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Issam Akel, a resourceful traveller without baggage

Issam AKEL - ©David Olkarny

“Brussels’ Canal runs in my veins,” he stated when he received the Brussels “People of the year 2012” award in the culture category for the show “La vie c’est comme un arbre”. An actor, radio broadcaster, events presenter and well-connected man, he is one of the founders and driving forces behind the theatre company “Voyageurs sans bagage” or “Travellers without Baggage”… Issam knows that he is the “front man” and has taken on the role of the group’s spokesperson. We met him to find out what lies behind those blue eyes…

2013-04-15 – If you could only see the tenderness with which he recalls his childhood! As the fourth of five brothers, he ended up being neither the overprotected little one nor the eldest who had to show the way. Even so, could Issam perhaps be looking for ways to show the world that he’s there…? He was scarcely twelve years old and had just started secondary school when he entered the Paroles contest, tackling no less a role than Madame Sarfati, Elie Semoun’s famous character. He definitely attracted notice. “I was invited to perform my show again at the opening of the college, among other performances offered by the final-year pupils, despite being knee-high to a grasshopper”  he jokes. Most importantly, though, a teacher took him under his wing, and gave him acting lessons for several years. “It had a long-term impact on my interest in French lessons!”

But the turbulent teenage years inevitably awaited him. He finished his third year badly, and the educational counselling service suggested that he should move into technical education, specialising in activity leadership, as he was sure to do brilliantly there. Issam refused point-blank: what he wanted was to remain in general education – but he did decide to change to a school where he would feel “less different: I’ve got blue eyes, but black hair. I had the feeling of not being entirely in the right place”. He was living in Evere and had been attending the Collège Roi Baudouin in Schaerbeek, but now he switched to La Fraternité on Rue de Molenbeek in Laeken. A less prestigious school, but one where he didn’t feel he had to justify himself so much.

Two diplomas, three languages

And this left him a little more time so that, in addition to the drama classes that he continued to attend with his former teacher, he could get involved in training as an activity leader at Cemea at the weekend. At the end of his final year of secondary school, he therefore had two diplomas, one of which ensured him an income during his time as a student. He had dreams of the Conservatoire, but his father, a garage owner by profession, while discreetly admiring his talent, decided that a career could not be made out of it. Issam had to make do with studying public relations at the Institut Arthur Haulot… where the very advanced level of Dutch and English caused him difficulties. “But I came through in the end, and I’m now perfectly trilingual, and do you know how? It was through my jobs at the festivals that I learnt everything!

Yes, but why did he say in his interview in the Le Soir newspaper at the time of his receipt of the Brussels “People of the Year” award that “Brussels’ Canal runs in my veins”? “I feel myself to be from Brussels in a profound sense! Jacques Brel, the Marché matinal, Dansaert, the incinerator, the ketjes, Anneessens – I am all those things!I’ve hung out everywhere and I know everyone.” This is why he remains firmly attached to Brussels, while two of his brothers are pursuing careers in London and Dubai.

“There are no small actions. Everything contributes to the city’s development”

Having obtained his higher education qualification, he got his first real job at Sabam and then, very soon afterwards, at BNP. From working as an account manager behind the counter at the bank, he moved into the events sector. Corporate, conventions, galas: this is still his environment, although he has ended up as a consultant, which leaves him time to get on with the other things that are close to his heart. Today, at the age of 29, he is a true one-man band, constantly switching caps. He appears on the radio, on Kif once a week and on Fun every day throughout the school holidays. On the television, he works on Belgian projects such as “Melting Pot Café”. He has taken part in several voluntary sector projects, has worked with children in the shanty towns of Tangiers, supports urban artists … He concludes this account of his activities with the comment, There are no small actions. Everything contributes to the city’s development. That’s what motivates me.

Then, in 2010, he put all his talents into the big adventure that was ”La vie c’est comme un arbre”. The play tells the story of the journey of three young Moroccans at a loose end who leave Tangiers in 1964 to travel to Belgium. Their hopes and disappointments, their achievements and setbacks, and their colourful encounters provide the backdrop for a show that rings true with its blend of humour and emotions drawn from their family memories. “We played in small venues,” says Issam,“before making it onto the bill of the Théâtre de la Toison d’Or, where we had full houses for a whole month. And wherever we were, the audience included people from all backgrounds, mixing together, acknowledging one another, and laughing together at one another, but above all at themselves”.

A cocktail of talents

So how do you create such a project? “Rachid (Hirchi – the author), Mohamed (Allouchi) and I have known one another for years. Rachid roughed out a text, they reworked it, filled out the characters and added new ones. The two of them worked out the stage design and then directed. As for me, with my contacts with the local authorities, I was in charge of production. I knocked on every possible door, and when the door wouldn’t open I would try the window! We set up the Compagnie des Voyageurs sans bagage and recruited our team at the Conservatoire, at the IAD, with much the same flavour that the play has itself: people of all sorts, a Greek-Irish guy, a Jewish girl, an Argentine, some Moroccans… It’s this that brings things to life, adds a bit of spice.” And he concludes: “It was successful beyond our hopes! No, actually that’s not true: we did what it took to make it work!

Upcoming performances

The next stages will be in Wallonia, and then in France and Morocco. In the meantime, two more Brussels dates have been set for “La vie c’est comme un arbre”: 10 and 11 May 2013 at the Uccle Arts Centre.