Hearting Hamas So Hard Right Now

It says something about where we are that a play called I Heart Hamas can be staged in America without the actors, writers, and producers being run out of town on a rail.  Ten years ago it did not seem like someone could even say “I Heart Palestine” without being hooted down with howls of derision.  I recall the sorry spectacle of a UNCC anthropology professor who wrote to the Charlotte Observer to rebut a virulently racist op-ed piece in the early 2000s; to claim that Palestinians are not, in fact, innately bloodthirsty and fixated on nothing but revenge made Gregory Starrett a lonely voice indeed. Academics such as Edward Said, Joseph Massad, and Nadia Abu el Haj have been hounded for straying from the United States’ official pro-Israel position, and that’s just at Columbia.  Rashid Khalidi was banned by the New York City Department of Education from various workshops for his views.  Norman Finkelstein and MJ Rosenberg, among others, have also seen their reputations assailed and livelihoods undermined for criticizing Israeli policies.  None of this has been the least bit surprising in a country where every institution from the State Department to evangelical churches tacitly endorses almost anything the state of Israel wants to do.  Whether the grounds are geopolitics or prophecy hardly seems to matter.

Yet in spite of all this, an incipient critique has emerged in the early years of the twenty-first century.  Even amid the post-9/11 demonization of Arabs and Muslims, and despite the latest paroxysm of hate to break out over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in 2010, the tiniest cracks have begun to grow in the reflexively anti-Palestinian stance that has long dominated American discourse.  Suddenly, voicing doubts about Israeli policies toward Palestine and Palestinians began to seem semi-acceptable.  Even a liberal hawk like Peter Beinart, who cheer-led the Iraq War not long ago, has opened the door to a searching critique of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, providing cover to others who might raise similar questions.

Into this scene enters Jennifer Jajeh, and her one-woman show I Heart Hamas and Other Things Things I’m Afraid to Tell You.  Despite its provocative, even willfully shocking title, much of the performance has to do with Jajeh’s own personal journey as a Palestinian-American woman, born and raised in San Francisco.  Her parents are from Ramallah, and the early parts of the play deal with her awkward days growing up a Jennifer among the Tiffanies and Ambers of the Arab diaspora in California.  She cleverly  highlights the American embrace of the Lebanese, particularly the Christian Arabs who have risen so high in American arts and politics (think Tony Shalhoub and Darrell Issa).  The Lebanese are Western and white-ish, sophisticated and vaguely French, and Beirut is the “Paris of the Middle East”; meanwhile, Palestinians get stereotyped as angry and dangerous in the US. There is also an excellent story about Jajeh adopting a Jewish friend’s cat, which becomes the object of a microcosmic struggle between her friend’s Israeli, Islamophobic family and her Palestinian associates.  One side wants the cat’s name to remain Judah and the other insists it must be given an Arab name—while Jajeh wonders why a cat must become the vehicle for people’s ethnonationalist identities.

Lamentably, though, many of the jokes about Jajeh’s upbringing seem routine.  Any American who is Arab, Iranian, South Asian or another “brown” ethnicity will probably relate to the experience of being confused for Latino/a, and these scenes are recognizable to the point of being over-familiar.  So also are the jokes about immigrant families, with their conservative values, the pressure to get married, and overbearing relatives.  All of this is well-trod territory, whether the artist is Palestinian, or Pakistani, or anything else.  (You wouldn’t expect something called I Heart Hamas to veer into My Big Fat Greek Wedding territory, but it does.)

When Jajeh diverges from the familiar confessional track of the one-person show, though, her work can do wonders.  She insists that the show is more about posing the question of Arab-American identity, but the clear emotional tug of the piece is found in its second half, when Jajeh travels to Ramallah in 2000, shortly before the renewed Intifada. For once, all the Palestinian peculiarities Jajeh grew up with began to make sense, and she was surrounded by people who looked like her.  All seemed well, and Jajeh was transported.  However, as peace talks broke down and mutual suspicion between Israelis and Palestinians flared again, the delightful landscape of ethnic homecoming that Jajeh had at first surveyed began to collapse, and I Heart Hamas richly and honestly portrays this loss of innocence.  Palestine, it turns out, is not all discovery and fun and games.  Our protagonist learns that her Arab friends and acquaintances in the street have long lived under the thumb of a capricious occupier, and they have earned a studied indifference to chaos; horrific violence is met with a shrug, in a way that Jajeh cannot understand when the Second Intifada breaks out and incurs Israeli repression.

Jajeh is at her best impersonating a spectrum of characters, from Palestinian shopkeepers to cocky Israeli soldiers, bringing to life the maddening and unexplainable exigencies of endless conflict.  After a particularly harrowing incident, Jaheh closes up inside herself and stays in her room for several days; her Palestinian boyfriend cannot understand why the indiscriminate deaths of acquaintances and strangers shake her so much, as he has already learned that “life must go on” and “there’s nothing you can do.”  He makes a momentary gambit for marriage and migration—his only means of getting out—but Jajeh is having none of it.  She has the option to leave, and she does.  The situation has become untenable.  Her friends back in Ramallah, though, have no out, and she attempts to explain to the audience how daily humiliation, frustration, and injustice, with no hope of escape and no outlet, could drive people to hatred and even the most desperate lengths of violence.

In these moments, I Heart Hamas transcends the confines of the one-person show.  Perhaps it takes a humorous and confessional set-up to temper the heavy and didactic elements of a play about the indignities of military occupation.  It is possible that the two halves of Jajeh’s play balance each other—the California girl ethnic odyssey of the first half, and the weighty political morality play of the second.  But the biggest factor distinguishing the two is the artist’s profound ability to inhabit a wide cast of characters in performance, whether the narrative takes place in her corner store in San Francisco or the “clash point” in Palestine.  Compared to the less interesting and somehow more two-dimensional portrayal of her own life, these scenes sparkle.  Even where matters of terrorism, identity, nationhood, and occupation are in play, talking about others remains more interesting than talking about yourself.

I Heart Hamas recently finished a run in New York City, and will join the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for 16 shows from August 2 to 25.