Seven artists were asked to reflect on Edward Said’s term “permission to narrate”, its importance today, and its significance/relation to their own work.
“Ismail asked if I’d like to write something for this and I thought: Sure, I’m a playwright, I care about this issue deeply. And yet I also thought: Do we really need another Jew writing an essay about “Permission to Narrate?” Who needs less permission than I?
And yet: permission to say what?
Ten years ago I wrote an angry, heartbroken, anti-Zionist fantasia called ARIEL SHARON STANDS AT THE TEMPLE MOUNT AND DREAMS OF THEODOR HERZL, a work that imagines the birth of Herzl’s political Zionism and its brutal implementation in a land with an indigenous, overwhelmingly non-Jewish population.
The play was turned down several times by several different Artistic Directors – “We’d lose half our Board!” – but it was heard in readings and workshops by brave companies, in mostly Jewish spaces such as Theatre J in DC, and a synagogue in upstate New York. In talkbacks I was sometimes called a self-hating Jew (…yawn) or more creatively, “a Hamas suicide bomber” (may all “suicide bombers” take over buses and perform plays!) The piece wasn’t ever fully produced… and yet I was at least let in the door. It was understood I had a right to tell this story.
Would the same right be granted a writer with an Arab name? With a different connection to this same history?
I think most of us know why “Permission to Narrate” is an appropriate title. Most of us have read the articles written about Israel or Zionism without a single Palestinian voice included. We have heard Palestinian histories dismissed as biased or bigoted. We have noticed that even when we hear voices critical of Israel, there is the seemingly obligatory mention of the speaker’s own tribal affiliation (guilty as charged).
To control one’s narrative is to begin to control one’s destiny. Say what you will about the early Zionists – and there’s a lot to say – they believed that to create a usable story was to create a blueprint for action. The very first Zionist slogan “Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen” speaks to this. Though often translated as “If you will it, it is no dream” the final word is actually “fairy tale”. What a difference between dream and fairy tale! Between a utopia and a story. A narrative.
“If you will it, it is not just a story.” But first comes telling the story. No permission needed.”
Permission to Narrate
“What do we really mean when artists speak about permission to narrate?
Don’t artists, particularly writers, already have that right if no one bars them from picking up a pen? Yes. So, when we demand, cajole, and clamor for the space to tell our stories, what we are oftentimes actually asking for is for other people to listen to them. Obviously, a Palestinian-American artist like myself enjoys it immensely whenever our perspective is represented by people like “us.” It goes without saying I also appreciate it when works of art advocate that people like me have equal rights and a chance to realize our full human potential.
But, if we are being honest, why should anyone else care? To answer, one must recognize and truly absorb the reality of why racism sucks for everyone, not simply for those who have the misfortune of being the ones who are disempowered, demonized, separated, silenced, misrepresented, and maligned.
Do you live in a world where there are simply too many fantastic people? Kindred spirits whose friendship makes you feel like you expand every time you see them, who dream bigger dreams for you than you dare to dream for yourself? Soul mates on every corner? Artists whose work stuns you into recognizing the staggering beauty of human grandeur, who shine a light on ideas that were always inside you but you could not articulate for yourself? If not, how terribly, horribly, and laughably foolish is it that we do not look to every person of every ethnicity, race, and religion to seek out the experiences that make life worthwhile enough to be somewhat worth the effort?
Looking at human history, one could argue that those who have the least means and space to tell their stories, oftentimes find the most innovative and original ways to do it. To miss out on the controversial art of your time is to miss out on being a part of your own era.”
NATHALIE HANDAL’s recent books include The Republics, lauded as “one of the most inventive books by one of today’s most diverse writers”; The Invisible Star; and the Poet in Andalucía. Her most recent plays have been produced at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Bush Theatre.
“When I began publishing, I crossed someone who told me my poem was not only aesthetically useless but that my work was shameless fabrication. She tore the page in half and left. I was stunned that a poem could create such a violent reaction. Unsettled by her discouragement, I placed the divided page in my bag and exercised forgetfulness.
Years later, I asked a bird for permission to fly. It stayed silent. I asked the sky permission to travel. It stayed silent. I asked silence permission to speak, it responded, it’d been speaking to me all along. This was one of my afternoons with Mahmoud Darwish—part of a series of symbolic moments that gave me a deep awareness of Said’s three words; gave me permission to go beyond the Palestinian cause and write our humanity; write the questions we ponder as our lives unfold, the cadences of our heart when it loves.
Fifteen years after the divided-poem incident, while on a divan in Haifa, I’m surprised when the person lying beside me recites the poem. How did he unite the page? I thank him for the sea. He adds: We also have the mountain. I understood. I could never forget nor be made invisible.
Persistence is the olives trees in Nablus, the phantoms in the stolen homes in Mar Elias, Malha or Lifta, the translucent water protecting the small feet of a boy in Gaza; it’s the stones that narrate us to ourselves because we are not just passing by.”
LAMEECE ISHAQ is an actor and writer, and Founding Artistic Director of Noor Theatre, a company dedicated to the work of artists of Middle Eastern descent. As an actor she has appeared in several regional and off-Broadway productions, including: Food and Fadwa (New York Theatre Workshop [NYTW]); The Fever Chart (The Public Theatre); The Black Eyed (NYTW); Stuff Happens (Public Theater [Drama Desk Award, Outstanding Ensemble]) and others. Among her plays is Food and Fadwa (NYTW/NOOR, 2012), which was recently published in Four Arab-American Plays (McFarland, 2013). She is a member of the Actors Center Workshop Company, League of Professional Theatre Women, The Dramatists Guild, AEA and SAG-AFTRA.
“We have the right to tell our stories the way we wish to tell them. We have the right to focus on any aspect of our experiences with as much gentleness or fervor or fury as we wish. We have the right to take back our narrative, to set the record straight, to be the heroes in our own plays and to express our humanity. We have the right to speak freely. We have the right to be angry. We have the right to tell one side. We will no longer let others tell us who we are, and what we can and cannot say. We give ourselves permission to narrate. And we will do so under the aegis of our own souls.”
NAJLA SAID Theatre: Nine Parts of Desire (Seattle Rep), Prophecy (London & NYC), The Fever Chart (Central Square). Performed Palestine, her solo show, Off-Broadway in 2010. Named one of “Forty Feminists Under Forty” by The Feminist Press (2010). Collaborated with Vanessa Redgrave on A World I Loved in 2012. Usual Suspect, NYTW. Author, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in An Arab-American Family (Riverhead, 2013.)
“‘Permission to narrate’: a phrase of immense power and significance, immediately recognizable to anyone of Palestinian descent. Laden with emotional and political meaning, it sums up our sixty plus year struggle for self determination brilliantly and concisely, and it was coined by my father. I say this not to boast (though I am immeasurably proud) but to contextualize my relationship to it, which is unique only in that I was born with the knowledge that I did indeed have and should assert my “permission to narrate.” Thus my life has been structured around it, toward it, with it, and through it; it has been a concept in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember, and for that I am grateful.
But one needn’t have a scholarly father who is able to articulate the concept to understand it. In fact, every Palestinian is linked by the very notion itself: our story matters too. I am a theatre artist who grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan, so I am more than aware of the predominant narrative surrounding the birth of the modern state of Israel. But as an insecure young person who couldn’t hold on to political arguments and facts and dates, I realized early on that the simple act of telling my family’s story without denying the opposing narratives presented to me by my Jewish friends was the simplest and most effective way of changing the larger conversation about the issue. “Just listen to my truth” is still a phrase I repeat in my head when I am writing a personal piece or working on a character, and it is behind my intense desire to share information coming out of all corners of Israel, the Occupied Territories, Gaza and the diaspora in any way I can.
These days, all Palestinians, even those that are imprisoned behind walls and barbed wire fences have more ways to share their stories than ever. The rise of the Internet and social media, along with a more desperate need to create alternative ways to get out the simple message that we exist, have existed and will exist, have brought us to a place where music, art, literature, poetry, theatre, film and simple human narratives in the form of tweets and Facebook updates can be heard and seen by everyone, everywhere. It is our nonviolent revolution, it has always existed, but now we are finally being heard.”
Born in Beirut in 1982, ISMAIL KHALIDI is a Palestinian-American writer. His plays include Truth Serum Blues (Pangea World Theater, ’05), Foot, Tennis in Nablus (Alliance Theater, ’10), and Sabra Falling. He is the co-editor of Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora (TCG, June 2015) and his writing has been published in Mizna,Guernica, the Nation, American Theatre, the Daily Beast and ReMezcla.
The following was adapted from a piece entitled “The Courage to be Dangerous”, originally published in TCG Circle, the online forum of Theatre Communications Group.
“As many of us know, what is considered acceptable to say and think about Palestinians in the U.S. is very often alarmingly ignorant, if not utterly bigoted and vile. Unlike 40 years ago, the word ‘Palestinian’ is now at least uttered in public (as opposed to just “Arab”) and we are even occasionally portrayed as one or two dimensional pseudo-human entities in the mainstream media. For this tremendous advancement in the American liberal imagination, I am told, we are meant to be thankful. Of course, it is not just Palestinians who are subject to this dehumanizing treatment and rhetoric. Much of what is said about Arabs and Muslims in general is reprehensible and not easily said in public about almost any other group. That said, while there is at least some enforcement of the red lines of political correctness when it comes to African Americans, Latinos and other marginalized minorities, they are of course still victims of horrendous institutional racism, not to mention violence and economic terrorism. The recent spate of police and vigilante violence against black men and the subsequent media coverage has proven that white supremacy is alive and well in the U.S. The lynch-mob hyperbole of Orientalism and Islamophobia which today thrives unabated is not unrelated to the legacies of white supremacy and territorial expansion.
When it comes to the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims, it is in large part the imperial realities on the ground (i.e. U.S. foreign policy) that feed the entertainment and media industries and vice versa. In fact, since the first Gulf War at least, it has been totally acceptable to kill and maim hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the course of U.S. wars and sanctions without even the slightest bit of official moral outrage or legal recourse. Torture too is permissible when the subject is Arab or Muslim (or “illegal” or incarcerated). So is extrajudicial killing by drone attack, even if the condemned is an American citizen.
My work, therefore, like the work of many of my colleagues, is influenced by that dynamic and exists in opposition to and in conversation with the notion of our supposed inferiority, our savagery, our expendability, and even our non-existence
Those of us who pay attention know that if the subject of Palestine is brought up it is often discussed, analyzed, or narrated by non-Palestinians. This is the reality that many of us cope with as writers, as professors, students, activists and workers. For those of us who write for the theater, the fact that a play is dramatically and artistically engaging, as well as meticulously researched, will not change this calculus. I would even say that often if a theater has the choice between a safe and “moderate” play about Palestine/Israel (i.e. one about two equal sides etc.) on the one hand, and a play that is more accurate in portraying the reality of the conflict from a “political” Palestinian or anti-Zionist perspective on the other, they will more often than not choose the former. There is an unspoken censorship that states that plays by Palestinians (or those critical of Israeli policies or Zionism) are to be presumed to be risky, if not anti-Semitic. As absurd as it is, it is for that reason that our work is often seen as needing to be overseen, edited, controlled or censored outright.
Of course there are exceptions to this, and the wall is cracking slowly but surely. People all over the country, on campuses, in the arts, in communities of color, and in synagogues and churches are waking up to the reality of apartheid in Palestine and the need to change American policy and have honest, open discussions. This process is a slow one but it has momentum and will continue. I believe that our job is to subvert censorship and stereotypes by continuing to narrate our own stories and the stories of others, and by challenging ourselves to do so with artistic integrity and excellence and a keen sense of the importance of solidarity, compassion and justice.”