Laila Farah found herself held up by the authorities at the Zurich Airport in 1998. The Swiss, in their accented English, asked her why she had been in Lebanon, her home country. They wanted to know every detail about every Middle Eastern stamp on her passport—a U.S. citizen's passport.
Seconds away from barely making her flight back to the U.S., she learned from officials that it's written into FAA policy to question Arab and Arab-Americans more extensively than other people upon reentry to the U.S., especially if they have been traveling in the Middle East.
Fast-forward four years to September 2001. Farah has to field dozens of questions post-9/11 about her brother in the Navy. Which Navy is he in, people want to know—as if his Arab-American identity brands him a terrorist. She is asked multiple times by people if she knows the hijackers.
These are the types of experiences that compel Farah, a lesbian-feminist scholar at DePaul University, to use performance that combines personal narrative with political reality as a tool of activism.
Farah most recently performed 'Living in a Hyphen-Nation' to a packed audience deep on the Southwest Side at the West Englewood Public Library at an event organized by Public Square. For Farah, performance brings an opportunity to offer a critique of American and international politics with a narrative that is more than just a news story, but her own life experiences.
'Activism uses performance for social change and social justice,' she said. 'I'm bringing the issues that are so problematic to the public and especially for a younger audience, contextualizing it.'
Farah, wearing a long black robe and a white-and-black scarf tossed over one shoulder, clasped her mound of papers with her script in her hands, but barely looked at it throughout the performance.
She told the audience about tempting fate at 19, living in Beirut during war in 1982. 'We would go out to the beach every afternoon, knowing that the Israelis would be coming in with their helicopters and planes spraying bullets,' she said. 'We had t-shirts made up saying, 'You might kill us but we will have a nice tan.'
Farah also described refusing to go down to the bomb shelter of her building, instead preferring to stand out on the seventh floor balcony staring at the aircraft, bombs, and destruction exploding around her.
She shifts time and place using a simple power-point presentation—with a date and time so the audience is cued into what she is speaking about. At this performance, Farah chose bits from her longer pieces to touch on a broad array of problems with the U.S. government.
Farah intersperses personal e-mails, poetry, conversations with friends, family, and strangers into her performance. At one point, she read two contrasting descriptions of a bombing in Iraq—one from CNN, the other from a British news source. The British news source gave a more striking account of civilian casualties.
'It's an equation—you know they have an equation for this—it's called collateral damage. For X soldiers killed, you get Y civilians dead,' she exclaimed.
Farah spoke about how America is being duped by its preachers and its president, taught that Mohammed is a harbinger of destruction and that Muslims are evil. Yet the racism that surrounds us is institutional, she explained.
The racism against brown people—from the young man in her class pushed against the hood of a car for having darker skin to being held at bay while security guards question her for having a Middle Eastern name. 'Where does your skin color place you in this hyphen nation,' she asked the audience.
Farah also decried the loss of civil liberties and what appears to be a gradual erosion of freedom through the two patriot acts and the homeland security bill. 'Americans prefer order over justice,' she said.
She mocked a question from a U.S. visa application: Do you intend to overthrow the U.S. government by force or by fraud. 'Would you really tell customs?' she said.
Farah closed her performance urging the audience to affirm life. 'We are with it, or we are against it,' she said. Jane Campbell, a professor at Perdue-Calumet, said the performance was evocative because it combined the personal with the political. 'It really brings together some of the oppression that Arabs are facing,' she said.