“I heart Hamas” – performance art and the beauty of pluralism
I recently had the opportunity to see a one-woman play performed ‘off -Market’, as they say in San Francisco, entitled “I heart Hamas”. The play is written and performed by an American-Palestinian (or a Palestinian-American depending on your perspective) actor, Jennifer Jajeh. “I heart Hamas” concerns her experience growing up in America, developing as an actor, exploring her Palestinian identity, and climaxing with the period of her life living in Ramallah in the West Bank. The play is not all political, but certainly deals evocatively with the awakening of her Palestinian self, as she discovers the reality of life in Ramallah during the second intifada. It is a gem of a small production; at times outright funny, at others uncomfortable as she deals with her maturation from self-centered young American actor to an aware adult, and ending by confronting your perception about the daily reality of the current Israel-Palestinian situation.
Ms. Jajeh does an excellent job in portraying the transition of girl to woman, from distant observer to a participant in this struggle. She has a talent for self-mockery and for mimicry, which sees a veritable cast of characters make an appearance of sort on stage as she creates their voice, phrasing, and persona. Ms Jajeh eventually confronts the violence of the conflict, and after a painful period of introspection returns back to the US where life has more options than just the existential struggle for life and sanity of modern day Palestine.
On reflection what the play brought me around to consider - in addition to the reality of the situation from her perspective as a participant rather than by an observer like myself – is the sheer liberty of existence that plurality offers. If you look at the majority of the world’s trouble spots –Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, to name just a few, and of course the Israeli-Palestine conflict – there is a commonality. The main factor is not fundamentalism, poverty, or a “youth bulge”. All of these though these can certainly be contributory factors, or more likely symptoms. However, probably the most important factor at the heart of the world’s violence is an absence of an acceptance of pluralism. Plurality and maturity mark the developed world, and their absence identifies the troubled regions.
Most of the conflict countries are relatively young. Many have a history of colonial influence. Many have arbitrary borders drawn by foreign powers. This contrasts to the more mature democracies such as in Western Europe. Europe is an ‘aged’ society – it has had its revolutions, purges, wars, and abuses generations ago, though strains of each can still be seen to this day. Younger countries are still fermenting in a like manner. We think of the Middle East, for example, as an ancient region, but the countries as we identify them now are relatively modern. Iraq is a little over seventy years old, Israel forty-something, and so on – they are modern-age formed entities, minted anew by colonialists. These countries are younger than many of our parents, and are still volatile and relatively liquid in form. They are like molten lava, not yet hard forged, and their teething pains of nationhood are exactly as Europe experienced in its past.
With this youth of governance, also comes an absence of pluralism – intellectual, social, political, and religious. Like a teenager, sure of purpose but untested, they demonstrate an inability to countenance that there may be more than one world view. We see this in the Taliban, as but one example, who cannot comprehend any other religion or form of law. They destroy historic relics, inhibit education, deny women’s rights, and more as a futile attempt to freeze progress. They would if they could deny the development of a pluralist view that comes with exposure to other views. This lack of pluralism does not only apply to religious zealotry alone, it can be personality driven such as in North Korea, ideological such as in Burma, or tribal such as in Israel. A lack of pluralism is a denial that there is any other potential path to follow, and as such is self-evidenced as illogical.
The US avoided the pluralism trap through the forethought and societal planning of its founding fathers, who themselves learnt from the Enlightenment in Europe. Pluralism is embedded and intertwined throughout the US constitution. It talks of freedom of religion and speech as bastions of the pluralism ideal. The US however has not, in fact could not avoid relative immaturity. It has demonstrated this youth in relation to such issues as slavery, racism, and is still evolving towards mature societal concepts as universal health care, welfare, and reasonable taxation codes.
If you are looking to identify the causes of the violence in many parts of the world, look to the dualistic characteristics of pluralism and maturity. The autocratic and dictatorial approach to governance evidenced is not dissimilar to the turmoil in the history of Western Europe. The European empires crumbled, hopes of imperialism perished, many dynasties and governments collapsed and a new societal age was born. The process is still ongoing in the US, albeit it had the hindsight learnings of Europe ensconced in its conception, so its advancement has been accelerated.
The violence in many troubled nations is the cultural overthrowing of colonialism, arbitrarily drawn borders, and just a painful element of the onerous path to adulthood. Rather than condemn or ostracize, Western Governments need to engage, encourage and counsel. Rather than ratifying the validity of the art of war, the West needs to coach them in the use of law. Rather than instilling democracy by military supremacy, itself an oxymoron, demonstration of sound governance and economic aspirations will cause sustainable change. When the Western Governments demonstrate maturity, then others will stop, listen, and heed. When they themselves act immaturely, then the world sees that too. Plurality and maturity are the underpinnings of sound governance, sustainable peace, and desired exports from the West to troubled nations.
These thoughts were inspired by watching a play performed by an outsider to a degree who subsequently became a participant. A young and entitled American walked into a region, and emerged with a fuller understanding of her ethnicity. She was forced to face the realities of the society and situation she had only previously observed from afar…much like many of us. The play with the contentious title, and one I will doubt you see t-shirts sold for anytime soon, is “I heart Hamas” by Jennifer Jajeh. The play has already run in New York, has been extended in its run in San Francisco, and will be coming to other cities soon, I hear and I hope it is true. You may want to catch a performance if you can, and see if the concepts – even if you don’t heart Hamas yourself - reverberate with you. It is a story of self-discovery as much as it is a microcosm of the conflict. If nothing more, it may make you more open to looking at any issue from the perspective of the participants and not just your own view from afar. Examining and identifying an issue from someone’s view who actually lives it, may be the most valuable gift of pluralism you can give yourself. That alone, and not taking into account the quality of the show itself, makes the admission price more than worthwhile.