On a humid Saturday afternoon in Manhattan last weekend, I found myself going to see a show with a title that would have driven me away not so long ago: “I Heart Hamas”. The one-woman show “I Heart Hamas And Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You” was created and performed by Jennifer Jajeh, who profiles her identity as a Palestinian-American actor as she navigates family pressures, stereotypes in show business, and intimate relationships with humor, curiosity and frustration. Jajeh takes her audience on a trip to her homeland in Palestine, and through her first-person narrative we get an insight into her daily reality and her ability to find comedy in tragedy.
Jajeh defines her show as “a tragicomic one-woman theater show about my experiences as a Palestinian American and my decision to move to Ramallah in 2000.” Jajeh describes the difficulty of getting acting jobs and directors asking her to “be a little less Palestinian” or trying to decide whether she can pass for Mexican. She takes us to her family’s hometown Ramallah and we discover the sights and sounds of the bustling city with her – the carpeted cabs and the boisterous shuk, the clashes with Israeli soldiers, and the ensuing teargas. We learn through Jajeh that simply going about the grit of living life is an act of resistance under occupation. Arab-American activist Anna Lekas Miller observes that the show “helps make sense of how our personal backgrounds are politicized, and how this affects us as people.”
Case in point: When Jajeh inherits her Jewish friend David’s cat (named Judah of course), Palestinian friends tell her to change the cat’s name to a more Arabic sounding name. David and his family are adamant that she keep the Jewish name and identity of the cat. Do cats have a religion? Jajeh wants to know. The humorous account illustrates the identity tension.
This vignette reminded me of Palestinian author and comedian Suad Amiry’s stories in Sharon and My Mother-in-Law about her dog Noura, who was vaccinated by an Israeli veterinarian in the West Bank and therefore given Israeli papers, while Amiry could not get Israeli citizenship. Amiry took the dog to the border crossing to Jerusalem and when the soldiers asked for her papers she said she was just the chauffer for the dog, Noura, who was an Israeli citizen! The soldiers waved her through and she was able to drive into Jerusalem, which she could not have done on her own. Even house pets cannot escape the absurdity and outrageousness of the conflict.
At one point while Jajeh describes her acting agent giving her a hard time for taking too strong a political stand in public, screen shots of Jennifer’s facebook posts in 2008 flash on the wall: strong statements against the Israeli assault of Gaza, and a suggestion that if people want to do something to help, they can follow Naomi Klein’s advice and join boycott and divestment campaigns aimed at economically pushing Israel into compliance with international law. I asked Jennifer whether she supported Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, and specifically, what she thought as a Palestinian Christian about the recent vote of the Presbyterian Church to boycott Israeli settlement products. She spoke about the waning possibility for a two-state solution to work and how a democratic state with equal rights for all seemed to be the best way to go, but didn’t comment with regards to boycott and divestment. I was reminded that sometimes the role of the cultural artist is to raise consciousness through art without becoming a soap box for campaign messaging.
Though much of the show is based on her time in Palestine during the second intifada starting in 2000, Jajeh didn’t start performing the final piece until 2008, allowing the fullness of the experience to settle and move through her artistic process. 2008 is the year that the Israeli military attacked Gaza, killing over 1,400 civilians, many of them children. References to this atrocity are evident in the show. Yet Jajeh does not address the topic of Hamas, the elected government of Gaza, directly.
The show incorporates Jajeh’s “Ask a Palestinian” board, which lights up when the audience has a question, prompting Jajeh to intuit what the question is and introduce a bit of personal commentary between acts of the show. Toward the end of the show, the board lights up and the question she “hears” from the audience is “Why is the show called I Heart Hamas?” She mockingly questions why the audience still doesn’t get it. Yet she has not directly addressed Hamas in the show. I wonder what audience members – those not overly-steeped in the issues, as I find myself to be these days – know about Hamas or what they will walk away with after the show. Certainly it would be difficult to find a comedic way to go into the complexities of the Hamas government in Gaza, but I found myself yearning for more commentary on current politics in the region. The potentially inflammatory title seems to be used more for intrigue than as a headliner to a specific piece in the show.
In fact, the Arabic word “hamas” can be defined as anger that is smartly, strategically channeled. Islamic activist Hamza Yusuf Hanson distinguished between the forms of political action that use hamas, versus the haphazard, expression of anger called “hamoq” in Arabic. While hamas-style activism may inspire protests that utilize logical planning and clear messaging, hamoq-fueled reactionary protest may not be mindful of public dialogue and lead, for example, to the smashing of property un-connected with a clear political target. George Monbiot outlines these differences in a chapter in the new activist anthology, Beautiful Trouble: “Turning anger into action is necessary to move the powers that be, but that anger is most effective when it is disciplined and intelligently focused (hamas). Uncontrolled, stupid anger (hamoq) mostly undermines your own cause.” Hearing the distinction between these two words I think about the recent divisions in the Occupy Movement and the times activists have felt unsafe at Occupy demos for fear of sudden, unexplainable violence from protesters, predictably followed by indiscriminate brutality by the police: hamoq. The challenge of organizing is to take up the collective outrage and, like a true alchemist, channel it into creative, constructive protest. Now that’s the kind of hamas that I heart.
About Jennifer Jajeh:
Jennifer Jajeh is a theater artist, actor and film director based in San Francisco. “I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You”, her first solo show is currently in its 5th year of touring with theatrical runs in Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Berkeley as well as a dozen university and festival dates under its belt, including an upcoming month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in August. For more info about the show visit www.ihearthamas.com.