TAHA – the life and work of a Palestinian poet
By Lois Maskiell
The life and work of poet, Taha Muhammad Ali, receives remarkable attention in Amer Hlehel’s play, TAHA. Originally written in Arabic in 2014, the play has since been translated into English and subsequently toured the UK at a range of venues including the Young Vic before making it to Australian shores.
Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Big World, Up Close program, this performance brings a uniquely Middle Eastern perspective to the stage. Though more specifically, it brings the perspective of a Palestinian poet who, born 1931 in the Galilee village of Saffuriyya, saw his town disappear during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Writer-performer Amer Hlehel has constructed a powerful piece based on Taha’s poetry and the biography, ‘My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness,’ by Adina Hoffman. Hlehel’s lyrical monologue traces Taha’s childhood to adolescence in Saffuriyya, depicting village life both humorously and tenderly. We relive his early passion for reading, his first love, and the moment the Israeli army struck Saffuriyya and the village was forced to flee north.
After leaving a refugee camp in Lebanon, Taha and his family relocated to Nazareth where he remained, operating a souvenir shop, for more than fifty years. His store, a meeting place for poets and writers alike, still exists today though is now run by his sons. Self-instructed English speaker and poet, Taha’s individuality is also revealed in the fact that his first book was published when he was fifty two years old. Hlehel’s rendition of the poem, ‘Revenge,’ at an Arabic poetry festival in London is a beautiful moment that showcases the recognition Taha began to receive within his time.
Hlehel’s command of both English and Arabic colours his performance magnificently and is a magnetic force that draws the audience closer to the culture of the story’s origin. Translator-director, Amir Nizar Subai, accentuates Hlehel’s storytelling with an almost bare stage, save for a bench and suitcase. His stripped-back, clear direction allows Hlehel to engross his spectators with his expert dramatic saga.
Amid stories of life in the village, Lebanon, and Nazareth, an absorbing atmosphere of suffering and loss melds with hope and humour. Momentous life events and comic anecdotes are interrupted by moving poetry. Depending on which language Hlehel choses to speak, Arabic or English translations are displayed in surtitles. Culminating in a stirring celebration of life and loss, Hlehel manages to leave political debate in the production’s peripheries. The play – like Taha’s poetry – avoids forming direct arguments about Palestine or Israel as nations, but instead forms a stirring account of an individual’s life in a particular time and place.
Taha’s birth town is one of four hundred and eighteen Palestinian villages that Israeli forces destroyed in the 1948 conflict. And, as the play comes to a close, memories of the village as evoked through Hlehel’s accounts vanish with it. The stage is left with nothing but a chair and a briefcase, along with the reminder of the ongoing Palestinian struggle.