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. Written in Arabic in 2014, the play has since been translated into English and has toured the United Kingdom at a range of venues including the Young Vic before this Australian premiere.
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, while humorously and tenderly depicting village life. We relive his early passion for reading, his first love, and the moment the Israeli army struck Saffuriyya forcing the village to flee north.
When Taha and his family leave a refugee camp in Lebanon, they relocate to Nazareth where the poet runs a souvenir shop for more than fifty years. His store, a meeting place for artists, still exists today though is now managed by his sons. Self-instructed English speaker and writer, 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 life.
Hlehel’s command of both English and Arabic colours his performance 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. Subai’s stripped-back, clear direction allows Hlehel to engage his spectators with this engrossing saga.
Between 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 on the wall. 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 making 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.