Skip to main content

Palestinian-American Comedian Takes Show on Identity to Beirut

Palestinian-American comedian Jennifer Jajeh speaks with Al-Monitor's Antoun Issa about the accomplishments of her "I Heart Hamas" tour and the quest for belonging that took her to the front lines of the world's most enduring conflict.

After five years on the road, Jennifer Jajeh’s widely publicized one-woman “I Heart Hamas” comedy tour is drawing to a close. That she chose Beirut — her only leg in the Arab world — as one of her final stops is fitting for a journey that has taken the Palestinian-American across the United States and that will end in London next month. Despite admitting that an Arab audience was “not my target audience,” Jajeh was keen to avoid “preaching to the choir” to a Beirut crowd that was “obviously very aware of the issues.” Jajeh presented a comical, and at times depressing, transformation of her Palestinian identity from being a member of a migrant community with set stereotypes in the US, to that of a people under occupation during the Second Intifada (2000-2001).

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Al-Monitor:  “I Heart Hamas” was originally written for a Western audience; did you have to tailor it for the Beirut show?

Jajeh:  I was really concerned about that, because the show is so geared towards Western audiences who maybe don’t have a lot of knowledge about the Palestine question, or who think they know a little and are interested to know more. I chose to tailor it a very little because I wanted to see if the same ideas of feeling out of place, and out of sorts resonated, and I felt, surprisingly, it really did.

Al-Monitor:  How have Western audiences reacted to your show so far?

Jajeh:  People weren’t always so happy when they walked out of the door of the theater. I do think that the Palestine issue is not accurately reported, especially in America. The media bias is insane. In America, people would say things to me from “Wow, that’s horrifying” to “Oh, they have bars in Palestine?” It’s important to educate on the horrifying aspect and the fact that young people are young people everywhere and want to go to a bar to hang out, and they’re normal human beings with the same desires and goals. 

Al-Monitor:  How do Palestinians brought up in the West, who don’t have a real life experience with Palestinian hardship in Lebanon or Palestine, connect with this identity of suffering?

Jajeh:  There’s a huge disconnect. I honestly believed this trip to the West Bank, beyond becoming a show that I’ve performed for five years, also changed my life and perspective significantly. There’s no way to understand what it feels like to live in that situation until you’re actually living in that situation. The hardest part for me being there was that it just didn’t make any sense. Why do kids go to a clash point and then soldiers just show up and shoot them? What if the kids didn’t show up, and what if the soldiers didn’t show up? I couldn’t fathom why a different choice couldn’t just be made by either, or both parties involved.

Al-Monitor:  You highlighted in your show the challenges of trying to fit in with the Palestinians in the West Bank. Did you consider yourself more a voyeur to what was happening as opposed to a participant?

Jajeh:  Yes, it was difficult. I left, so in some sense I refused to be a participant because I chose to leave. I have the privilege to be able to leave. It’s very hard for Palestinians to leave, and once they leave it’s very hard to come back. I felt very Palestinian almost immediately upon arriving. You grow up in between cultures, and you feel you’re not really Palestinian, and you’re not really American. You never quite get it right in either context. And when I went to Palestine, I was very clearly American, but at the same time I was in a whole area with my extended family. The land just felt like home. So it was devastating that people were constantly calling me “Espanoliya” and “Brazilian,” it was driving me crazy. I kept on insisting: “I’m from here!” 

Al-Monitor:  Have you had much interest in the show from Israelis?

Jajeh:  I’ve had a lot of anti-Zionist Israelis and Jews support the show. I’ve had some interest from Jews and Israelis who definitely have a different perspective, and are interested in what I’m saying, and actually wanted to have conversations and follow-up after the show. And then I’ve also had Jews and Israelis who are very angry at me, and sent me tons of hate mail, and think I’m the devil, and are just unwilling to engage and see what I’m saying. It’s been a mixed bag. 

Al-Monitor:  And the Palestinian side?

Jajeh:  They’re supportive in terms of coming out to the show. But people have a lot of fear, they don’t want to be identified with something that’s super controversial. They’re already going through enough in terms of navigating the world being Palestinian. I think the title scares people, or they get really nervous.

Al-Monitor:  Now, at the closing stages of your tour, have you finally discovered what your Palestinian identity represents to you?

Jajeh:  It’s definitely shifted over the past five years in doing the show. I started the show in a place where I was very traumatized, angry and rattled about what I had seen in Palestine. I couldn’t justify how this could be going on for so long and nobody does anything. Do I just go back to my life in New York and pretend I didn’t see that? It almost made it so much more confusing that I had gone to Palestine, because I just didn’t know how to synthesize what I had experienced. So I feel like the show has helped me heal that. As I engage with the material more and more, it’s helping me articulate how I feel. At the end of the day, no matter what, I still feel very Palestinian all the time, even if no one believes I’m Palestinian (laughs). 

Al-Monitor:  What do you say to the Palestinians sitting in refugee camps in Lebanon still waiting to go back, and deprived all of their rights here?

Jajeh:  As Palestinians in the diaspora, as Palestinians in refugee camps, as Palestinians under occupation, as Palestinians who are very privileged and able to get up on stage and tell stories, we need to collectively work on coming up with solutions. There’s so much discussion and no movement on a way forward. Personally, I think this UN bid is a whole bunch of nonsense, and it’s really derailing the actual conversation of finding a solution. Wearing a sash doesn’t make you a pageant winner. We have a "state" now, but we can’t govern it and we have no right to define it, or do anything on the ground. This is what happens with the Palestinian issue. It’s always derailed, and it’s a lot of rhetoric and talk as opposed to solution-oriented. We really need to start listening to the voices in the [Palestinian] community, and coming up with solutions to the issues, outside of Israel deciding to give that to us, outside of the world forum deciding we deserve a state. We need to articulate that vision ourselves. 

Antoun Issa is a news editor for Al-Monitor, based in Beirut.