x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

How to say 'I Heart Hamas' as the only Palestinian in Edinburgh

Standing out in a sea of comedians and having people listen to an honest and moving story about the surreality of diaspora Palestinian identity and life on the ground in Palestine is challenging.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

I think I'm the only Palestinian in Edinburgh.

In late July, I arrive at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest multi-arts festival in the world, after a three-city summer US tour. I'm feeling supremely confident about my show I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You, a one-woman show I wrote in 2008 about growing up Palestinian-American and life in the West Bank during the Second Intifada.

I've been invited to perform the show for the past four years at theatres and festivals in 12 US cities. I'm used to positive reviews, a large turnout and spirited post-show exchanges with people, talks that usually end in tears, laughs and then cocktails.

I think I'm ready to take things to an international audience, and am utterly naive about the challenge I am about to face. And with that I entered what I like to refer to as the Olympics of performance.

Throughout August, the centre of Edinburgh is crowded with a sea of bodies, a mix of performers all vying for attention.

The semi-naked and scantily-clad seem to inhabit much of the public space on the Royal Mile, lying about in prop beds, handing out flyers with their trousers around their ankles or in full body paint with bandages around key body parts.

College troupes in period costumes yell out bits of Shakespeare, butting up against buskers, clowns and stilt-walkers, all handing out as many flyers as possible. This is what I am up against.

The foremost question in my mind is: how am I going to compete with all of this? I have no costumes, no corporate sponsors, no marketing budget. In this climate finding an audience for any show might prove difficult, but for a small one-person theatre performance about Palestinian identity and life in Ramallah during the second Intifada?

Quickly, I realise people assume my show is a comedy. With the proliferation of the Shappi Khorshandis and Shazia Mirzas of the world, Britain is used to cheeky "ethnic" female comedians and feels comfortable lumping me into that category.

Shows with titles like Axis Of Evil and Does this Bomb Make Me Look Fat? have already set the stage for irreverent racial comedy in previous years, and I Heart Hamas doesn't seem too long a leap.

Over the course of the festival, I have to constantly explain that although my show has comedic elements, it's in fact a dramedy, or a tragi-comedy. It's a piece about Palestine after all, I explain. It certainly can't end as a comedy.

The irony of having to constantly clarify my show's identity - in relation to a show about constantly clarifying my own identity - is not lost on me.

Immediately I set out to find my people: Palestinians, Arabs, social justice groups, like-minded artists and activists. I scour the Fringe guide. Tweet, tweet, tweet, email, Facebook, tweet. I pass out flyers. "Am I the only Palestinian in Edinburgh?" I tweet. No one replies.

People in the States kept telling me Scottish audiences would be more sympathetic and knowledgeable about Palestine. That they'd know more about the political situation and what was really happening on the ground in Palestine. And for the most part that's true.

I was thrilled to find Palestinian olive oil for sale in the supermarket. Palestinian flags were not an uncommon sight. These things would never happen in America, not even in my granola, hippie liberal hometown of San Francisco. I take this as a positive sign.

As if on cue, the threatening emails arrive. My promoter receives a number of them from a charmingly illiterate lunatic who calls us "manaics" and is sure we're going to Hell. There is one addressed to me that stands out as particularly creative and high-minded as it is in three different languages. It reads: "A good Arab is a dead Arab" in Hebrew, French and English. A few press stories run about it. People are buzzing with the story and keep asking me if I'm OK.

It's funny how art imitates life. Standing out in a sea of comedians and having people listen to an honest and moving story about the surreality of diaspora Palestinian identity and life on the ground in Palestine is challenging, I get it.

Under these circumstances, a show needs to stand out, but I don't want my show defined by someone else's agenda. This is exactly what the central question of the show is about - examining how one's narrative as a Palestinian is not one's own.

It is a concerted attempt to wrestle control of that narrative back for myself as a hyphenated Palestinian, and make it into whatever I see fit: cheeky, satirical, or controversial, but on my own terms. There is no way I'm going to let these death threats take centre stage and become the story of my show. It is hard enough being the difficult-to-pin-down show, I'm not going to be the death-threat show. No, thank you.

I send out more Twitter SOSs. "Where are my Palestinians at? Please reply. Last call." No reply.

Then my PR guy tells me a large publication is interested in running a story comparing my team's death threats with a protest faced by the only Israeli troupe at the festival.

Here we go again. Another familiar angle in the West: how Israeli and Palestinian artists are tied together by conflict. Another attempt to put my show into a box of someone else's making, pushing someone else's agenda.

There is a line in the opening announcement of my show that goes: "To all of the Jews and Israelis in the audience. Relax. The show isn't about you. It's about Jennifer."

But now it isn't about me any more. I find myself once again trying to gain control of the story around my show. It seems the art-imitating-life thing is getting out of hand.

One afternoon, as I'm racing across town with my two pretty, very American interns, we're approached by a group of people asking why these obviously non-Palestinian women are wearing "Kiss Me I'm Palestinian" T-shirts. They are a group of Palestinian tourists from Nablus and I'm utterly overjoyed.

"I've been looking for you!" I tell them. They're confused, but agree to come to the show.

We've done pretty well up to this point. We've received some fantastic reviews and most nights we've attracted half houses - which in Edinburgh terms is a sold-out, extended Broadway run. Other artists keep telling me, a bit enviously, how great I'm doing.

For the most part the people who have come out are activists, artists and other theatre-going types who have an interest in Palestine. Many of them share their experiences of Palestine with me afterward. One night an older Irish gentleman hugs me and says, "The British tried to make us out to be terrorists too".

A few women who travel annually to Palestine to volunteer at checkpoints tell me funny stories about their interactions with Israeli soldiers. There are post-show drinks and laughs, Twitter shout-outs and many, many people are moved by the show.

But it occurs to me that although the British may get the politics, maybe the Americans get the experience of being from somewhere else. In America, where almost everyone is an immigrant, many people wrestle with hyphenated identity, merging old-world traditions with American life. Maybe it's easier for Americans to identify with my struggle for identity and dislocation, though the Palestine part is largely lost on them.

The Palestinians, true to their word, show up in a group of 20. And truer to our culture they all arrive a few minutes late. The show is my best show yet in Edinburgh: the crowd is crackling with electricity and every joke and heartfelt moment lands. I'm telling a story they can relate to personally and the audience reaction this night reflects it. They all thank me profusely at the end. Finally, I feel relieved. I'm not the only Palestinian in Edinburgh anymore.

Jennifer Jajeh is a writer, performer and independent filmmaker from San Francisco. She is making her UK debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. www.jenniferjajeh.com