Dead are my people, gone are my people,
but I exist yet, lamenting them in my solitude…
My people and your people, my Syrian
Brother, are dead … What can be
Done for those who are dying? Our
Lamentations will not satisfy their
Hunger, and our tears will not quench
Their thirst; what can we do to save
Them between the iron paws of
– Kahlil Gibran, Dead Are My People
Renowned Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote the poem Dead Are My People about the Great Famine of 1915-18. Writing from his adopted home in Boston, Massachusetts, Gibran, who had immigrated to the United States as a young boy from Mount Lebanon in the Ottoman province of Greater Syria, lamented the disease and starvation that had taken the lives of some 500,000 people.
He was haunted by the guilt of living in safety and peace while his people perished. “What can an exiled son do for his starving people, and of what value unto them is the lamentation of an absent poet?” Gibran wrote.
The famine, which wiped out almost half the population of Mount Lebanon, marked the highest death toll of World War I, by population. Eyewitness accounts detail horrific scenes of suffering and starvation, much like the images and stories we see coming out of Syria today. As they are doing now, the residents of Greater Syria fled death and destruction, migrating to new lands in search of survival.
The first wave of immigrants from Greater Syria came to the United States between the late 1800s and early 1920s. Seeking security and economic success, hundreds of thousands of mostly Christian immigrants made their way to the “land of opportunity,” until the Immigration Act of 1924 made significant cuts to immigration, creating quotas and capping overall immigration and refugee admission into the United States for the first time.
This early Syrian migration is the starting point for Palestinian playwright Ismail Khalidi’s new play, Dead Are My People, which is named after Gibran’s poem. I attended a workshop reading of the play’s first draft, directed by Charlotte Braithwaite, on Monday, September 26, in New York City. It is the first full-length production to be commissioned by Noor Theatre, a company-in-residence at the New York Theatre Workshop, dedicated to supporting, developing, and producing the work of theatre artists of Middle Eastern descent.
Dead Are My People
Dead Are My People follows the story of Nicola Najjour, a young man from Mount Lebanon who flees the famine in his home country (and military conscription into the Ottoman army) for the United States. Upon arrival, he sets out to find his uncle Tanios, who had immigrated years earlier – a journey that takes him to Lakewood, a small town in the Jim Crow South.
With nothing but information from an old letter, and tips from various townspeople who knew Tanios, Nicola navigates the contentious realities of his new home, grappling with questions of race, privilege, assimilation, whiteness, and white supremacy – issues that still sit uncomfortably with us, 100 years later.
As Nicola searches for his uncle and tries to make sense of his strange new home, he meets Weavel, a smart, fast-talking black man who makes money as a street-performing magician and dreams of starting a new life in the North. Scarred and beaten by the KKK, Weavel teaches Nicola to keep his head down and avoid trouble, gradually revealing to him the realities of race and life in the Jim Crow South. The two become close friends, but the question of privilege, and of who enjoys the benefits of whiteness, is ever-present.
Nicola eventually locates a Syrian couple who immigrated eleven years earlier and knew his uncle Tanios. The husband, Elias Khoury, owns a grocery store and has fully embraced his new American identity, anglicizing his name to “Ellis Corey” and insisting on speaking English at all times, in the hopes of securing citizenship. His wife, Helene, is less enamored with the idea of becoming “American” – and white – and longs to speak her native Arabic tongue. The characters’ ensuing conversations surrounding whiteness and citizenship are ones that rage on today, as Arab-American communities still struggle to understand their place in the hierarchy of privilege and race in America.
Nicola seems to recognize the futility of this pursuit of whiteness and the privilege that it carries, especially when juxtaposed with the black experience that Weavel embodies – as well as the Arab encounter with European colonialism. “See a man doesn’t always know exactly where he stands in relation to the lines white folks draw,” Weavel tells Nicola. “And they do like to draw lines, don’t they? Lots, every which way. I call them the Delineators. Lines in sand, in the dirt, in the air, the seas and rivers. Even in your own blood, man…I even read in Mr. DuBois’ paper, that they gone ahead and carved up where you came from with lines too. The French and the English up and delineated, realigned Syria and Lebanon and Palestine, too.”
When Nicola attempts to give Weavel money to pass on to one of Ellis’s former employees, Weavel recoils, responding that he prefers “not to complicate matters” as his possession of the money might be misunderstood. “We would not want you to cross invisible lines,” Nicola responds, adding sarcastically: “Better I do it. I am White like Jesus Christ. This is what Ellis says to me.”
Another Form of Lynching
Khalidi is remarkably talented at weaving the historical with the contemporary to demonstrate how little progress has been made in the last hundred years. His work does not shy away from the fiercely and unapologetically political, and, by drawing upon historical memory, reminds us that oppression does not happen in a vacuum – that the roots of colonialism, racism, imperialism, and white supremacy are all intertwined.
Khalidi, who is a poet in addition to being a playwright, often peppers his work with poetry, which adds a rhythmic, lyrical fluidity to the story that is at times playfully sarcastic, at others impassioned and intense. In Dead Are My People, Khalidi also incorporates original songs and music, composed by award-winning Lebanese composer, Hadi Eldebek, that ground the audience in the space and time of the piece, breathing life into a narrative that is disconcerting in its closeness to our modern experience.
I spoke to Khalidi about how Dead Are My People is similar to or different from his previous work, much of which is informed both by history and the contemporary moment:
This play is very much in the same vein as my other work. I tend to write about the Middle East, but always present in my work are the legacies of colonialism, imperialism, militarism and white supremacy in their various forms. In some ways this play has a lot in common with my first play, Truth Serum Blues (Pangea World Theater, 2005) as that was very much about the US and the Arab American experience. But that play was also coming out of the cauldron of horrors produced by the so-called War on Terror.
Dead are My People is more of a historical play, though I do not envision it as a period piece. I think it resonates too much with our own historical moment to relegate it to being nothing more than a study of the past. The other difference when it comes to Dead Are My People is the music. I have written plays that had poetry embedded in the DNA, but never live, original music and songs. Of course this is not going to be a musical in the traditional sense. It is a hybrid play in many ways I think…
My process is first to channel those stories and voices that are ignored but carry power and fire and truth. I do tend to be drawn to history as a source and inspiration, but mostly because I believe that history provides us with a window through which to see and understand ourselves and our world today. I tend to do lots of research, perhaps a year’s worth for each play. When I arrive at the writing part of the process, however, I usually put aside the research and just write. I let what I read and watched and heard and studied filter through. I find that in this way I free myself to write and focus on the story and the characters. Additionally, in my experience this method allows only the most resonant and pertinent elements of the research into the world of the play. In other words, the facts that need to find their way into the play somehow manage to.
Khalid also reflected on the motivations behind this piece, and how it relates to what we are witnessing today – from the Syrian refugee crisis, to debates surrounding immigration and assimilation, questions about white privilege and white supremacy, systemic racism and the black experience in America. As he explained, his catalysts were numerous:
I actually started planting the first seeds of this play about 7 years ago in 2009. My curiosity was initially based on reading some of the articles of Sarah Gualtieri. Since then she has turned her research into a fantastic book called Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora.
I then turned to a series of other projects over the next several years. About three years ago I decided it was time to write the play and started doing research in earnest. I was then fortunate to find a partner in Noor Theatre, which was excited about commissioning the project and examining the themes of the play. It was then that I entered into yet another phase of research and eventually the actual writing. I have thus far benefited greatly from the team at Noor, including the dilligent research of associate producer and dramaturg for the project, Kate Moore Heaney. Professor Gualtieri has also been a great resource throughout.
There are many catalysts for this play. One of my grandmothers emigrated from Lebanon to the US in 1920. So that was one attraction to the topic. But also the constantly shifting navigation of whiteness by Arab Americans. Specifically post-September 11, as the non-whiteness and otherness of Arab Americans was highlighted in numerous ways. Lastly, the epidemic of police shootings of black men in the US, as well as the massive exodus of Syrians in the last 5 years. There are today very vibrant and necessary conversations ongoing about white supremacy and immigration that this play speaks to. In that sense I believe it is a timely play. While it is deeply historical it is so current, so disturbingly about today. The form of lynching has changed but the results are not that different.
Dead Are My People is a rich historical and cultural examination of how we came to be where we now are. The issues it tackles are both difficult to confront and impossible to ignore. When asked what he hopes audiences take away from the production, as it evolves and eventually becomes a full-length production, Khalidi responded:
I of course want people to give in to the story and the characters. That’s my job. But I also want audiences to be challenged to examine their relation to white supremacy. The fact is we live in a society defined in so many ways by racism and the living legacies of white supremacy. And so much in the US is about avoiding, covering up or downplaying this fact. There is so much power and pain and poetry that can be unleashed by examining it with open eyes and heart.