Being a single woman in America is hard enough at times. But being a single Christian Palestinian-American visiting Ramallah at the start of the Second Intifada? With the ever-present backdrop of global politics and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’ve got grounds for a serious tragicomedy.
Disturbing, funny and nothing short of engaging, that’s the story that actress/writer Jennifer Jajeh weaves her audiences through in her hit one-woman show I Heart Hamas (and Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You). With a mix of comedy, multimedia and pop culture references sprinkled throughout, Jajeh “navigates the thorny terrain around Palestinian identity” with “stories [that] take the audience by surprise, make them chuckle and also catch them off guard shedding a year or two” (Take a look at our other Aslan Media feature from June 2011).
Narrating her experiences as a Palestinian-American who returns to her parents’ homeland to study, Jajeh depicts her role as an “outsider” in Ramallah before the Second Intifada. This role emerges most poignantly at one of the checkpoints she narrates. First, she is perceived as Palestinian by the soldiers she confronts and then, with some bemusement, is perceived as Spanish by others crossing over the checkpoint — a site where she found powerlessness and frustration, but where she, in her own words, could “at least, be witness.”
Recently, Jajeh took time from Scotland’s Fringe Festival to talk with Aslan Media contributor Nahrain Al-Mousawi about her show, the Second Intifada, and death threats that have become a routine part of performing.
Aslan Media (AM): You’ve been touring around the US with your one-woman show I Heart Hamas. I’ve seen the show and you discuss, on one level, how you came to create the show. Can you discuss here how you were inspired to create the show?
Jennifer Jajeh (JJ): I’d been acting and producing for a number of years and was starting to lose sight of my initial inspiration and vision. It was at this point in 2008 that I enrolled in a writing workshop with Kamau Bell certain that I had a show in me, but unclear as to what that show was. Kamau really encouraged us as writers to explore the dark, uncomfortable beliefs that we all hold, but rarely speak about. The environment was incredibly supportive, yet felt vital and exciting and was exactly what I needed to begin sorting through my stories and feelings about my time in Palestine.
AM: What has been the most fulfilling part of performing the show stateside?
JJ: Connecting with people from different communities and walks of life who see their own struggles with identity and dislocation reflected in the show has been incredibly powerful. Also, expanding peoples’ perceptions of who Palestinians are and what our lives look like.
AM: What has been the biggest obstacle to performing the show and what problems have arisen from performances?
JJ: It had been challenging getting institutional funding and support for the show because of the title. I’ve had a number of opportunities for presenting, promoting or funding disappear once an organization’s board gets involved.
AM: You were in Ramallah at the outset of the second intifada in 2000, a historical moment. What moment within that time has left the most lasting impression? What moment do you find too disquieting to discuss or joke about, if there is any?
JJ: The mechanisms of modern warfare are pretty surreal. It almost felt staged and there was something theatrical and incredibly alarming about it all. Going to clash-points where children and young men routinely show up to throw stones at soldiers, watching soldiers arrive to shoot at those children and then seeing the press waiting on the sidelines to capture just the right moment. It made me feel sick and powerless to do anything to stop it, and yet I couldn’t just walk away. I needed to go back day after day and document what was happening—at least to be witness.
AM: Are there topics in your repertoire that are off-limits in terms of discussion, performance, or comedy?
JJ: A friend recently described me as the person who turns over stones to examine all the dark, unexposed things growing underneath. So, I guess, that’s a no.
AM: What has been your parents’ and family’s reaction to your decision to become an actor?
JJ: At first they thought it was crazy and totally unrealistic. It’s not common for people in my community to choose the arts as a profession and I think they were afraid for me. But having seen the success of my show, they’re incredibly supportive and proud of my work. My mom often carries press clippings from my show in her purse and pulls them out when people ask about me. I like to call it my unofficial “marriage press kit”.
AM: I read that you have been receiving death threats. You mentioned that you were used to them. Can you discuss them and what impact that has had on you and your work?
JJ: Ever since I started touring this show, I’ve received intermittent emails from charming strangers with messages like “A Good Arab Is a Dead Arab” or things like “DIE! DIE! DIE PALESTINIAN BITCH.” At first I was really shaken, but nothing really came of the emails or blog posts calling for the picketing of my show and I eventually chose to ignore them. Clearly, these are people who haven’t seen my work, have no understanding of satire and are just plain bullies. I often imagine them to be from some lonely middle-aged guy living in his parents’ basement whose only window into the world is the Internet. It’s easier for me to assume they’re harmless, since the show carries enough emotional weight for me as it is.
AM: In your performance of the checkpoint, this space of tension becomes humorous, so the audience moves from fear to laughter. These quick turns of scenes and emotions are ubiquitous in your play. Do you find yourself exhausted after a while? How do you rejuvenate or relax?
JJ: The show is physically and psychologically taxing and I find that I do need to take breaks from performing it. There is also so much drama around the show: peoples’ fears and personal issues around identity and Palestine, the death threats, outright anger at whatever I’m saying without knowing what I’m saying. I enjoy spending time engaging with audiences post-show, having a drink and hearing their experiences. It makes the work feel worthwhile and that helps keep me invigorated. Also, sitting in water helps a lot too.
AM: You have a new project called Ask a Palestinian. Can you discuss this project, its aims, and experience further?
JJ: There is a segment of my show where I take imaginary audience questions through a prop sign onstage. It’s a very humorous device that allows me to address some of the difficult or inappropriate questions people have about Palestine/Palestinians. While fundraising for my Edinburgh shows, I took the sign to the street to shoot some promo videos. Random people began to approach me asking me real questions about myself and about Palestine. I saw how engaged people were and how the gimmick helped people feel comfortable, so I continued to do this at street fairs in San Francisco over the next few weeks. I hope to continue this in other cities in Europe over the coming months.
AM: What is next for you?
JJ: After 19 shows in 24 days, a nice long holiday.*Photo Credits: Joseph Seif and Mareesa Stertz. Photos courtesy of Jennifer Jajeh.