Alternative Transnationals: Naomi Wallace and Cross-Cultural Performances

There are many ways to write about the occupation of Palestine, and many plays have been written on the violence inherent in occupation. Few have shaped as intimate a metaphor as having an Israeli living through the air drawn through the lungs of a Palestinian killed by the Israeli military; few are willing to write that an Israeli lives through drawing breath from a Palestinian. Even fewer would have such a character look into the eyes of the father of him who gives her breath to live. However, this intimacy, the speaking of the child’s death, is broken when Mourid tries to explain to Tanya that his son’s lungs were transplanted inside of her, an idea that Tanya works hard to reject. Thus, Mourid explains to her the situation in detail:

The donor organs had to be transplanted within six hours after being removed. While you were under general anesthesia, the surgeon made an incision across your chest, beneath the breast area and removed your lungs. Then the surgeon placed the new lungs into your empty chest cavity and connected the pulmonary artery of the new lungs into your vessels and airway. Drainage tubes were inserted to drain air, fluid and blood out of your chest for several days to allow the lungs to reexpand. With oxygen. Sweet, cold oxygen. And here you are, beautiful Tanya. (Beat) My son is inside you.18

Initially, Tanya responds to this story with outright denial, and, as Mourid continues to insist that it is Ahmed’s lungs inside Tanya, she turns to revulsion, spitting on him, and later telling him, “Had your son’s lungs been inside me, I am sure, absolutely sure, that I would have rejected them.”19 Finally, she attempts to disgust Mourid, declaring, “When I laugh, your son laughs. When I sing, your son sings . . . But that would also mean your son was present last night . . . I picked a stranger up after work. A sweet, eager young man. He fucked me so hard I thought he’d break me in half,” continuing on after Mourid tries to interrupt her, “Don’t worry. Things went smoothly. Your son gave me good air when I sucked cock. Good Jewish cock.”20 In this way, Tanya attempts to invert the intimacy expressed by Mourid, using the fact of Ahmed’s lungs not to show the closeness of their lives, but to try to sicken and repel Mourid. Just as the bullet from the Israeli soldier took the beauty of Ahmed’s life to try to stop Palestinian resistance, so too does Tanya try to use the beauty of the gift she was given to try to end Mourid’s words. In the end, though, just as the Israeli state has not been able to expel all the Palestinian bodies from its system, no matter how many have been killed, Tanya learns that she must also depend on Mourid to learn to breathe again after an asthma attack:

[MOURID:] You must slow your breath down. Let it gather its force again. Like this.
(Mourid breathes in a long, slow breath.)
As though the air has become fluid and you are drinking it in.
(Mourid breathes in again, demonstrating.)
TANYA: I can’t. (Beat) I can’t.
. . .
TANYA: Mourid Kamal. Why do you want to help me?
MOURID: Because you are. My son.
(TANYA looks at Mourid. Mourid raises his head slightly; Tanya copies him. It is clear that he is leading this breathing lesson.)21

The remarkable aspect of the work is that Wallace understands at once the power dynamic in play in the Israeli occupation of Palestine,22 but, at the same time, that on either side of that dynamic are human beings intimately related to one another, at the most intrinsic of levels. Thus, while Tanya is dependent on Mourid in order to draw breaths, it is her choice—and for five years, she lived without any awareness of him. Mourid understands what is necessary for him and Tanya to live peacefully together, but Tanya alone is the one responsible for choosing to overcome her biases, to set her structured power aside, and to choose to allow Mourid to help her to breathe, to live.23 And until she chooses to risk her own self, she has no hope of healing herself.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message