I’ve been thinking about this piece for a long time - I saw it almost two months ago on 7 February, 2010. It’s odd it’s been ruminating so long because, theatrically, there’s not much to write home about. Najla Said wrote and acted in this one-woman show about herself, a Palestinian-Lebanese American who grew up in New York City (dir. Sturgis Wagner @ Fourth Street Theatre). She describes and reenacts her family and her highschool experiences, her fight with anorexia, her first trip to Palestine and subsequent trips to Lebanon, the bombings of ‘82 and ‘06, and September 11. Her nimble arms fly about the stage and her doe-like eyes entreat us to follow her as she treks upstage-downstage, right-left, New York-Beirut, and past-present. At the very least, Said’s willingness to share her experiences on a stage is worth taking note of: especially when her portrayal of those experiences doesn’t shy away from very obvious class affiliations that would render most social art-world afficiandos/activists uncomfortable. Coming from money is usually something artists mute (and audiences only declare with their tickets). But Said doesn’t mask her upbringing, and this word, it becomes clear, means lots of different things: her upper-west-side teenage years, her high school peers, and elite gym acquaintances rival aunts in Beirut, her father and his image, and her mother for stage space and time. Najla Said’s experiences, someone must have expressed at some point, are interesting because of the intersections they offer between worlds that seem wholly separate.
Which is great. The expression of who we are is an integral, often unnoticed, part of the communication in the theatre. Unfortunately, Said, like many Arab-American artists (in and outside the theatre), in trying to express, artistically, who she is, ends up explaining where she comes from: a venture that can almost always be reduced to the bland stock of identity politics. Palestine, unfortunately, is no exception.
Indeed Said’s title is an initial - blatant - mistake. The most compelling parts of her piece, the issues she returns to repeatedly, the questions she treats with the most uniqueness, the most sincerity, and the most heart are her own struggles with anxiety and with anorexia, not the 2 weeks (and relatively brief stage time) she spent as a high-school graduate, against her teenage will, in the Palestinian Territories. She enacts her mother incredibly well: a matron expressing frustration over her teenage angst and depression, doting over and scolding at the same time. But Said, as one assumes her audiences - not just in the theatre - have taught her, sidelines her own very real physical struggles and her relationship with her mother. Instead she frames this work around the legacy of her father, the illustrious scholar, Edward Said, and her all-too-brief experiences in a country even the most apathetic New Yorkers have heard whispered with anxiety, and a part of the world “mainstream” America, for multitudinous reasons, continues to misunderstand. Said’s instinct is to expose her audiences, to explain to them there is beauty in places they may have written-off, and to make a case for Arabs and Arabism. I can’t say that these instincts are wrong. But they must be read against racist trends concerning, as Said herself has called them, “visibility” politics.
In an interview with the Institute for Middle East Understanding, Najla explained,
“You find that because you’re Arab, you’re automatically politicized […] You’re only called in to audition for a woman with a veil or a terrorist’s wife. I decided that I wasn’t going to let them tell me who I am, I’m going to tell who I am. Every time you’re on stage you’re making a political statement because you’re Palestinian.” (Full article here.)
But instead of actively working against this restrictive trend, Said’s work here re-inscribes much of the same identity politicking. Instead of creating something that shows us how the young woman’s mind works, she gives us a laundry list of bombings she’s lived through. Instead of creating, she regurgitates. If you’re unfamiliar with the laundry list or the history, mild titillation, but most likely sympathy, may be the result. But if, by chance, you share her political or cultural history, what’s left?
As a a young Arab-American spectator, I’m bored and I’m lonely. I rarely see how an artist (musician, poet, visual artist, etc) who openly identifies as Arab-American actually reacts to their world, because every time I see or hear their work and am encouraged to recognize it as such, I’m slapped with corrective explanations of Israel, of Lebanon, the West Bank, or Gaza. In other words, to be an Arab-American artist has too long meant to be a certain kind of political subject. How are we to move past the identity politics Said herself bemoans if we keep pigeon-holing ourselves with the work we produce? How are we to teach younger generations of Arab-Americans what our experiences growing up in this country have been like, and how to live between cultures, if our art continues to explain the experiences of our parents or our cousins, or the traumatic political situations we have also, cyclically, found ourselves in? We must create an audience that is willing and eager to see Arabs and Arab-Americans not as indicators of political strife but as feeling, emotive, creative individuals in a postmodern society. Conscious and sentient, and at the same time struggling with things we, ourselves, haven’t figured out. Said’s work comes closest to this in her anecdotes about her teenage anxiety and anorexia. But she never gives those anecdotes the structural attention, within the larger piece, that they deserve.
All artwork is political. Its political affect, however is up to its creators. That is to say, a piece called Palestine, performed by the daughter of Edward Said, is political, for obvious reasons. But a piece by a bi-cultural individual living in New York with or without anxiety in the 21st century is also political, not because of what it includes (a history, by extension) but because of how it is shaped (its poetry). I fear, as an artistic community, Arab-American artists openly working as such have forgotten that we don’t have to pick up where the BBC negligently left off for our work to be effective. What would happen if we assumed our audiences were familiar with our political/historical/cultural references and focused the energy instead on something else? Where would we find poetry? Where would we find politics? Towards a postmodern expression of lived bi-cultural experience in this country, what would there be post (explanations of) Palestine?
All of this is not to say that the attention given to organized or cultural anti-Semitism [sic] and (especially) to Palestine by young hip-hop artists, comics, playwrights, or poets is misplaced. Nor is it to suggest that young people rejecting the Middle East narrative bought and sold wholesale in this country are cheating themselves or their countrymen and women. But we must hold ourselves to an artistic standard at the same time. We must remember that sometimes, especially in art, it is the individual and not the community that is most powerful. Her vision of her world should be breathtaking: without explaining it.
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Fear not, those of you following closely, February’s challenge concluded with flying colors: 17 pieces between 29 January and 28 February. The added performances were the Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf’s Trifles @ the Ontological Hysteric and Radiohole’s Whatever, Heaven Allows @ PS 122. A considerable unforeseen hitch in my experiment seems to be that I have deepened an already inexplicable addiction (to the theatre). Posts to follow here at a considerably slower rate.