Last week I said that Palestine was busting out all over in New York and pointed to a theatrical production of a work with Palestinian themes directed and starring Vanessa Redgrave.
“A World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman” showed for two sold-out nights at Columbia University’s Miller Theater even as the UN General Assembly was voting to upgrade Palestine’s status. The piece represents yet another highwater mark in the growing liberal awareness of the Palestinian issue. Playing the Arab woman of the title, Wadad Makdisi Cortas, with great presence and wit, Redgrave was wildly applauded, and not demonstrated against (as she was for years after she stood up for Palestinian freedom at the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony). Also applauded were the words and image of the late Edward Said, whose widow Mariam Said introduced the evening by describing the long journey of her mother’s memoir to this stage.
The celebration also included the Spence Middle School Chorus, which sang classical pieces that had been sung at the Lebanese school at which Wadad Makdisi Cortas was head teacher. Spence is a fancy school in Manhattan, and having an American girls’ choir intertwined on stage, imaginatively, with an Arab girls’ choir was for me the highlight of the evening, the triumph of the idealistic spirit over orientalism.
That along with the history lessons imparted by Redgrave and players Nadim Sawalha and Najla Said. The intent of the piece was to allow Americans to perceive the conflict through Arab eyes, and Cortas’s writing fulfills this aim by describing in personal terms the convulsions in the Arab world in the 30s, 40s, and 50s as the imperial powers decide what to do with Palestine. And so today, nearly a century after the fact, an American audience is shown maps portraying the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. I’m sure many were seeing this agreement for the first time; maybe the next time they hear someone deploring Arab conspiracy theories, they will point out that a European conspiracy produced the borders of modern Arab states.
That conspiracy was followed by another cozy deal, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising a Jewish national home in Palestine. “Balfour’s promise disturbed me deeply,” Wadad Makdisi Cortas wrote. “I began to write a letter to the King of England.”
And of course there was Partition in ’47, and the Nakba.
“Father said that it was impossible for the million Arabs living in Palestine to understand why they should leave their home… to strangers who said it had belonged to them.” At last on a New York stage: history not rendered from a Zionist perspective.
Arabs had put their faith in Roosevelt, who had promised to be impartial; then Roosevelt died and Truman disappointed them. Cortas found it hard to teach girls about universal values when the west had so undermined the lesson with its “blind support” of Israel. Another bracing line for a New York audience.
The Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis tried to break the news softly in the program: “Whatever your point of view on the Mideast, whatever your religion or nation or politics, I hope that this heartfelt and eloquent piece will add to your understanding of the world…”
It worked for me. The most resonant statement in the piece was Cortas’s bell-like line about life before Partition: “Only in retrospect is the imminence of catastrophe so unmistakeable.” That warning is the best translation of Hillary Clinton’s current mantra, The status quo is unsustainable.