“Everything started with Taha, with Taha's poetry.” This began my conversation with Amer Hlehel, writer and performer of Taha, on the eve of its opening at the Adelaide Festival. Retelling the story of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammed Ali (1931-2011), the play takes audiences from the Gallilee Basin, to the refugee camps of Lebanon and then back to Nazareth. Bridging the long tradition of Arabic poetry and the relatively new arena of Arabic theare, Hlehel works hard to captivate the audience in this forceful yet personal production.
The urtext of this production is the poetry of Taha himself. As Hlehel describes, the poetry was what generated the narrative, “story-wise, I followed the poetry.” Naturally, then, the poetry is also present on stage. Switching into Arabic to deliver the cadence of Taha’s poetry while the translation is displayed in surtitles, Hlehel provides the audience with a taste of the poetry that Taha is most known for. To retain the feeling and rhythm of the poetry in its original language is a wise choice, as we are able to decipher the meaning of the poetry without losing the linguistic subtleties that can only be conveyed in Arabic.
In addition to the poetry of Taha, the play also draws upon the biographical details relayed in Adina Hoffman’s biography, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness. From this text, repurposed for the stage, we get a sense of the realities of Taha’s life. This is most vivdly retold in the earlier stage of the play, when the audience is able to picture the harsh yet caring father, the simple but difficult village life and the pluck of young Taha in reselling merchandise to support his family. No doubt Hlehel also drew upon his own family history to give these scenes their life, as while researching for the play Hlehel discovered that “that Taha's story is kind of my grandfather's story, my grandfather was exiled from his home and then went to live with his family and then snuck back to Palestine.” In later segments of the play we are thrown into the internal whirlwind of Taha’s struggle with tuberculosis and longing for his childhood love Amira, who stayed behind in the refugee camps in Lebanon, and thus miss the feeling of the literary salon that Taha developed and which helped give rise to the world renowned Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim as well as Taha’s own career.
Perhaps such an omission is not a fault of the play. Instead, audiences are encouraged to see in Taha’s personal life a common humanity, often lost in the media and political discourse on Palestine. Therefore, despite the play being written originally in Arabic and subsequently translated to English, the connection between the performer and the audience remains strong, and as Hlehel notes, “we succeeded to create kind of the same world of the play in Arabic and English because I can feel it in the same reactions. People react the same to the comic stuff and the emotional stuff.” While contextual information is added in the English version that is not present in the Arabic version, it remains the same play.
Indeed, what characterises much of this play is its construction and the performance of Hlehel himself. Standing alone on stage with just one stool at the rear of the stage, Hlehel is able to convey the many stages of Taha’s life while pacing around and across a single illuminated square in the centre of the stage. While there are no costume changes during the play, Hlehel effectively gives a sense of the older Taha’s longing for Amira and struggles with expressing a poetic language of his own through his embodiment of these internal conflicts.
All of these stage devices build towards the final scene, which, fittingly, involves Hlehel reciting one of Taha’s poems, however this time in English with Arabic surtitles. The switch in language is a powerful move and does not diminish the impact of this poem. While previous recitations have been full of emotion the appreciation of them has been more academic than visceral. The final poem, however, hits the audience with a force that is not violent but exquisitely heartfelt.
This is not a play that is about balance, or telling both sides of the story, but instead reveals the internal struggles of a man who, while having lost almost everything, is able to rebuild and create something of true beauty. The play is undoubtedly political, however builds on an identification between the audience and the protagonist that transcends geopolitics. As Hlehel describes, “people identify with Taha because it doesn't ask people to take a side politically, it asks them to see the story of a man and then you decide if you want to go and look for the political issues and take a side.”
Taha runs in English on Tuesday the 27th and in Arabic on Wednesday the 28th of March at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta. Book tickets here https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/taha