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Posted in: Jihad & Terrorism, Film & Propaganda

Published on Aug 19, 2007 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Phyllis Chesler

The Intifada Off-Broadway


I once lived in the East Village--'twas back in the early 1960s, long before it became as fashionable as it now is. I moved away long ago but over the years, I would return to visit friends, sometimes to attend meetings, but mainly to enjoy feminist-experimental theatre. Last night, I returned to East 4th St. in the hope that a well reviewed play about four Arab women would establish a point of connectivity for me, a road through the nightmarish impasse of Big Lies.

I arrived early. Right next door stood a small and unpretentious cafe. I ordered espresso and looked around. Ellen Stewart's fabled theatre Café La Mama stood right across the street. I looked up and saw two quotes from Emma Goldman mounted on the wall: one about freedom of speech and one against war. Once, long ago, I taught Emma Goldman's work and I quoted her in my own earliest works. I called the proprietress over and she told me that although she did not know Goldman's work, she had "liked" what Goldman had said.

Actually, Goldman, who was also a nurse, had run a birth control clinic for women about eight blocks from the café. I told the proprietress that Goldman had the courage to denounce Soviet Russia when she visited there but that such honesty had not endeared her to the FBI who deported her anyway. Goldman lived out her days banished from her country, partly for telling the truth but also for associating with anarchist-terrorists.

I came, hoping to like the play whose exact title is "The Black Eyed." The playwright, Betty Shamieh, first began this work in October of 2001, right after 9/11, and since then has either given readings, was supported by, or worked in residence at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (2002); the Hanger Theatre Lab in Ithaca (2002); the Lark Play Development Center (2005); the Sundance Theatre Residency program, (2005); the Magic Theatre (2005); the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard (2006); Dartmouth (2006); Brandeis University (2006); and now at the New York Theatre Workshop. Along the way, the playwright worked with and had the support of many people, including Jessica Heidt, Chris Smith, the legendary Lee Breur, and the play's current director Sam Gold.

Thus, the play has been supported every step of the way. But why?

Shamieh's premise is an interesting one: Four women, all Arabs or all "Palestinians," meet in heaven. One, Aisha is a contemporary suicide killer; another, Tamam, was raped by Crusaders before her captive brother's eyes; a third is a thirty-five year old Palestinian Christian who died a virgin when her Palestinian "brothers" hijacked her plane and killed all the passengers; a fourth is none other than Samson's Delilah, and a very sultry and seductive Delilah she is.

One would imagine that these women might have so much to discuss, including the ways in which each of them had been limited by their gender. True, Delilah is clear that she was used by her tribe in order to vanquish Samson (whom she betrayed but still loves). The virgin-Architect is bitter about not being able to get ahead in her profession because she is/was a woman. But there is no consistent or dramatically compelling feminist analysis. There is no character or plot development, the women do not change, they are not changed by each other in this heavenly discussion, nor do they really debate the "morality of terrorism" as the critics have claimed.

There are more than a few good laughs and a series of star acting turns, but the play is trite, superficial, non-credible--an embarrassing piece of propaganda. And, Aisha, the suicide killer is not like any Arab woman I have ever known. She plays the part as if she is an angry butch-lesbian, American style, or a male-style angry African-American rapper. Her tactics of intimidation, insults, vulgarity, sexual put-downs do not ring true. (Listen, what do I know? But I doubt that many such Palestinian women, even among the shahidas, fit this particular profile).

I did not mean to write about this play but once I heard the lines, I began jotting them down. Here are some, perhaps paraphrased a bit: “The Crusades were nothing compared to the Palestinain-Israeli struggle; “So what if terror had to be used to bring down apartheid in South Africa; “Without the Black Panthers and the murders they committed, there would be no civil rights; "the Americans are worse than Palestinian terrorists; why is violence only wrong when we use it?" etc.

Where can one start? Mandela favored a non-violent struggle in South Africa. The Black Panthers ruined Martin Luther King's dream of a non-violent struggle. But why quibble?

There is not a stereotype that isn't used. Palestinian women all work as maids for Israelis. They all live in dirty, crowded refugee camps, face checkpoints, curfews, carry keys around their necks to homes that no longer exist except in the memories of their grandparents.

The fact that some Palestinians also live in grand villas and some live inside Israel proper as Israeli citizens and have more rights than their counterparts do under any Arab regime in the region are facts banished from this play.

Nevertheless, the audience was rapt. They applauded respectfully, gratefully, cleansed, freed from liberal guilt, if at least for the moment. It was as if they were attending Church, so to speak. Or felt they stood on holy, familiar ground.

Thus, even if a play is not artistically coherent and is based on Big Lies or at best, on very small half-truths, in these times, it may garner serious support and find an appreciative audience--as long as it rings the right Pavlovian bells to which we have all been conditioned. If bits and pieces of propaganda are trotted out, even if unrelated to the story-line, they are emotionally experienced as symbols of something larger; they command our (brainwashed) respect even when embedded in a slight work.

My friends: We are in trouble when such a minor play, fraught with such superficial propaganda makes it onto off-Broadway where we are entitled to expect more challenging fare than what's on-Broadway. A play based on the work of Rajah Shaheeda who writes about living in "Palestine," would melt one's heart with particularity, specificity. Bassam Eid, who founded the first Palestinian Human Rights Organization to document Palestinian-on-Palestinian human rights violations, might make for a complex and compelling play.

These four black-eyed women deserve more.


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