Screens/Burning Flowers (a work-in-progress)
“In order to trouble [a] hygienic and abstract model of history, Genet sought to stain the new image of post-imperialist France by dwelling on the defeats of the recent past: ‘if my theatre stinks, it’s because the other kind smells nice.’ The specific aim behind this abject theatre…was to create a sense of affective shock that would encourage French spectators to disidentify with the spectacular image of Frenchness that circulated with such giddiness in magazines and official cultural policy at the time.” – Carl Lavery in The Politics of Jean Genet’s Late Theatre
Screens/Burning Flowers, a section of Tony Whitfield’s This Dancerie: A Century of Queer Life in Public, investigates the figure of “the terrorist” as eroticized Other and existential threat. Staged on the street in front of the site of what was Paris’s famed Drugstore, Screens simultaneously enacts three eras of Parisian encounters with the terrorist: the period between 1959 and 1962 during the Algerian Civil War, Carlos the Jackal’s activities on behalf of the PLO in the 1970s, and the current time of unease following the ISIS attacks of last year.
Screens/Burning Flowers will unfold as a 10-part, all-day performance centered on Saeed, a French actor of Arabic descent. The audience will follow him as he assumes multiple personae and negotiates various performative realities: Saïd in a street theatre version of Jean Genet’s Les Paravents; Ilich Sánchez (Carlos the Jackal) in a movie he’s filming set in the 1970s; and Ousama, an internet gay porn star, who specializes in “terrorist” videos.
Taking place on a re-creation of The Drugstore (site of a 1974 action by Illich/Carlos), Screens stages the uneasy intersection of capitalist consumerism, imperial colonialism, homoerotic desire, and the violence of the dispossessed.
Inside Le Drugstore in 1974
In the early 1970s, the Drugstore Saint Germain was part of the fashionable circuit of restaurants and bars on Paris’s Left Bank. But on Sunday 15 September 1974, mayhem hit when a grenade blast ripped through glass, tables and people, killing two and injuring 34.
“An eerie stampede of living dead trampled over each other. I saw a little boy staring at his left arm with overwhelming incredulity – there was no hand,” singer Jean-Jacques Debout, who narrowly avoided the blast, told author John Follain.
Waiters from neighbouring Brasserie Lipp bandaged wounds with table cloths.
The man held responsible, Illich Ramírez Sánchez – usually known as Carlos the Jackal – continued to be a regular customer at the Drugstore when it reopened four months after the blast.
Nine months later, French security forces traced him to number 9 rue Toullier.
Carlos’s former accomplice Michel Moukharbal led three unarmed secret service officers to the house. Moukharbel and two officers, Raymond Dous and Jean Donatini, were shot dead. The third officer, Jean Herranz, survived and reportedly could never again look at a picture of Carlos without starting.
“Paris became for me the home of Carlos. Places that were more or less haunts of my everyday life would take on a different meaning. The whole map of Paris changed.”
Stephen Smith, researcher for the film Carlos
But according to his lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, Carlos is innocent of all his alleged crimes in Paris.
“It’s a thesis,” she says. “It’s not the reality. In the files you have nothing. Even for the question of Rue Toullier, there’s nothing, no witness, nobody.”
After representing Carlos for seven years, Coutant-Peyre married her client in 2001.
In her office on the Boulevard Saint Germain, Coutant-Peyre says the governments of France and the US have fabricated the evidence against Carlos.
Dressed in black and smoking a miniature cigar, she speaks in a voice that sounds as if the cigar is always on the go, punctuating the conversation with an occasional engaging burst of laughter.
The only crime Carlos admits to is an attack on the headquarters of the Opec oil producers’ cartel in Vienna in 1975, in which three people died and 66 hostages were taken.
Olivier Assayas’s film about Carlos’s life is, Coutant-Peyre says, part of the French government’s misinformation campaign.
“This big budget film was designed as propaganda against Carlos and against the Palestinian fight and to try to smear his life, his struggles and the Palestinian fight,” she says.
It is “bullshit”, a slander on a man who devoted his life to political strugle, especially the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, she declares.
Indeed, Carlos joined the Communist Party in Venezuela when he was only 15. When he came to Europe, he joined George Habash‘s left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and participated in operations on their behalf all over Europe.
“Even now it’s a world conflict,” say Coutant-Peyre. “The instatement of Israel was decided by the United Nations. When the Germans were in France, the French resistance were called terrorists and after the end of the war they became heroes.
“These organisations were fighting with weapons, of course, as the Israelis were using against them. It’s a war. There are people on each side.”
In 1994, Carlos had an operation in Khartoum. Two days later, he was told by Sudanese officials that he needed to be moved to a villa, where he would be given personal bodyguards for protection against an assassination attempt.
One night later he was tranquillised, tied up, and kidnapped. On 14 August 1994 he was handed over to French agents and flown to Paris.
On 23 December he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
She calls on Venezuela, whose leader Hugo Chavez has praised Carlos as a revolutionary fighter, to intervene on her husband’s behalf.
However, Coutant-Peyre is almost a lone voice in her defence of Carlos.
“He had a major role as an individual,” says Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. “He was actually involved in what one might call an early form of international terrorism because he was interested in cooperating with groups in various countries.”
Sometimes described as a dishonest businessman, Carlos was allegedly in the pay of several organisations. PFLP member Bassam Abu Sharif and former Red Army Faction member Hans-Joachim Klein, who was freed from jail after the Opec raid, later accused Carlos of taking a large sum of money from Saudi Arabia to spare the lives of Arab hostages. Others claim that he turned terror into a profitable enterprise.
“Carlos is very, very clever, a man high in the relations with the heads of many states,” says Coutant-Peyre. “In a kind of way, all the states were participating in this movement. Syria, Libya, Saudi [Arabia] and even France. But every time he obtained money, it was for Palestinian fight not for his pocket.”
Wilkinson concedes that Libya dealt with Carlos, but draws the line at France.
“I don’t think we should be too carried away by claims that he was a friend of the great,” he says. “He had friendly relations with Kadhafi who was using state sponsored terrorism as a regular weapon, but he was regarded as a very dangerous individual by the democratic governments of all the European Union countries.”
As an international terrorist, though, Carlos’s record was rather patchy.
His first foray was in London when he allegedly attempted to kill Joseph Edward Seif with a malfunctioning gun. The first shot was deflected by the businessman’s tooth and then the gun stopped working and Carlos made his escape. He left traces behind him in Paris that led to many of his accomplices.
On another occasion he tried to bomb a bank but got the wrong door.
“That’s not what you’d call professional,” says Stephen Smith, who researched Assayas’s film. “But if you look at his cold-bloodedness, you would definitely say that he was a top-notch terrorist.”
In fact, one of the aspects of the film that has particularly annoyed Carlos is the gun-slinging portrayal of his international operations.
“He’s a very serious man,” says Coutant-Peyre. “I saw fighters – it’s completely ridiculous – shooting in the air like Guignol [a clown]. It’s not serious. These were very difficult political operations.”
In February 1982 Carlos hit Paris again, according to prosecutors in a case still pending.
Two of his group, Swiss national Bruno Breguet and his then-wife Magdalena Kopp, who is German, were arrested near the Champs Elysées in a car containing explosives.
A series of bombs were detonated, claiming 11 lives and injuring more than 100, as Carlos lobbied the French for their release.
Smith says Carlos has changed his view of Paris.
The rue Toullier, the Boulevard Saint Germain, the sites of pro-Israeli newspapers that were targeted by bombs and even the road where Carlos’s predecessor was blown up when a pressure mine was placed under his driver’s seat (see map for more details), have all taken on new significance.
“He entirely changed my topography of Paris,” says Smith. “As someone who had worked onMorocco and Ben Barka, I was very familiar with Brasserie Lipp, and all of a sudden I would see it very differently because of what he had done.
“Paris became for me the home of Carlos. Places that were more or less haunts of my everyday life would take on a different meaning. The whole map of Paris changed and a few more highlights were added to my topography.”
VIDEO OF THE GRENADE ATTACK ON THE DRUGSTORE ST GERMAIN