The Rhino In The Room


A few nights ago, a friend and I joined our neighbors in the park to spread blankets on the grass, sit under the stars, and enjoy a local theater company’s performance of a play. The drama the company had chosen to produce this season was Rhinoceros, a classic 1950s Absurdist play by Eugene Ionesco about people in a rural French town transforming into rhinos. The tale is generally understood as an allegory about World War II and how so many seemingly good, “normal” people were seduced by the Nazis and fascism. But for me, an interfaith worker in post-9/11 New York City, the play alluded to something entirely different: the current tide of Islamophobia that is washing across Western Europe and North America.

The next day I picked up a copy of Rhinoceros, to examine it through the lens of modern Islamophobia, and was surprised at what the exercise yielded, from the initial appearance of a rhino, right through to the famous last sentence of the final act. The play opens benignly with an ordinary man named Berenger going about his daily routine—meeting his best friend Jean for a drink and casting longing glances at his objet d’amour Daisy, while his boss, co-workers, neighbors, and shopkeepers move in and out of his sphere of consciousness.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a rhinoceros gallops down the street, and the entire provincial community is thrown into shock and confusion. Their incredulity reminded me exactly of that of some Americans when seeing for the first time a hijab-wearing Muslim woman walking through the streets of their town:

Jean: A rhinoceros loose in the town, and you don’t bat an eyelid! It shouldn’t be allowed!

Botard: How can it be possible in a civilized country…?

The second appearance of a rhinoceros becomes the source of much conjecture among the citizens, and confusion as to what they actually know about rhinos. Their bizarre discussion about whether single-horned rhinos come from Africa and two-horned rhinos come from Asia struck me as very akin to the typical Westerner’s confusion over burqas, niqaabs, and hijabs; and the misinformed judgments as to what these articles indicate about the woman wearing them.

As the buzz about rhinos increases through the town, the boundary lines defining “us” versus “them” are quickly drawn, with townsfolk debating in sometimes brutish language about the “others” and why they are dangerous:

Jean: Rhinoceroses are living creatures the same as us; they’ve got as much right to life as we have!

Berenger: As long as they don’t destroy ours in the process. You must admit the difference in mentality.

Jean: Are you under the impression that our way of life is superior?

Berenger: Well at any rate, we have our own moral standards which I consider incompatible with the standards of these animals.

The townspeople’s surprise has turned to anxiety as they realize the numbers of rhinos are growing. When they realize that some of their own people are “converting,” this fear becomes hysteria. This section of the play is filled with various neighbors transforming into rhinoceroses, and the bafflement of the townspeople trying to understand why. Neighbors they had once talked of approvingly become suspect the moment they have converted:

Jean: What happened to Boeuf?

Berenger: He’s turned into a rhinoceros.

Jean: Boeuf led his own private life. He had a secret side to him deep down which he kept to himself.

Berenger: Jean was my best friend. Then to watch him change before my eyes… How can I help thinking about it? He was such a warm-hearted person, always so human! Who’d have thought it of him! We’d known each other for… for donkey’s years. He was the last person I’d have expected to change like that. I felt more sure of him than of myself! … It absolutely shatters me. What can be the explanation?

Berenger: … and he had such a good job.

Dudard: That proves his metamorphosis was sincere.

Berenger: He couldn’t have done it on purpose. I’m certain it was must have been involuntary. He must have made a mistake. He’d got some hidden complexes. He should have been psychoanalyzed…. He let himself be talked into it, I feel sure.

It’s when the townsfolk start to perceive their own majority position as dwindling that panic truly sets in, and some of them suggest drastic and serious means of curtailing the growing rhino population.

Daisy: They’re a pretty big minority now, and getting bigger all the time. My cousin’s a rhinoceros now, and his wife.

Dudard: This is going to spread to other countries, you’ll see.

Berenger: We’re still in the majority. We must take advantage of that. We must do something before we’re inundated. … They should all be rounded up in a big enclosure, and kept under strict supervision.

Dudard: That’s easier said than done.

Daisy: And besides, everyone has a close relative or friend among them, and that would make it even more difficult.

Berenger: But how can people be rhinoceroses? It doesn’t bear thinking about!

As the story continues, it strikes ever deeper at reasons for the collective anxiety. In watching the “otherness” increase around them, and in witnessing the conversion of familiar people into unfamiliar strangers (crossing the line, if you will, from “us” to “them”), the issue becomes too close for comfort, too immediate to be ignored, no matter how desperately one may wish to deny it:

Berenger: Just the thought of them upsets me. It’s a nervous thing…. It does something to me, here! [He points to his heart.] I get a tight feeling inside… If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view and come to an objective conclusion. … But when you’re involved yourself, when you suddenly find yourself up against the brutal facts you can’t help feeling directly concerned—the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. I’m frankly surprised, I’m very very surprised. I can’t get over it.

As the rhino population increases, and the townsfolk population dwindles, the egocentric source of their terror is revealed. Perhaps these conversions are the result of some kind of disease, one fellow in the play suggests. “Exactly!” Berenger replies, “and I’m frightened of catching it!”  The playwright hits it on the mark most closely when Berenger sees himself inescapably dragged into a world of change that threatens to undermine his very identity, and he begins to fear “becoming someone else.” As another character puts it, “You’re worried about your own skin— that’s the truth of the matter.”

Though the play may have originally intended to point out many people’s unwitting gravitation toward fascism and the fear it engendered, it can clearly also serve as a metaphor for people’s fear of the spread of Islam. The fact that the story can support either perspective indicates what has long been asserted: that there is a demonization (or “Nazification” in this case) inherent in Islamophobia—a striving to align the Muslim faith with undemocratic ideologies, and thereby equate Islam with “evil.”

Interestingly, as I was concluding this exercise of re-examining Rhinoceros through the lens of Islamophobia, the same friend who attended the play with me suggested another way of understanding its message: “What if, instead of the rhinos representing Muslims, they represent the people who fear Muslims?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the play can also support this approach quite effectively. In fact, it serves the story most powerfully at the end, when Berenger, as the last unconverted townsperson, vows to never yield to the tide. If rhinos represent the people who blindly succumb to their egotistic fears of people they have yet to understand, then Berenger is our hope for the future.

Berenger: I’ll take on the whole lot of them! I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!

Regardless of which approach to the text is used, the same conclusion is reached—that humans are terrified of the unknown. But the encouraging implication here is that the dread, hostility, and hatred born of ignorance can be undone by a willingness to learn.

Kevin Childress is the social media manager for The Interfaith Center of New York, as well as several other faith- and interfaith-based nonprofit organizations. He is also an Ambassador to the Parliament for the World’s Religions. He has worked with religious, secular, and government leaders in every borough of New York City to address social justice issues such as racial profiling, immigration, and domestic violence.