The Unspeakable Loss of Displacement
Mona Mansour on Urge for Going
The characters in Urge for Going are strangely closer to my heart now than they were when I first started working on the play. Now they live in two other plays as well; all three plays now collectively form “The Vagrant Trilogy.” But Urge was the first time I “met” them officially; the first of the three I wrote. Set in contemporary times (2003), in a refugee camp in Southern Lebanon, Urge for Going was written as my way of trying to understand the past and present of my father’s home country, Lebanon. What did it mean that outside my father’s village (near the city of Sidon), there were two Palestinian camps that had been in existence since 1948? What happens to those inside that kind of “permanent impermanence”? What happens to the family dynamic when someone tries to push against that enforced stasis? After finishing that play, I hadn’t imagined writing anything more about those characters.
Then later, in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, I was trying to decide what to write, and it occurred to me that I was very interested in the story Adham tells his daughter, Jamila, in Urge about his trip to London in 1967 as a young man just out of Cairo University, full of hope about his future. I knew I wanted that new play, called The Hour of Feeling, to end with Adham making the decision to go back to Palestine in 1967 as the war broke out. I needed the character to make that decision, so The Hour of Feeling would line up narratively with Urge for Going. But the younger version of Adham didn’t want to “join up” with his future self, stuck in a refugee camp. He essentially refused to go back to that fate. So from there the third play was born, The Vagrant, which imagines Adham’s life as it would be if he stayed in London and became a professor. There, he does well enough materially but has completely compartmentalized all connections to family, home and trauma, until all of that shatters and he simply can’t anymore.
So it’s a conditional trilogy. And I go into all this because seen together, what the plays speak to is the fundamental fact that there is a deep psychic cost of displacement. This is what has obsessed me through writing all of these plays about the imagined life of a Palestinian scholar: The place you escape to, if you’re “lucky” enough to escape, will never be home; you will never fully be of that place. Nor will you ever be “of” your homeland again, once displaced. I think about this more and more as the issue of migrants and migrations sets off elections, galvanizes the xenophobic right, and fuels visions of massive walls: At the beginning of every of those journeys is an unspeakable loss. In Urge for Going, it’s almost impossible for the characters to speak of this loss directly. Here, Wordsworth’s poetry steps in as Adham and Jamila say their goodbye: “The picture of the mind revives again/While here I stand, not only with the sense/Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts/That in this moment there is life and food/For future years. And so I dare to hope . . .” My hope is that that together, the plays will speak to the psychic effects of displacement not just for Palestinians, but for all of us.