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Ms. Betty Shamieh accepts the ATFP award for Excellence in the Performing Arts at the ATFP Fifth Annual Gala, Washington, D.C., October 20, 2010.


Thank you for this honor.  A South African activist named Steve Biko said something I think of often when I consider the role of Palestinian-American intellectuals and artists in our society.  Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

I think, basically, what he is implying is that the worst thing that a person with more political, economic, or military might can do to you is make you lose faith in yourself or hope that you will ever have the chance of achieving justice.

There is one thing that unites Palestinian-Americans, which is made up of people who come from not only different religious backgrounds and classes, but also have differing political affiliations.  The thing that unites us is the story we tell ourselves and our children about not only where we’ve come from, but also where we are going.  We decide what the next chapter in the Palestinian-American story will be.

I was told all my life by Palestinians and others that I would never make it in American theatre if I wrote about Palestinian issues, that it would be impossible for me to have an impact or a voice.  Whatever small success I have achieved has been in spite of the constant messages of defeatism that are rife within our community.  Had I not had two wonderful and unique parents who believed in me and encouraged my dreams, I never would have had the courage to even try.  So, as we continue to assimilate, I ask those of you who have children who want to pursue a non-traditional career path to think about giving them a message other than, “You’ll never make it in a field that requires creativity or innovation.  Better be a doctor or lawyer.  Better play it safe.”

What if we told our children instead, “There is no door that is closed to you.  I know you can achieve anything you set your mind to.  Be prepared to work hard.  In fact, you might have to work twice as hard as anyone else.  But, if there is anyone who is going to succeed, I know it will be you.”  What if we imparted in our children the knowledge that there is a difference between making a good living and living a good life?

Arts are an essential part of the assimilation of every ethnic group in America.  If we take the experience of the African-American movement as our model and it is a good one, we see you have an African-American president after you have the Cosby show.  You get the Cosby show after African-American comics really make it in the comedy world.  They are able to infiltrate that world only after African-American writers make inroads in literature, telling their stories in a language so strong that the human truth of their experiences cannot be denied.

Palestinian-American artists are excelling in many forms including theatre, film, visual arts, and comedy.  We who are pioneering in those fields need your financial support, but we need more than money.  We need your time.  I encourage you to make it a priority to go and see the work of our artists.  We are devoting our lives to telling our stories, because we know that if we do not, others will tell our stories for us.  Soon enough (and perhaps sooner than we think), I believe an Arab-American can be not only Miss America, but also Mr. or Ms. President.  He or she may be the grandchild of someone in this room tonight.  Thank you.

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