On a stage in New York, a Director, an Actor, and an Actress are struggling to finish a play written by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh.
Director: (Addressing the audience.) Ladies and gentlemen, we will now perform the final scene of the play and then call it a night. Hopefully, we can squeeze out some sort of resolution from it. I will play Saïd as Saïd really was in 1980. This is not a metaphorical representation, but a recreation of an actual event. (Addressing the audience as Saïd.) November 4, 1980. The one-year anniversary of the onset of the Iran hostage crisis. I was ten years old when it began. Now I am eleven. It is late afternoon and I am walking home from school. The sun is setting. The streets are empty. Adults are off at the polls casting their ballots. On the cars and the doors and the trees are a multitude of yellow ribbons and American flags. Today they are joined by signs urging us to vote for Reagan or Carter. I have a rolled-up map of Iran with me, tucked under my arm. Although it is November it is still warm and for a brief moment, one second maybe, the world feels good. And then:
Director: A group of my classmates appear behind me.
Director: I pretend that I don’t hear them. I know I am in deep shit now, but there is nothing I can do about it. I would never be able to outrun them.
Actor: Come here, Arab.
Actress: Camel jockey.
Director: They are laughing. It’s sport to them. A rock lands by me. Then another. Then a bottle. It shatters against the ground. I try to quicken my pace. They draw closer. I begin to run. They catch up to me.
Actress: Look at him trying to run like a chicken.
Actor: We should cut him open like a chicken.
Actress: That’ll teach you to fuck with America.
Director: Please, I say. Please.
Actress: Look at him beg.
Actress: They’re all cowards. All of them.
Actor: They’re born with yellow streaks down their backs. Look at his yellow streak.
Director: They take my father’s map from me and unroll it on the ground. They step all over it, laughing. It isn’t me they’re stepping on. It isn’t even my Iranian father. It’s my Jewish mother’s love for my Iranian father. That’s what they want to degrade.
Actor: How could anyone love a sandnigger?
Actress: Let’s piss on it.
Director: They unzip their zippers and take out their dicks.
Actress: Look how big my dick is.
Director: Piss on it, they tell me.
Actress: Piss on it.
Actor: Piss on Eye-ran with us. Go on. Show us how much you love America.
Director: I unzip my zipper.
Actress: Go on.
Director: I do as I’m told.
The director pisses on the map. A long pause follows.
Director: (Out of character, calling.) Saïd. Saïd. I’m sorry you had to live through that.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh enters the stage.
The director hugs Saïd.
Actress: I’m sorry, Saïd.
The actress hugs Saïd. Then the actor hugs Saïd.
Director: It’s a fucked-up world, man. It’s fucked up for all of us.
Actor: But you survived it, Saïd.
Director: That’s right. You survived to tell us about it.
Saïd: That’s what it’s all about, I guess. You know. Surviving and somehow making use of it.
Director: And now we’re all together.
Actress: That’s what counts.
Director: (Referring to the audience.) And look at them. You did it. We did it. They’re with us now. They understand. We’ve wound up where we promised them we would, with a resolution.
Saïd: And they empathize.
Director: Damn right they empathize. That’s what theatre’s all about. I’ll tell you what, let me do the coda and then we’ll take a bow, big guy. (As Saïd.) Ladies and gentlemen, almost thirty years have passed since those fateful days in 1979, 1980. But I have finally completed my journey toward a resolution. I have found it in my heart to forgive those boys who scorned and humiliated me. I have realized that their very attempt to make me foreign, in fact, made me American. We are all Americans here, despite where we might have come from and what we might have gone through. We are all one family. No matter what journey we’ve taken, we’ve all arrived at the same place: here, tonight, all of us. We are the collage.
The lights begin to fall. They all take hands for the curtain call.
Saïd: Wait. Wait. Stop the lights.
Director: It’s the end, man.
Saïd: That last scene, that last scene with the boys and the map, it’s not what happened.
Director: It is what happened.
Saïd: No, it’s not.
Actress: You wrote it, Saïd.
Saïd: We have to go back.
Director: There’s no going back.
Actor: There’s actually somewhere I need to be in a few minutes.
Saïd: They have to see it. The truth. They have to see the truth. (Calling.) Lights.
Actress: It’s curtain call.
Saïd: I need to be Saïd.
Director: Leave it alone.
Actor: Actually, I promised my girlfriend I was going to meet her in Washington Square Park.
Saïd: This last scene, I need to be me. One last time.
Actress: It doesn’t matter anymore.
Saïd: It does.
Director: It doesn’t.
Saïd: I was there. I know. I saw.
Actress: But we understand you now. We get it.
Saïd: You don’t understand.
Actor: Do you think you’re going to need me for this scene?
Saïd: (Calling.) Give me the lights.
Director: You’re fucking it up, you know, the good feeling.
The lights shift.
This better be good.
Saïd: (To the audience.) It was the one-year anniversary of the hostage crisis.
Director: That’s what I said. Isn’t that what I said?
Saïd: Yes, yes. That part’s true. It was afternoon. That’s true, too.
Actor: Is it possible to cut straight to the part that’s not true?
Saïd: It was Sunday afternoon.
Director: No, it was after school.
Saïd: No. It was Sunday afternoon. I didn’t have a map with me.
Director: You did.
Saïd: I didn’t. There were some boys playing in the park. Jewish boys. They wore yarmulkes. I had never seen them before. I was alone and I wanted someone to play with. I went up to them.
Director: And they mocked you. We know.
Saïd: No. They let me play with them. [Name of the actress]?
Saïd: You be one of the Jewish boys.
Quote marks indicate when an actor is playing a “role” in this scene.
Actress: “What’s your name?”
Director: Saïd. His name’s Saïd. Let’s keep it moving.
Saïd: No. I decided I no longer wanted to be Saïd. I made up a name, Finklestein. “My name’s Jacob Finklestein.” That’s what I said. “But you can call me Jake.”
Actress: “Hey, Jake. Come on and play with us.”
Saïd: I liked it. I liked feeling Jewish, white, American. I belonged. I finally belonged. We played for a long time. The afternoon was fading. A boy appeared on the edge of the field holding his mother’s hand. [Name of the director], you be the mother. And [name of the actor], you be the boy. The boy on the edge of the field.
They all assume their roles.
The mother was wearing a long black chador tucked tightly around the edges of her face. The boy was dressed in American clothes, tight jeans, dress shoes, a fancy shirt with a wide collar. His hair was slicked back, shiny. None of it made any sense, it was all out of style. He must have modeled himself on an old Hollywood movie that he had liked, thinking this was how Americans dressed. He and his mother watched us for awhile. I ignored them, hoping they’d go away. But every time I looked over he was still there, holding his mother’s hand. I knew the boy was gathering up his courage to come over and ask if he could play. And eventually he let go of his mother’s hand and began to walk slowly toward us. We stopped and watched him. His skin was dark, much darker than mine. And he had thick eyebrows.
Actress: “What’s he want?”
Saïd: The boy stopped midway and turned to look back at his mother. She smiled at him and beckoned for him to keep going. One of the boys said:
Actress: “Look at the sandnigger.”
Saïd: He said it quietly so only we could hear. It was conspiratorial. A message for the initiated. The other boys laughed. I realized that they were including me in their laughter. I was no longer Saïd. I was Jacob. I could laugh along and it would be OK. So I did. I laughed. It felt good to laugh. I laughed louder.
Actress: “Let’s tell him we don’t have room for one more. That’s what we’ll tell him.”
Saïd: He came up to us.
Actor: “Hello. How are you today?”
Saïd: He had an accent.
Actress: “We’re fine.”
Saïd: But the boy said “we’re fine” coldly. It was a non-invitation. The tone the boys had used to welcome me into the group had been different, it had been warm, a genuine warmth. They had liked me. Me.
Actor: “May I join you in playing?”
Saïd: He asked stiffly. It was a sentence he wasn’t comfortable with. A sentence his mother had told him to say. One of the boys said:
Actress: “I don’t know, you know.”
Saïd: His coldness towards him seemed to magnify my warmth. One fueled the other.
Actress: “I don’t know, you know. It’s getting late and everything.”
Saïd: I wanted the feelings to last. I wanted it to keep going. Forever and ever. And then I said, I said, “Where are you from?” I hadn’t planned it. It came out quickly. I thought for a second someone might think to also ask me where I was from. But no one said anything. We waited for an answer. And the boy said,
Actor: “I am from Iraq.”
Saïd: I was ignorant. I had never heard of Iraq. I was wondering if he was trying to play a joke on me. Maybe he knew I was from Iran. I didn’t know what to say next. I had to say something. And so I said to the boy, “You’re from Eye-ran?” There was something in my voice that made the boy hesitate, something hard, glass. He knew that he had crossed a line and now needed to recede. Cut his losses. Accept that he wasn’t going to be welcomed into the fold and make up a story to tell his ma about how the boys had said it was getting late and everybody was going to go home anyway.
Saïd: He corrected me, but he said it generally, to the group at large. He was careful about making eye contact with me.
Actress: “Where’s that at?”
Saïd: I was amazed at the power I suddenly held over the boy. His fate lay in my grasp. In or out. It was up to me. And just before the boy could clarify where Iraq was, I said to him, “You got our boys held hostage over there.” I luxuriated in the word “our.” The boy looked at me. I had sealed the deal. He had no choice now but to defend himself against the charge.
Actor: “I have not anything to do with that.”
Saïd: I detected a proud belligerence in his voice. As if he saw me as a typical ill-mannered American. And although this was just a role that I was playing, I hated him for thinking that.
Actress: “‘I have not anything to do with that.’”
Saïd: We laughed at the imitation. The boy’s face flushed. His eyes narrowed. Why doesn’t he just walk away? There was something about his helpless determination that enraged me. He was trying to save his pride. Standing there with his fists clenched, his feet cemented into the ground. And then something inside of me struck, and I said, “You’re a terrorist.”
Actress: “They’re all terrorists, Jake.”
Saïd: “Is your mother a terrorist, too?” The word “mother” made his lips tremble. “Is your father a terrorist?”
Actor: “We are peaceful people!”
Saïd: His indignity caused the valve in me to release. Now I was the one who was wronged. How dare he use that tone with me. “Your father, does he stink?”
Actress: “I bet he stinks.”
Saïd: “Does he live in a cave?”
Actress: “That’s where they all live.”
Saïd: “I bet your father fucks camels, too. I bet he fucks camels after he fucks your mother.” The boys laughed at my bawdiness. The mother was too far to be able to hear what was being said, but I could see that she was beginning to grow concerned. She took a step forward and then hesitated, hating to misjudge the situation and interrupt a friendship in the making.
Actor: “You are ignorant people and I am sorry for you.”
Saïd: “Hey, sandnigger, you know what? You’re fucking with America and we’re going to get you for it.” The make-believe righteousness flooded through me. I couldn’t stanch the flow. “We’re going to rip that stupid blanket from your mother’s fucking head and we’re going to bomb your whole family.” All the boys were laughing loudly. They thought I was a pro. The boy began to cry, and from the edge of the field, his mother began to come toward us. Calling out to him.
Director: (Calling.) “Mahmoud. Mahmoud.”
Saïd: The irony of this situation was apparently lost on all us Jews. If you could have transported us a few decades into the past, we would have been the ones who were blamed for threatening an entire civilization with our violent, bankrupt religion. We would have been the ones in a park somewhere surrounded by a group of hostile boys, trying to figure out how we could save our skin, shed our skin.
Actress: “You tell him, Jake.”
Saïd: We’re all lost souls. All of us.
Actor: “I’ve done nothing to you.”
Saïd: “I’ll show you what you’ve done, bitch,” I said. And his mother was running now, only yards away from us. And when I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, I felt strong. I pulled him toward me, not knowing what I was going to do next. The cheap material tore in my hands and he stumbled and fell, putting his hands out to stop himself from hitting the ground. And his mother called out.
Director: “Stop it now! Stop it now!”
Saïd: And as he was falling, I brought my knee up to meet him. There was an audible gasp from the other boys. A disbelief in my daring. The boy’s face struck my knee, full force. Blood erupted from his nose and mouth, thick, red blood. His mother shrieked as she reached us. We ran, but she was not after us, she was after her son. She bent on the ground and cradled him in her arms, wiping the blood from his face with her chador, whispering things to him, soothing him. I watched from the edge of the field, jealous of the love and attention his mother showed him. The other boys were gone. They had fled their separate ways. It was dark now. The day was over. The weekend had ended. It would be school again tomorrow. I would once more navigate my way among hostile classmates. Blood covered my pants. I thought about what I’d tell my mother when she asked. I would concoct a wild tale, that’s what I’d do. A tale that would protect her from what had happened. I could will the truth away if I lied. I could change what I had done. I will lie, I thought. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll lie.
Director: What else?
Director: What else?
Saïd: Nothing else.
Director: You just blew the resolution, you know.
Saïd: That’s because there is none.
Director: Well, you promised it.
Saïd: I don’t have it to give.
Director: You’re ending this on a goddamn downer.
Actress: Maybe we should do one more scene.
Saïd: There are no more scenes.
Actor: Well, in that case, does anyone want to get a drink with me and my girlfriend?
Director: I don’t believe this is happening.
Saïd: Believe it.
Actress: I’ll come with you, [Name of the actor]. Just let me grab my bag.
The actress exits.
Director: I’m coming, too. (Addressing the audience.) Ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen. As you can see sometimes playwrights do not end plays the way in which we would like them to end. This has been a problem dating back to the Greeks. And it will continue to be a problem going forward…
The director scowls at Saïd and then exits.
Actor: Saïd? A drink?
Saïd says nothing.
Saïd says nothing.
The actor exits, leaving Saïd alone, staring out at the audience. You can hear the players backstage talking and laughing. A few moments pass as their voices trail off. The lights fade out.