ASU theater alumnus Fargo Tbakhi's one-person show uses poetry to examine what it means to love the Palestinian body
Complete black. Then, out of the darkness, from underneath a pile of dirt in the center of the room, emerges Fargo Tbakhi, into the light, for all to see. His clothes are filthy and torn, his face is unshaven and his glasses are askew. And that’s how this Arizona State University theater alumnus and burgeoning performance artist wants us to see him. Because to love him is to love all of him, dirt and all.
But what does it mean to love someone that way, and how do we accomplish that? He’s not sure, and that’s why he’s asking us — the audience at the Dec. 12 Phoenix premiere of his one-person show, “My Father, My Martyr, and Me”; the greater community; the entire world (himself included) — to think about it.
The subtitle of Tbakhi’s show is “Postcolonial Instructions for Loving the Palestinian Body,” a topic that in today’s global climate is innately politically and socially fraught. Indeed, the three characters referred to in the show’s title are Tbakhi himself, his father and the infamous Sirhan Sirhan, known best as the assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
In his artist’s statement, Tbakhi explains that he began writing the script for his show in the summer of 2018, “while hundreds of Palestinians, peacefully protesting for their internationally recognized right to return to their ancestral homes, were being murdered by Israel.” In response, his performance is an attempt to give people an opportunity to “understand what it takes to critically, fully, generously love someone like (him).”
Tbakhi was born in California and moved to Phoenix when he was 12. His Palestinian father was largely absent for most of his life, but Tbakhi remembers that when he learned of his heritage from his mother, he was instantly beset by a desire to define its significance.
“Whatever I knew or had heard of Palestinians now applied to my body,” he said. “So over the past many years, I've been trying to understand what that means, and I think it's just a constant question rather than something that I will ever have a definitive answer for.
“Because the answer is like, what does it mean to be an identity of any kind? Those answers have consequences, and they work their way into the way that we treat each other and the way we relate to each other, the way that we legislate each other.”
“My Father, My Martyr, and Me” turned into Tbakhi’s senior-year thesis project. For about nine months, from the fall of 2018 through May 2019, he worked to perfect it under the guidance of his thesis director, Jennifer Linde, principal lecturer at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.
At first, they thought the piece would explore the concept of home, something they’d been considering in one of Linde’s classes, perhaps featuring interviews with Tbakhi’s relatives about their experiences living in Palestine. Then he took a poetry course with ASU Associate Professor of English and MacArthur Fellow Natalie Diaz.
“From there, it went a totally different direction,” Linde said. “He became really invested in incorporating his poetry.”
Tbakhi had only recently begun reading and writing poetry. His class with Diaz impacted him greatly, as did another ASU faculty member, Solmaz Sharif, an Iranian-American poet whose work has focused largely on the language of war. Though he never took a course with her (he laments that he was unable to because she joined ASU the year after he graduated), he had asked for her debut book of poetry, “Look,” for Christmas after initially being captivated by the title poem and promptly devoured the rest of it.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I've never read anything like this,’” he said. “I was obsessed with it.” He even memorized and performed 10 minutes of it for his speech and debate team at ASU.
“She takes the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and repurposes that language into poems and forces context back into it,” Tbakhi said. “It’s like she’s taking language that has become collateral damage, that has been used to sanitize and simplify loss of human lives and human failings, and she’s wrestling power back from the state by doing something with the language that is subversive and destabilizing.”