One of the bravest titles in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival surely must be Jennifer Jajeh's one-woman show about discovering her deeper Palestinian identity, "I Heart Hamas." Her poster shows her wearing a tee shirt with that ubiquitous tourist design, but this one cries out for further explanation. It is much easier to understand "I Heart Edinburgh."
But one of the reasons I actually do "heart" Edinburgh is that shows like this are here, and they exist in the same festival as plays by Israeli companies, such as "The Elephant and the Mouse" which I raved about in an earlier post. Apparently that is their name, by the way; I assumed they couldn't possibly call their theater company such a name, but that was my cultural perspective talking. Their play is called "Repertory Theater", which seems totally backwards to me. And that's the point about culture; things you assume without a moment's thought as being obviously true may be just that; an assumption, rather than a truth.
When I was a political science professor, I was fond of using this quotation to my students: "Where you stand depends on where you sit." It's a smart way to begin a discussion of politics, and perhaps a smart way to write about "I Heart Hamas."
Very few Americans are of Palestinian descent. Their point of view is largely missing in mainstream American culture. To encounter it in such eloquent dress in Jennifer Jajeh's bracing and brave performance is to be thrust into that old cliché of standing in another's shoes, except in Jennifer's show, those shoes don't quite fit her, either. She's an American, raised in American schools, a product of American theater and American music and American culture. When she goes back to Palestine to live with relatives and search out her roots, she gets caught during the Intifada, perhaps the grimmest period in modern Palestinian history.
So a performance that begins in the sunshine of her thousand-watt smile and laugh-out loud moments slowly darkens, until we are all in this together, and "this" means checkpoints with arrogant soldiers, children shot, bombs dropped. And not all of this violence comes from Israelis; suicide bombers and Hamas fighters are also on the scene. Once the thin veneer of civilization comes into contact with "the dogs of war," civilization cracks open, and what is beneath are the emotions we all have hard-wired by evolution; fight or flight, kill or be killed.
And here is where we need theater, not just films, and certainly not just political discourse. It is so easy to dismiss an opposing argument with a flick of the oratorical wrist in an essay. Even data, and especially statistics, are just tools for defending whatever side you've already decided to be on. This is so quick and below our consciousness, that we don't even know we are doing it. Words pour out of our mouths that have been spoon-fed to us, and our highly-developed, college-educated critical thinking skills become rapiers we use to gain advantage. Parry here. Charge there. Point, point, touché.
But when there is a living, breathing person not more than ten feet from our faces in a 40-seat Fringe theater, this mechanism may become more consciously known to us. We may set things aside, not forever, but for 90 minutes. Is this propaganda? Film can be made into propaganda with ease, we all know this. But theater is not so well-suited to propaganda.
By theater, I mean narrative theater that is not mere spectacle. Narrative theater is not agit-prop theater, or Brechtian theater, either; those styles have always seemed to me to preach only to the already converted. Narrative theater tells a human-scale story, and, at its best, communicates through what Jung called the Great Unconscious. These are the moments when the theater is not about pretty people with perfect teeth showing off their skills. These are moments when we understand who we are, pitiful humans poorly prepared for the mysteries of life and death, terrified of violence in part because we all know that each of us could become violent. We can see ourselves in a war zone, reacting to the unspeakable with the unspeakable.
Jennifer Jajeh opens her show in the dark, with her pleasant, well-trained actor's voice, cheerily informing us that she does not want to engage in any political arguments with any of us after her show. At first blush, this might seem the opposite of what is needed in political theater. Don't we want our audiences to engage in discussion? But in this case, I have to agree with her decision. She is giving us a gift of theater, and her audiences receive it in whatever way they can, given where each one might "sit." But it makes me proud to be in the same profession with her, and it renews my fervor to keep theater alive, for moments such as these.
Politics demonizes. Theater humanizes. Some prefer their demons. But that may be a harder preference to maintain, after understanding why Jennifer "hearts" Hamas.