Mona Mansour's Urge for Going:
Dramatizing "Permanent Impermanence"
by Michael Malek Najjar
Mona Mansour's Urge for Going is part of "The Vagrant Trilogy" she wrote which also includes the plays The Hour of Feeling and The Vagrant. While many writers have approached the situation of Palestinians living in Palestine, few have dramatized the situation of millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East. These "permanent residences in exile"[i] began following the suppression of the Arab uprisings of 1936-1939 but was hastened by the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and with the subsequent wars between Israelis and Palestinians. According to BBC News, the Palestinians comprise "one of the biggest displaced populations in the world." [ii] The resulting Israeli contention that all refugees should relinquish all right of return has only aggravated an already desperate situation. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there are currently 450,000 Palestinian refugees living in twelve camps in Lebanon. Palestinians in Lebanon are denied the right to work in certain professions, are unable to claim the same rights as other foreigners living and working in Lebanon, and often live in abject poverty. [iii] According to Al Jazeera, "Today, Palestinians in Lebanon continue to suffer from draconian measures which the Lebanese state claims are there to prevent them from becoming permanent guests."[iv] To make matters worse, there has been wholesale slaughter of these refugees in their Lebanese camps such as the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 and the suicide attack on the Burj el-Barajneh camp in 2015.
Urge for Going, set in an unnamed Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon just a thirty minute drive to the Israeli border, opens with Palestinians themselves debating how the crisis began with each citing historical facts to prove their position. Mansour's play highlights the fact that Palestinians in refugee camps found in Lebanon and Syria are living in a state of limbo—unable to become citizens of the nations to which they've been displaced, and disallowed from returning to their ancestral homes now found in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Regarding Jordan, prior to 1988 all Palestinian refugees were granted full Jordanian citizenship, however the 1967 refugees from Gaza were exempted from this citizenship. To make matters worse, many Jordanian Palestinians have lost their citizenship status, thereby rendering them stateless.[v]
Urge for Going also focuses on the urge to flee the camps for a better life elsewhere. This urge to leave is strong given that life in the refugee camp is untenable: from lack of sanitation and electricity to beatings from Lebanese soldiers leaving family members physically and mentally injured. The only clear way out for this family is through academic opportunity, yet even Jamila knows that no matter how much one masters their intellect, "if you don't have the innate talent, you won't succeed."[vi] For Jamila's father, Adham, the opportunity to escape came when he was invited to London in 1967 to lecture on Wordsworth "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798." Although the lecture's reception grants Adham a fellowship to study in London, the defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 forces his return to a homeland that is ultimately lost leaving him and his wife refugees in neighboring Lebanon. For his young daughter Jamila, however, the opportunity arrives thirty-six years later, when she tests for her Baccalaureate.
Palestinian American scholar Edward W. Said once said, “In a way, it’s a sort of the fate of the Palestinians not to end up where they started but somewhere unexpected and far away.”[vii] The play ends with Jul and Jamila reciting statistics about the painful situation Palestinian refugees face. According to the website Visualizing Palestine, ninety percent of Palestinians in Lebanon were born there and most are third-and-fourth generation. Only two percent have an official work permit while the rest face "biased attitudes & discriminatory labor laws." Most are forced into precarious work and sixty-six percent live below the poverty line. Their average monthly wage is $369 for men and $305 for women.[viii] "After more than 60 years Palestinian refugees are barred from numerous professions in Lebanon, including medicine, law and engineering because they are defined as foreigners."[ix] Therefore, the family in Mansour's drama, like many Palestinian families living as refugees for the past sixty-nine years, have a Hobson's choice: either stay put in their refugee camps, or rely on the hope that a better life exists elsewhere. Mansour allows audiences to take a moment to empathize with those Palestinians who are living in the hopeless purgatory known as exile.
[i] Mona Mansour, "The Unspeakable Loss of Displacement." January 25, 2017.
[ii] Asser, Martin. "Obstacles to Arab-Israeli Peace: Palestinian Refugees." BBC News. 2 September 2010.
[v] Gabbay, Shaul M. "The Status of Palestinians in Jordan and the Anomaly of Holding a Jordanian Passport." Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs, 5 February 2014, https://www.esciencecentral.org/journals/the-status-of-palestinians-in-jordan-and-the-anomaly-of-holding-a-jordanian-passport-2332-0761.1000113.php?aid=23346. Accessed 1 February 2017.
[vi] Mansour, Urge for Going, Unpublished playscript, 2011. 45.
[vii] Said, Edward W, Charles Bruce, Jimmy Michael, and Alon Farago. In Search of Palestine. Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2005.
[viii] "Palestinian Labour Force in Lebanon. Visualizing Palestine, http://visualizingpalestine.org/visuals/palestinian-labor-force-in-lebanon-facts-and-figures. Accessed 1 February 2017.
[ix] "Palestinian Labour Force in Lebanon Restricted Professions." Visualizing Palestine, http://visualizingpalestine.org/visuals/palestinian-labour-force-in-lebanon-restricted-professions. Accessed 1 February 2017.