Pushing the boundaries of identity: an interview with Jennifer Jajeh

Jennifer Jajeh (Joseph Sief)

Jennifer Jajeh’s critically acclaimed one-woman show, I Heart Hamas and Other Things I am Afraid to Tell You, pulls no punches. From a Ramallah Convention in San Francisco in the 1980s, to casting lines in contemporary Los Angeles, to the front lines of the Israeli occupation and back, Jajeh navigates the complicated and often conflicted terrain of Palestinian identity. Despite the complexity, her journey is anchored by her sole quest to find her own sense of self amidst the noise. This quest supersedes the politics, the expectations and the backlash that a Palestinian identity can carry and becomes universal. The Electronic Intifada contributor Uda Olabarria Walker interviewed Jajeh before she opened her show in Minneapolis in late February 2010.

Uda Olabarria Walker: When you gave the show the title I Heart Hamas and Other Things I am Afraid to Tell You and then launched at the NY Fringe festival in 2008 what were you expecting would happen?

Jennifer Jajeh: First, I was worried no one would come to the show. I also anticipated that there would be some people who would be offended or upset by the title and that there would be some resistance and backlash. Most people understood that title was a provocative, tongue-in-cheek statement and that there was complexity to the show beyond the title, however. In the end, I got pretty good audience and press responses in New York and a fantastic response here in San Francisco one year later.

UOW: The show traces the awakening of your identity, as it becomes, as you have said, “Palestinianized, politicized and radicalized.” Can you expand on this?

JJ: I grew up with a split life, half Palestinian and half American —where the two identities were very separate — to becoming an adult and combining the two. It wasn’t until I went to Palestine that I really figured out what it meant for me to be Palestinian on a personal level and what part of that identity felt vital for me. As far as becoming radicalized, it first had to do with pure anger at what I experienced on the ground in Palestine, but now it’s about challenging the status quo both externally and within the Palestinian community about what it means to be Palestinian and raising the difficult questions. It was also really important for me to claim my space as a Palestinian woman and look into what it means to be a woman in my community and what the role of women is in the struggle inside and outside that space. So, part of becoming radicalized was also about being a Palestinian woman who openly challenges my own community’s ideas about women’s roles, sexual mores and religious affiliations and divides. This has been really liberating.

UOW: You share an honest and vulnerable perspective on Palestinian identity. Can you talk a little about the vulnerability of doing something so personal on stage?

JJ: The show has been seriously transformative and it is very scary to put your own life experiences on stage. Each night you relive those experiences and while some are funny, many are very painful. The show is also very honest. You think that because it’s your own show, you can say whatever you want about yourself so why not make yourself look good, right? The reality is that the show forces me to be accountable. If I’m dishonest or misrepresent in any way people will not be drawn into the story and take the ride with me. Since the show is my personal, emotional and political journey I share all aspects of it: that includes the shallow, ugly and not very politically correct emotions that I never particularly wanted to share, but are very real. I also talk very honestly about having feelings of anger and desire for retribution for what’s happening. I felt very vulnerable going publicly to those deep, dark places but I realized that it was at these precise moments in the show that most people in the audience understood and they were right there with me.

UOW: You have commented before that early on you had some unexpected backlash to the show. Where did this come from?

JJ: In the beginning, some of the Arab community and Arab arts organizations were wary about publicly promoting or endorsing a show with such a controversial title even though privately they were in support. Of course this fear makes sense. Almost 10 years after [the attacks on] 11 September we still feel the weight of heightened anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. Organizations were fearful of losing funding or alienating their constituencies. This has created a climate where Palestinian and Arab artists are still only supported on a large scale when we represent ourselves as nonviolent and nonthreatening. More surprisingly though was the censorship from the Palestinian artist community. The idea of the show being at all cheeky, button-pushing and irreverent was threatening to people. Some actually said I was being irresponsible by airing internal Palestinian issues, using Hamas in the title, or making light of Palestinian identity. People actually told me to limit what I talked about and to have more digestible content! This is absurd!

UOW: It also seems that people have come to the show with certain expectations. I know some activists left thinking the show wasn’t politicized enough or wanted you to make a political statement. What’s your response to them?

JJ: They should write their own show. I didn’t write this show as a mission statement for any organization or political perspective. The point of the show to explore my identity and the triggers, pressures and complexity this identity holds for one Palestinian in particular, me. The second half of the show is about me coming to terms with the political part of my identity when I go back to Ramallah at the beginning of the second [Palestinian] intifada. But still, the politics are not the only thing that defines me as a Palestinian. There are a variety of Palestinian experiences and if I can get people to sit down and listen to just one of them for an hour and a half, I see it as a major accomplishment. If I have been able to create the space for people to explore the complexity of identity, I have also done well. This is what I’m trying to do with the show; explore identity and raise questions, not push a political agenda.

UOW: I read a comment online from someone who saw the show and said “There is nothing particularly Palestinian about her, except that she tells us she is.” What’s your reaction to this?

JJ: Well, it’s hilarious that someone didn’t like the way that I represented my own identity but it’s also pretty insulting that someone who would challenge my Palestinian identity and argue that I wasn’t Palestinian enough. I don’t know if this person expected me to belly dance, smoke an argilah or wear a kuffiyeh throughout the show, or what.

I state very clearly in the show’s opening voiceover that “I am not presenting the views or feeling of the average Palestinian, nor do I have any idea what that even means.” I felt it was important to put forth very clearly this notion: that there is no prototypical Palestinian. And, that identity is a hell of a lot more complex and individual, and that this story is being told through the lens of a very specific, individual experience. The first part of the show talks about me carrying the weight of other people’s expectations around my Palestinian identity, feeling squeezed from all sides by these expectations and dealing with people’s often negative, stereotypically racist and completely hilarious reactions to how I actually do express that identity. The [person] who wrote that comment must have missed that.

UOW: The beauty of the show for me is the surprisingly emotional impact it has had on the audience around the issue of identity in general.

JJ: Yes. I wasn’t anticipating this response. There were a lot of people from all walks of life who took away something powerful from the show or keyed into some very personal aspects of the issues of identity that the show brings up. From young Latina women to gay Filipino men, I had tons of people sending me emails and messages about how the show really touched on their own struggles of fitting in, being ashamed of their backgrounds and where they came from, or just the craziness of having a big, loud foreign family to contend with. Many people were surprised at how my Palestinian-American experience was so similar to their own experiences of being an outsider. Through this connection, I was then able to take people on the journey to Palestine in such a way that they could hear that story as well.

UOW: You have had some people coming to the show more than once.

JJ: I have had many people come four or five times and bring their friends. I got to the point where I told them they couldn’t come anymore or at least had to let me comp their tickets! But I’m happy they felt the work is important, entertaining and relevant enough that they wanted to experience it again with their friends.

UOW: This was your first foray into the medium of the one-woman show. Looking forward, what do you think the role of your art is or should be?

JJ: The role of my art is to push boundaries and to talk about things people are afraid to talk about. I’m hugely interested in people’s emotional experiences and psychological processes and how they relate to each other and define themselves. I want to get people to think more deeply, have more empathy, compassion and understanding for the next person. I also want them to push their own boundaries around how they move through the world within their identities.

Uda Olabarria Walker is a San Francisco-based Palestine solidarity organizer.

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