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My intro to an extraordinary anthology of new plays

INTRODUCTION to Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diaspora

It is so strange how one word can have two hauntingly different meanings. Such is the case with a word like “exposed.” Do we want really our community, ourselves, and our children to be exposed?

If you see exposure as meaning that you possess a deep understanding of the perspectives of other kinds of people, yes. But, if you see it as meaning you are unprotected and physically vulnerable, probably not.

You might assume that most “learned” people would say that they don’t mind that their minds are exposed to other ways of seeing the world. You could argue that it is only our bodies that we are precarious about putting places where others can access.

But, this is a false assumption. Most of us are deeply, even savagely, invested in preserving our own worldview. We are taught to insist that our own version of history is the most important story, usually in the blind and instinctual way that we are sure - as children - that our parents are the only ones capable of protecting us. Even when they do not.

I was lucky enough to return as a Playwriting Fellow to spend a year at the university where I was once an undergraduate. I attended a debate by Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz at an event named "Israel and Palestine After Disengagement: Where Do We Go From Here?"

Rather than simply allowing myself to be reactive to the points the speakers were making (or failing to make) about my people’s history, I decided to try as much as possible to observe the theatrical aspects of this kind of political discussion. Why? It was a trying event for me to attend in the first place. As a Palestinian-American, I was nonplussed that there was no professor deemed worthy enough from our community to represent “our” perspective at the Kennedy School of Government. But that did not seem to matter to the audience, which appeared to be largely composed of Jewish and Arab undergraduates.

It felt scarier than debates I remembered attending as a student. There was no pretense of politeness. Before the speakers began, the kids were glaring at one another. Perhaps the fact that Chomsky was arguing for the human rights of people that were different from himself was much more destabilizing (and therefore more dangerous) than if a Palestinian intellectual like Edward Said did the talking. I felt grateful to Chomsky, and then I felt weird about feeling grateful. I began to put myself in his shoes. I had always seen myself as an activist. But, was that because I was raised to believe they were the only kind of people who might help to “save” mine? Was I truly an activist, a humanist, and an idealist at my core? Or did I just figure out those kinds of folks might be useful to have on my “team”? No one else seemed to care a whit about what happened to my family and people like us.

If I was raised by Jewish parents, would I have the balls and/or inclination to stand up for Palestinian rights in the way that Chomsky did? I had to face the fact that I could not know for sure.

But I did know something else. I had worked abroad and traveled enough by that point to realize that, as a playwright, I had more in common with a playwright from any another culture than a person who did not care for words from my own ethnic background. I realized that we theatre artists make up our own tribe. That fact is unacknowledged and ultimately unimportant to most of us, at least when it comes down to the brass tacks. We might sign a petition if playwrights were being persecuted in another country, but would we put ourselves in harm’s way for them? If there was an army to protect them, would we join it? Or even contribute significant dollars to arm that army? Probably not. The only tribes that truly matter – in that way - are the ones that we were taught since the cradle that it is our duty to go to war to defend.

As the debate continued, I watched this very privileged group of highly accomplished kids turn into a seething, angry mob. Some of them were wearing T-shirts identifying their ethnicities. These T-shirts were like costume pieces, which indicated their “role” and prevented them from being confused for a member of the “other” side. As the speakers made their opposing argument, the mostly teenage sneering crowd began to mutter furiously under their breath or cheer with manic frenzy when a point was “scored.” It did not feel like a political debate. It felt like a sporting event and not a friendly one. The audience seemed, in short, on the verge of becoming completely unhinged. Murderous. I think, if they could have punched each other without repercussions, several of them would have been delighted to take a shot. What I had read about the teenage brain not yet being fully formed made sense. They lacked the impulse control required to sit in their chairs without fidgeting like toddlers. They didn’t seem capable of physically handling the emotions that were stirring within them while continuing to act appropriately in a professional setting.

I thought to myself, “I’m so glad no one in this group has a gun!” Then, I realized our world’s armies are filled with kids about that age.

When our beliefs are questioned, particularly about a subject that involves whether our kind are more sinned against than sinning, we often react as if being physically threatened. The fight or flight instinct takes over. This is particularly true of people who don’t recognize tribes that are distinct from (and perhaps more meaningful than) their ethnic ones, the identities that were chosen for them rather than the ones they have the courage to select for themselves.

Some argue that our deep need to divide ourselves into separate tribes at all is an evolutionary byproduct of the fact that our ancestors who stayed in herds tended to fend off predators and fared better than those who didn’t adhere to the strictures of a group mentality. So, the loners or happy-go-lucky, generous-to-all folks got eaten early on. They, unfortunately, did not have the chance to chill long enough to procreate. Thus, we have evolved into a species that feels hysterically threatened by the telling of stories from ethnic perspectives that contradict the ones we were taught as children. We believe to even entertain a tale about a different person’s experience of our shared history is a betrayal. Betraying our tribe means we can be thrown out, which for so long meant almost certain death.

Yet, still there are those of us who attempt to have the heart to hear to each other’s experiences and even try to place them side by side. That is what makes this anthology – with its multiplicity of different urgent voices - very important. The insistence on the ability to listen, while it can feel like it is against our very DNA to do so, is an affirmation of the need to expose ourselves to more than what feels safe, to have the courage to believe that another’s insistence upon equal coexistence is not a coded way of trying to dupe you into calling for your own self-destruction. The first step to that kind of coexistence is giving dignity to both of our stories, and that is why it is often the hardest.

-Betty Shamieh

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