mouna is a tragicomic play that the actor, Mohsen El Gharbi, improvises every evening. A man investigates the source of the violence he suffered as a child. Dominated by fear of having inherited his father’s brutality, Mohsen goes to Tunisia to film his great-grandmother, Omi Mouna, and retrace the history of her family. He finds himself thrown back to when she was a young girl, martyred by a tyrannical husband. Mohsen then becomes an invisible witness of dramatic events.”

When Mohsen ‘goes back in time’ to recreate, or should that be ‘deconstruct’ the events in his great-grandmother’s life, he “discovers a long history of women’s  resilience and struggle.”

Mohsen El Gharbi was born in Belgium of a Flemish Mother and a Tunisian Father. Mohsen wanted to make a film of his great-grandmother’s life because she was 100 years old and had seen two World Wars, upheaval, world events and could tell him about it. He went back to see her and learn.

On a bare stage wearing a white shirt, dark pants and sneakers, Mohsen El Gharbi plays out the incidents of his great-grandmother Omi Mouna’s life. He goes back to her Tunisian home to talk to her. On his way he gets distracted and can’t find his way. He laments that his father never taught him Arabic.   He becomes an invisible witness.  It’s 1912, in a small Tunisian village Omi Mouna is a young woman, almost a girl really, married to a violent husband. He would disappear for months as she waited patiently for him, making his dinner but not knowing if he would come home. She sought work, for potatoes, chilies and a tomato, from a local ‘rich’ family. To do the work she would have to leave the village which she did not have permission to do. The labour was hard, the food meagre. We get a vivid picture of what his great-grandmother had to endure.

When her husband returned, he beat her with a rod. When she began to have children he beat their feet methodically and violently as a ritual. Mohsen wanted to put his invisible hand on his great-grandfather to stop him, but one of the sons did it for him. The great-grandfather shoved his son out of the way and continued beating. Over time another child would try and stop him to no avail. Omi Mouna tried to stop the beatings by fighting back. One time she won.

With graceful movement and economical body language Mohsen paints the vivid world of his great-grandmother. She would peel a potato by holding the knife straight and turning the potato and not the knife around the potato. Mohsen. She would dig in the dirt as part of her work for the rich family—Mohsen strained, dug hard and repeated the motion. You could imagine sweat on his brow.

His great-grandfather was only referred to as “Greybeard.” He drank until he was drunk; he cheated on his wife; he left her for great lengths of time while he travelled; he read the Quran faithfully, and he beat his wife and children. When Greybeard was challenged because of his brutality he was asked what race he came from? How can you appear religious but still be so inhuman?  One gets the sense from the show that the abusing father passed on the abusing behaviour to his children who in turn passed that on. Mohsen recalls being abused as a kid and wanted to know the source.

Mohsen’s writing is vivid. Leanna Brodie’s translation, as always, is exquisite.  There are lines of such wisdom: “You have to look at children for them to grow and have confidence.” Wonderful. Mohsen is a captivating performer. Filling the whole space with the world of this play. It’s the first time he performed it in English. Stunning.

Produced by L’Acteur en Marche & Collectif Honey Haloua.

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