Palestinian Martyrs and Traitors

By Lucy Komisar

Inter Press Service (IPS), Sept 13, 2007

Credit:Aaron Epstein

Arian Moayed and Daoud Heidami (background) in a scene from Masked.

In a new play by a Palestinian-American woman, two characters say in unison: Oppression is like a coin maker. You put in human beings, press the right buttons and watch them get squeezed, shrunk, flattened till they take the slim shape of a two-faced coin, one side is a martyr, the other a traitor. All the possibilities of a life get reduced to those paltry two.

In a strange coincidence — or maybe not so strange — that is also the theme of a play written in 1990 by an Israeli man. Both were commenting on the murderous violence that had engulfed Palestinians. Betty Shamieh wrote The Black Eyed after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. Ilan Hatsor wrote The Masked a decade earlier during the first intifada. Both plays have made their way to off-Broadway in New York.

In the taut, tense drama Masked, three brothers confront each other in a West Bank Arab village butcher’s back room. Juxtaposing life and death, there are small black and white snapshots on one wall and meat hooks and blood on another.

Na’im (Arian Moayed), in his mid-20s, who has been hiding in the mountains, and his brother Khalid (Sanjit De Silva), 18, who runs the shop, are suspicious that Daoud (Daoud Heidami), 30, a dishwasher in Israel, is a collaborator. Someone saw him in an Israeli secret service car. They think he tipped the army before a protest in which their 7-year-old brother Nidal — dressed by Na’im in a militant’s uniform — was shot and left in a vegetative state.

Na’im tells Daoud that he is a marked man; The Leadership will deal with him. They’re going to clean the village of squealers. Khalid retorts, Terrific, you learned something from the Israelis.

They also talk about the darkness of Israeli occupation: houses destroyed, raids, round-ups, teargas, shooting at protesters.

Daoud insists he was set up, then that he’s pulled between both sides, and finally that he acted because the Israelis threatened him and his brothers: There were four or five interrogators working me over…I threw them a few names…They can do anything.

He adds, You and your militias killed more of us than the Israelis. Na’im retorts, You sold yourself to be a slave. He plants his foot on his brother’s neck. Khalid demands, I want a solution without blood.

The first intifada had been running for three years when Ilan Hatsor wrote this. He wanted a Jewish audience to see their enemy as human beings, members of a family.

He said at a talk-back after a New York performance, The play is about being torn apart; it’s a triangle of brothers. In the first intifada, more Palestinians were killed by Palestinians suspicious of collaborators than were killed by the Israeli army. We put them here. We as Israelis locked them in this place and are responsible that the collaborator is a collaborator. He added, The young brother Khalid [for a solution without blood] is my partner.

Hatsor’s work is male, about fighters and accommodators. Betty Shamieh’s work is feminist, showing that though men start and manage wars, women are swallowed by them.

The Black Eyed takes place in the afterlife, shown as a painted pink box, a tongue-in-cheek assertion of a feminine view of heaven. Four Palestinian women from different ages wait outside a room reserved for martyrs. Delilah (Emily Swallow), in a blue Egyptian robe, had a brother slaughtered in a charge against Samson. Tamam (Lameece Issaq), in a black and white robe, had a brother killed in defiance against the Crusaders. The Architect (Jeanine Serralles), modern in a chic slim dress and yellow pumps, died in a 9/11 plane. Aiesha (Aysan Celik), in baggy pants and shirt, is a terrorist.

Their conversation challenges the myth of heroic violence. Delilah comments, Our loved ones are allowed an afterlife. But Tamam adds, Just like every other misguided soul who murdered and raped.

Tamam’s name means enough. After her brother was picked up with a weapon, she tried to ransom his freedom and was raped. On his release, he joined an armed group and went to the marketplace with a knife and a mace to kill.

She says she should have told him, You are the most precious thing in the world to me…If you think this is a gift for me, the box will be empty, brother…They burned down our entire village, because you killed those people. What you did wasn’t about my honour. It was about yours.

On the other side, Aiesha declaims: I built something more intricate than the human heart, hugged it to my chest, and walked into the biggest crowd I could find. When she detonates herself, she kills a 7-year-old Arab girl. Delilah asks, How could you do that? It’s so angry. The three women say to Aiesha: It’s so male.

Shamieh satirises the notion that in the afterlife terrorist bombers get women, houris, whose virginity is continually renewed, and who are known as The Black Eyed. Aiesha says, The minute I got to the afterlife, I had a hundred men of every hue. That‘s what I believed I‘d get. Aiesha dreams of a renewably chaste man. It’s pointed out that who wants a man with no experience?…Besides, any girl could have twice that number on earth if she wanted to.

Like Hatsor, Shamieh sympathises with what drives terrorists. Aiesha: Live my life on earth in my dirty, crowded refugee camp in the place that your parents abandoned…I never had the chances you had to do anything different than what I did. So don‘t you judge me.

The Architect acknowledges that the hijackers have lived lives that would break the hardest of men. They only want to be heard. But she insists, All that still doesn’t make it right to kill. I would say to them, ‘You’re hijacking this plane full of people who are ignorant, who are looking at you and saying, what kind of people could do such violent, cruel things? They don‘t know that it’s the kind of people the American government had been doing just as violent cruel things to in its people’s name for generation. Maybe they don’t care. But they’re not worth killing yourself over.’ She would say: They rate our lives at nothing. When we kill ourselves in the hope of hurting them, we show that we agree, that we feel our lives are dispensable.

Shamieh says she wrote the play to talk about violence in a historical perspective, because I thought that what was being lost after 9/11 was the idea of where is this violence coming from.

She says, You have a character saying no one is going to reduce me to a coin. I don‘t care that this oppression is happening to me, that is not going to make me choose between these two things that are extreme.

Article on IPS site

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