BEIRUT: In 1974 Yasser Arafat gave an 80-minute speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun,” he uttered in closing. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Almost 40 years later, writer, activist and Palestinian spokesperson Randa Khalidi recalls the day of Arafat’s iconic remark – half entreaty, half warning. “I was with him, and at that point I was one of the [PLO] spokespeople,” she says, “not the only one, but I was there. In fact I have the honor to have been one of the translators. The other was Edward Said.”
Khalidi’s life has been eventful. It is no less so now that she’s in her 80s. She has just finished an autobiographical novel and is about to witness the debut of one of her plays, “80 Steps.” Khalidi says she started writing the play “in the 1990s,” early in her retirement from public life. Opening at Masrah Babel Tuesday evening, the play is directed by her niece Aliya Khalidi, an active presence on the local theater scene.
The playwright says she knows no more than the audience about what to expect on opening night.
“Writing a play is not like writing anything else,” she explains, “because you write it and then hand it over to others to do whatever they want to do with it.
“I haven’t been to one rehearsal,” she laughs. “I think I’m a bit nervous about what they may have done to it. I thought, ‘I’ll leave it as a surprise.’ I think my first time will be the opening, except I have a daughter who is coming from Washington especially for this ... She’s of the opinion that I should go. Otherwise I may faint or something.”
This seems unlikely, given Khalidi’s history. Born in Jerusalem, she moved to England at the age of 15 and studied English Literature at Oxford. Like her brother Walid Khalidi, the academic and co-founder of the Institute for Palestine Studies, she has played a key role in championing the Palestinian cause, though in her case she has taken a more hands-on activist approach.
Khalidi has long been passionate about her cause, though it made life difficult. “I was married to a diplomat and I hated diplomacy,” she laughs.
“It was a very difficult balance, particularly [because] my husband was a Syrian diplomat ... There were times when there was a clash between the interests of both parties. But he was always behind me. He believed that it was a very worthy cause.”
Her innovative approach to publicizing the Palestinians’ plight in the U.S. made waves with Arabs as well as Americans.
“I was a member of the Arab League,” she explains. “At one time, actually, I headed the Arab League in New York. This didn’t last long. The Egyptians who ran it didn’t like the fact that there was a woman heading it. You see the Arab League offices are very conservative and they don’t allow for any kind of revolutionary ideas – and I did at the time. So I think for them it looked as if I was changing the face of the offices.”
Khalidi is quick to agree that this is precisely what she had in mind.
“Yes, in a sense,” she nods mischievously, “because I thought they were useless. And I still think they’re useless.
“I started one of the very first efforts to get to know black Americans,” she elaborates. “When [they] finally politicized their cause they looked around for allies, and I was one of the Arabs in America who felt that they may very well fall under Israeli influence ... It was then our duty to draw their attention – of the Black Panthers and other groups – to the fact that we had a very legitimate cause.”
Khalidi invited a group of young African-Americans on a tour of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, to learn more about the region and the Palestinian struggle. It’s a gesture that was misconstrued by some.
“The Americans chose not to see it as an innocent invitation,” she recalls. “They saw it as an effort by me to train them in warfare ... They made me persona non grata in America for quite some time, though I was the wife of a diplomat ... Eventually he became an ambassador and there was a big issue about that. But I’m very proud of it, because I really felt that I could at least draw their attention to our cause.”
When Khalidi’s husband retired, they returned to Syria, but not to a life of rest and relaxation. The couple bought a farm next to Jabal al-Sheikh, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. There they worked the land, living without a telephone, proper roads or electricity. It was there, after her husband’s death, that Khalidi wrote the play “80 Steps.”
The play follows an elderly man, his wife and his sister, who live together in a flat 80 steps removed from the outside world. “Two themes really fascinated me,” says Khalidi. “One is growing old ... I have these three characters who are talking about problems to do with aging, and death. I don’t feel this way, but I made them feel as if they’re not in the mainstream of society, but at the fringes.
“Also I felt from my own experience that there are ways of growing old,” she continues. “But, if you think about it, you become old and tolerant at the same time – unless you turn the other way and become very bitter ... Eventually, after they express their fears and anger and tell their stories, they decide to celebrate whatever is left of life and eventually they lose touch with reality.”
The play echoes the aesthetics of the Theater of the Absurd, she remarks, though she baulks at any comparison with Ionesco or any of the other icons of the form. She is proud of being one of few Arab women playwrights, however.
“We are brilliant novelists, but we haven’t really had too many playwrights,” she says. “Our directors, our theater people, they seem to favor Arabizing plays written by Westerners. That, I kind of resent ... There’s a lot to gain from the West, but also locals should be encouraged, right?”
Randa Khalidi’s “80 Steps,” directed by Aliya Khalidi, will be on show at Hamra’s Masrah Babel Tuesdays through Sundays until March 3. For more information and tickets contact Beirut 8.30 on 70-058-183.