My Father My Martyr and Me
Fargo Nissim Tbakhi’s My Father, My Martyr, and Me at Capital Fringe Festival; Courtesy of Capital Fringe

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A keffiyeh, the black-and-white scarf that has served as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, is tossed upon a mound of earth. There is a stepladder and a shovel. On the back wall is a projection of the Damascus Gate built in the 16th century to serve as a common entrance to both the Christian and Muslim Quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City. Superimposed is an image of playwright and performer Fargo Nissim Tbakhi. To the left are two images of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, to the right two images of Tbakhi’s father, in a suit holding Tbakhi as a child. (His father, his martyr, and himself.) The music begins and the earth appears to breathe. Tbakhi rises from the ground wearing pajama bottoms and a threadbare shirt. 

My Father, My Martyr, and Me is a poetry performance in which Tbakhi mulls over his queer Palestinian American identity (by way of Arizona), considering displaced statelessness, as well as a nationalist movement often associated with terrorism. Tbakhi doesn’t distance himself from violence or its advocacy. He eroticizes RFK’s murder, describing himself wanting to kiss the late senator before imagining himself pulling the trigger on Sirhan’s gun. When discussing Leila Khaled, the iconic hijacker of airplanes and 1969/1970 hostage-taker, Tbakhi seems concerned she might be hungry, not realizing Khaled long ago settled down in Amman, Jordan. Sirhan is likewise alive and still serving a prison sentence. Their prominence in the script suggests Tbakhi regards them as martyrs, yet they live, and Khaled is free to travel to any country that will give her a visa.

Tbakhi’s show was scheduled to make its local premiere in October 2021 before Mosaic Theater postponed it citing concerns about audience participation and COVID. (The theater still lists the show on its website.) Danielle Drakes was set to direct, but is not credited in this performance. 

Tbakhi is a charismatic performer who can get the most reticent of audience members to dance with him, even with masking protocols in effect. Yet despite repeated claims of speaking truth to power, Tbakhi, near the end, admits his play is “not a thesis,” a warning that, perhaps, should have been offered earlier. In a manner that feels polarizing, he dismisses certain knowledge as “narrative” and “metaphors” with no reason to choose one narrative or set of metaphors over another. But that does not stop him from insisting that only his narrative should be heard. According to Tbakhi, Israelis are foreigners to the land that currently houses Israel and Palestine—this is disputed by some archeological evidence suggesting an indigenous Jewish presence goes back thousands of years. Tbakhi responds to this research by suggesting the entire field of study—dismissing researchers from across the world—as being in the service of the Israeli state and Zionism. 

It’s an odd match for his crush on fictitious archeologist Indiana Jones, which leads Tbakhi to recap the film in which Harrison Ford‘s character fights the Nazis in an effort to find the Holy Grail, the cup that, in Tbakhi’s words, caught “Jesus’ Palestinian blood.”

Describing Jesus or his blood as Palestinian is not just anachronistic (Jesus’ contemporaries would only know of the Philistines, an ancient adversary that disappeared with the Babylonian conquest), it’s a form of erasure. While Jews do not revere Jesus, scholarly consensus is that he was a religious Jew, and engaged in debates with other Jews about ritual and ethics. Tbakhi did not invent the strategy of erasing  Jesus’ Judaism or his Jewish identity (it’s an old antisemtic trope), but in this iteration it serves the purpose of casting Jews as foreign to the land where Jesus lived and ahistorically making him a martyr for Palestinian nationalism.

Likewise, My Father, My Martyr, and Me does not acknowledge the persecution of queer Palestinians (including public executions in Hamas-controlled Gaza) as anything other than fantastic “pink-washing” of the conflict by queer Zionists. Tbakhi only seems concerned that Palestine is often represented as anti-LGBTQ, while Israeli society is often represented as more liberal. People’s identities, whether as individuals or nations, are far more complex than Tbakhi is willing to acknowledge—even when speaking of himself. My Father, My Martyr, and Me is a show that avoids complexity.

It becomes clear that the “unoccupied” future for Palestine in 2167, in which Tbakhi imagines pleasant days with his father and Sirhan, is not one where leaders have made brave compromises to ensure peace and prosperity for all peoples. Instead, Israel and its history has been erased from the land—though he coyly skips over how this is to be accomplished. He simply cannot imagine a world in which loving himself is not a zero-sum game in which one group of people is affirmed, while another must be negated. Erasure does not foster dialogue or understanding.

My Father, My Martyr, and Me, written and performed by Fargo Nissim Tbakhi as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, runs through  July 23 at Whatsoever. Cross the C&O Canal by foot bridge from M and 34th streets NW and follow the pink flags. capitalfringe.org. $15.