Habib Benglia and French Theater

Habib Benglia on a set
Habib Benglia on a set

Today, I would like to talk about Habib Benglia, one of the pioneers of Black theater and cinema in France.

Habib Benglia was an African artist born in Oran, Algeria, on 25 August 1895.  He was originally from Mali, and lived in Timbuktu throughout his childhood.  He then moved to France for studies.  After high school, he wanted to become an agricultural engineer.  However, one evening in 1913, at the Café Riche, while describing his love for theater and having fun with his friends reciting prose, he was noticed by Régine Flory who presented him to Cora Lapercie.  That same year, she made him star at the Renaissance in Le Minaret of Jacques Richepin, then he went on to play in Aphrodite by Pierre Frondaie, and L’Homme riche of Jean-José Frappa and Dupuy-Mazuel.

Sculpture of Habib Benglia by Evariste Jonchere (Les Amis du Musee des annees 30)
Sculpture of Habib Benglia by E. Jonchere (Source: Les Amis du Musee des annees 30)

The first world war of 1914 started, and Benglia joined the French troops as many other skirmishers (tirailleurs).  Demobilized just before the end of the war, he resumed theater with Firmin Gémier, in L’Oedipe Roi de Bouhélier.  In 1923, he became the first black actor to star in the main role at the national French theater at the age of 27: it was in The Emperor Jones whom Gaston Baty put in scene at the Odéon.  Benglia always dreamt of seeing Black theater unveiled in France, which would reveal evidence of an African/Black art.  He also wrote a few plays: one of them, Un soir à Bamako (An evening in Bamako) was broadcasted in 1950.  He passed away in 1960 after having starred in over hundreds of plays.

Benglia in "Dainah la Metisse" (source: www.filmweb.pl)
Poster of “Dainah la Metisse” (source: filmweb.pl)

Benglia was a versatile and prolific actor, who was confined to secondary and codified roles in colonial cinema, and as a result was largely ignored by critics.  This was both the fate of many actors (particularly Black actors in his time), overshadowed by stars, and the result of prejudice and racism.  Benglia’s roles were always very traditional.  Colonial cinema, both as propaganda or exotic entertainment, made proficient use of his abilities.  Originally a conveyor of stereotypes, this genre gradually evolved toward more truth and realism, but never gave Benglia the opportunity to rise to stardom.  A few plays where Benglia held the main role was Dainah la Métisse, then Sola, and Les Mystères de Paris, as well as in les Enfants du Paradis.

Blague Algérienne: Gagner la Coupe du Monde / Algerian Joke on Winning the World Cup

Flag of Algeria
Flag of Algeria

C’est un algérien qui se promène dans le désert et trouve une lampe.  Il la frotte et un génie apparaît.

Le genie: Merci de m’avoir libérer.  Pour te remercier, tu as le droit à un voeu.

L’algérien: Oh monsieur le génie!  Réssussitez ma mère qui est morte l’année dernière!  Elle me manque!

Le génie: Ah désolé.  Je ne peux pas faire ça.  Seul Dieu peut le faire.  Demande moi autre chose!

L’algérien: Eh bien… Je voudrais que l’ Algérie gagne la coupe du monde de football!!!

Le génie: Bouge pas, je vais voir ce que je peux faire pour ta mère!


Brazil 2014 World Cup
Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup
FIFA World Cup Trophy
FIFA World Cup Trophy

An Algerian is roaming through the desert and finds a lamp.  He rubs it, and a genie appears.

The genie: Thanks for freeing me.  To thank you, I will grant you one wish.

The Algerian: Oh mister genie!  Resurrect my mother who died last year!  I really miss her!

The genie: Ah, sorry.  I cannot do that.  Only God can do that.  Ask me something else!

The Algerian: Well… I would like Algeria to win the World Cup of football!!!

The genie: Don’t move, I’ll see what I can do for your mother!

Proverbe Bayombe sur la Discrétion / Bayombe Proverb on Discretion

La bouche / the mouth
La bouche / the mouth

On répare le trou d’un vêtement, mais pas le trou de la bouche (Proverbe Bayombe – République Démocratique du Congo (RDC)).-  Quand on a trop parlé, c’est difficile de réparer.

One can repair the hole on a garment, but not the hole of the mouth (Bayombe Proverb – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)). – When you have talked too much, it is difficult to repair.


Nadine Gordimer: South African First Literature Nobel is no Longer

Flag of South Africa
Flag of South Africa

Few countries in the world, apart from European and American (as if writing was only part of the western world) countries, can claim several Nobel prizes in literature. South Africa is one of those countries: with Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.

The South African Nobel-prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, one of the literary world’s most powerful voices against apartheid, died today at the age of 90. She passed away peacefully at her home in Johannesburg. She was the first winner of this prize for South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer

Born in Gauteng, South Africa, in 1923 to immigrant European parents, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1991 for novels and short stories that reflected the drama of human life and emotion in a society warped by decades of white-minority rule.

Many of her stories dealt with the themes of love, hate and friendship under the pressures of the racially segregated system that ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.  She became active in the then banned African National Congress (ANC) after the arrest of her best friend Bettie du Toit in 1960, and the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960.  Thereafter, she was a close friends with Mandela’s defense attorneys (Bram Fischer and George Bizos) during his 1962 trial; she actually helped Mandela edit his famous speech I am prepared to die. She was one of the first people president Mandela asked to see after his release from prison in 1990.

Nadine Gordimer and President Nelson Mandela
Nadine Gordimer and President Nelson Mandela

She was called one of the great “guerrillas of the imagination” by the poet Seamus Heaney, and a “magnificent epic writer” by the Nobel committee.  Her intense, intimate prose helped expose apartheid to a global readership and continued to illuminate the brutality and beauty of her country long after the demise of the racist government.  “She makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation,” Sture Allen, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said while awarding Ms. Gordimer the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. “In this way, artistry and morality fuse.”

"Burger's Daughter" by Nadine Gordimer
“Burger’s Daughter” by Nadine Gordimer

She had three books banned under the apartheid regime’s censorship laws, along with an anthology of poetry by black South African writers that she collected and had published.  The first book to be banned was ‘A World of Strangers,’ the story of an apolitical Briton drifting into friendships with black South Africans in segregated Johannesburg in the 1950s.  In 1979 Burger’s Daughter was banished from the shelves for its portrayal of a woman’s attempt to establish her own identity after her father’s death in jail makes him a political hero.

I never read any of her work, and now plan to start.  Thank you to Nadine Gordimer for her brightness, and for her endless fight for freedom through her works.

Why the Name: Abidjan?


After walking on the sandy beaches of Abidjan, I have often romanticized the name of such a beautiful place, and no matter how much intellectual gymnastics I did, I could never decipher its meaning.  After all, I do not speak the local language, but I somehow thought that it could have been a French name with some local texture to it; but which one?

Map of Côte d'Ivoire
Map of Côte d’Ivoire

Well, according to oral tradition of the Ébrié people as reported in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Côte d’Ivoire, the name “Abidjan” results from a misunderstanding.  Legend states that an old man carrying branches to repair the roof of his house met a European explorer who asked him the name of the nearest village.  The old man who did not speak the language of the explorer, thought that he was being asked to justify his presence in that place.  Terrified by this unexpected meeting, he fled shouting “min-chan m’bidjan“, which means in the Ébrié language: “I return from cutting leaves.”  The explorer, thinking that his question had been answered, recorded the name of the locale as Abidjan.

La ville d'Abidjan
La ville d’Abidjan (source RFI)

A slightly different and less elaborate version of the legend is as such: When the first colonists asked native women the name of the place, the women misunderstood and replied “T’chan m’bi djan“: “I’ve just been cutting leaves“. Thus the name Abidjan.

Originally a fishing village, Abidjan was made the capital city of the French colony after a deadly epidemic of yellow fever decimated the French colonists in 1896 in Bassam.  In 1934, Abidjan became the third capital of Côte d’Ivoire after Grand-Bassam and Bingerville.  It offered more opportunities for trade expansion, particularly with its greater wharf.  In 1983, the capital was moved to Yamoussoukro, the village of then-president Félix Houphouët-Boigny.  However, Abidjan has remained the political and economic heart of the country.

Aerial view of Abidjan (Source: raymondadrienne.blogspot.com)
Aerial view of Abidjan (Source: raymondadrienne.blogspot.com)

Today, Abidjan is Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city, and the third largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris and Kinshasa.  The city is located in the Ébrié Lagoon on several converging peninsulas and islands connected by bridges.  Abidjan is considered a cultural hub for most of West Africa, and Francophone Africa in particular.  It has the biggest port in West Africa, and second largest port of Africa after the Lagos port in Nigeria.  With the political unrest of the past decade which reached its paroxysm in 2011 with the French army bombing strategic places in Abidjan in order to impeach President Laurent Gbagbo (including the presidential palace), the city has been destroyed, and is today going through a rebuilding phase.

Affectionately nicknamed the “Manhattan of the tropics“, “Small Manhattan“, or “Pearl of Lagoons“, because of its impressiveness, Abidjan is a unique city perfect for business tourism.  The place is so beautiful, that the French once considered making Côte d’Ivoire an overseas department of France; it is not so far from it today, but that will be the subject for another day.  The video below is on Côte d’Ivoire as a whole.  Enjoy!

Lion’s Defeat


The wild animals, it is said, were once asembled at Lion’s.  When Lion was asleep, Jackal persuaded Little Fox to twist a rope of ostrich sinews, in order to play Lion a trick.  They took ostrich sinews, twisted them, and fastened the rope to Lion’s tail, and the other end of the rope they tied to a shrub.  When Lion awoke, and saw that he was tied up, he became angry, and called the animals together.  When they had assembled, Lion said (using this form of conjuration)–
What child of his mother and father’s love,
Whose mother and father’s love has tied me?

Then answered the animal to whom the question was first put–
I, child of my mother and father’s love,
I, mother and father’s love, I have not done it.

Renard / Fox
Renard / Fox

All answered the same; but when he asked Little Fox, Little Fox said–
I, child of my mother and father’s love,
I, mother and father’s love, have tied thee!

Then Lion tore the rope made of sinews, and ran after Little Fox.  But Jackal said: “My boy, thou son of lean Mrs. Fox, thou wilt never be caught.”  Truly Lion was thus beaten in running by Little Fox.

South African Folk Tales, by James A. Honey, 1910, Baker & Taylor Company.