Tarek Halaby, Lecture/Performance: An attempt to understand my socio-political disposition through artistic research on personal identity in relationship to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Part One
Posted by: Dusty Hoesly
Tarek Halaby’s lecture/performance is ridiculously and too easily titled “An attempt to understand my socio-political disposition through artistic research on personal identity in relationship to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Part One.” It’s an “attempt” alright. As Halaby readily admits during his short piece, most of his sketches are failed ideas, possibilities that he determined wouldn’t work even before performing them. Yet he performs them anyway, primarily as an explanation of a two-year, funded artist residency in Brussels that he squandered, vainly searching for a great new idea to perform. Suffice to say, the search continues.
Initially, Halaby rolls on stage several pieces of luggage, which house his props. He talks about living in Brussels but not learning the languages or even trying to integrate, and how his residency at a conservatory was a “disaster” for making work. He admits he was “overconfident” to think he could create a solo dance show and that he wasted a full year of his residency doing nothing. Then he talks about his Palestinian ancestry (although he is a U.S. citizen) and how he doesn’t know Arabic. He admits he is an artist who “doesn’t know how to manage my time,” which becomes abundantly clear as the show continues. But he says he doesn’t want to be “another pathetic Palestinian crying about the situation he’s in,” which is exactly what he proceeds to do.
The first idea for a show Halaby had was to show pictures of Palestine, its beauty alongside the horrors of war and poverty, and politicize audiences into action, but he “couldn’t generate movement from the pictures.” Still, after rejecting this idea, he asks a volunteer to take the stage to show the audience pictures from a book on Palestine while he starts singing a hopeful Arabic song. After a minute, he abruptly stops, saying: “I’m sorry–this isn’t working the way I thought it would. I get the feeling you guys don’t really give a shit… You’re not Palestinian so you don’t care.” Both comments are odd and insulting: he already admitted the idea wouldn’t work, and then he abuses spectators by claiming that their ethnicity bars them from caring about other people. If anything, he’s already preaching to the choir.
The second idea for a show was for Halaby to hold the audience under occupation like Palestinians: he’d flash bright blinders in people’s eyes and “interrogate” them with a megaphone. So Halaby passes out broken sunglasses and lamp gels before lowering the lights, which are then only dimly lit, negating the use of the props. Talking through a megaphone, he says, “What are you all looking at? You think this is some kind of performance?” Sadly, while the answer should be yes, it is actually no. “That didn’t work,” he says of talking too politely and quietly, “I’ve got to turn this up and get more mean.” He tries to demonstrate control by telling the audience to stand up, march in place, and yell “Israel is number one!” as he sings “Hava Nagila” and calls us pigs. Surprisingly, the audience complies without hesitation or complaint. Yet, Halaby stops, saying, “That was really pathetic. I tried making it fun but you showed no enthusiasm. And the megaphone was getting really heavy.” It is yet another pre-ordained failed attempt that neither illuminates his torn identity nor grants audiences ideas worth pursuing.
Halaby tells us about his Catholic grade school days in Chicago where he was the “nicest guy in school.” He briefly, wryly fantasizes about taking a bomb, shoving it up somebody’s ass, and blowing them up, “because that’s what Palestinians do”. Just what section of the audience does he intend to reach with this lame moralistic humor? “If you think Palestinians are scary, go to a school run by nuns,” he jokes, before discoursing on how “school is a great place to cover up terrorist activities.” We hear a cliché punchline about how he was in an undercover Hamas division called Hummus, a “food and culture” wing of Palestinian diplomacy. They want him to rap in Arabic to teach Palestinian issues to a wider audience, so he raps: “That’s my dick you’re sucking; those are my balls you’re crushing.” If we haven’t totally fizzled our patience with these tired, lazy, and unintelligent jokes, he offers that his first name, Tarek, is actually an acronym for “Terrorist At Rehearsal Every K,” but he couldn’t think of anything “clever” to use for the K. By this point, I don’t even care when he says “you guys don’t take me seriously”–he has given us no reason to do so, and he suggests by this underdeveloped work that he doesn’t take us seriously either.
Towards the end, Halaby tells two personal stories, both involving convoluted confusions. First, through a similarity between his father’s name and that of Najeeb Halaby (a former FAA administrator and Pan Am CEO whose daughter became the Queen of Jordan), he lies and tells an airline agent that he is Prince Tarek. He is told he can wait in the business lounge and is then whisked off through back hallways, led by a team of security agents, to a private jet where he flew from Vienna to JFK alone, rather than in coach on a commercial airliner like he’d booked. From here he digresses into saying “Palestinians are ruthless–you fuck with one, you fuck with us all!” and then comparing Palestinians unfavorably to the mafia. He says all Palestinians do is smoke, drink coffee, and talk, so “we never get anything done… I’m a perfect example right here.” Indeed.
The second story involves a surly U.S. customs and immigration officer who asks Halaby about his citizenship, from which we learn he is an American-Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia with Jordanian/U.S. nationalities. After several additions to the story of his life and heritage, the frustrated customs agent admits him, though Halaby “felt like shit.” He delivers the tired epiphany “I don’t know what to call home.” We’ve heard that before, so it’s too bad he couldn’t find a new way to say it, perhaps even through dance.
He ends with an image about which he says, perhaps overconfidently, “This is what it means to be a Palestinian today… It’s a dance that shows the strength and determination of the Palestinian people.” Then he walks behind the still-lowered bright lights rack (they are turned off) and stands, obscured, silent, nearly motionless except for his arms crossed on his chest, now at his sides, now resting on his hip, now behind his back. He’s “fenced off” behind the “wall.” It’s another easy visual metaphor in a piece filled with cheap choices, and it’s a dance that goes nowhere, literally and figuratively.
Tarek Halaby seems like a nice guy, and from what I hear he was talented in Miguel Gutierrez’s performance piece, but this show is so poorly conceived that its trifling contrivances are disrespectful to the audience. The fact that it is purposefully unpolished and unfinished does not excuse the artist from his responsibility to create and perform a work that is deeply engaging, provocative, and enlightening. As it currently stands, “An attempt” is yet another work by a mixed-heritage artist trying to express his/her cultural dislocation and resulting identity crisis; disappointingly, Halaby has nothing novel to say here and no truly thoughtful way to present his ideas. As he recognizes, being an artist takes labor, and I encourage Halaby to get back to work and make a piece worthy of his name and our time.