Palestinian poet Taha Muhammed Ali was forced out of his home in the village of Saffuriya, Galilee, during the 1948 Nakba when he was just 17-years-old. He lived in Lebanon for a year before crossing back over the border and settling in Nazareth, where he lived until his death in 2011.
“He arrived in Nazareth with empty hands,” says Palestinian actor Amer Hlehel, whose production at the Young Vic in London charts Taha’s life story:
The whole family lived in a small rented room; he started working in the streets selling goods. Then he opened a falafel shop, then a grocery shop, then a souvenir shop. He bought his first house, then built the second, then built more houses for the family.
Taha reconstructs the poet’s life as he leaves his home, faces the reality of war, teaches himself Arabic and is separated from the love of his life across a border.
Hlehel says he identifies with the fact that Taha rebuilt his life from nothing for his grandfather was also displaced from his village, Qaddita, and forced to create a new life for his family elsewhere. “I see myself today as the product of that story. I contain all of their fear, pain, love, hate and survival deep inside me.”
“I think I identify with Taha’s huge heart,” he continues. “That after the great loss of his land, his business and his love he stayed the same optimistic person and could contain his pain and anger and convert it into love and poetry.”
Taha wrote about his personal story which set him apart from other Palestinian poets, says Hlehel. “Taha Muhammad Ali is a very rare poetry voice in the Palestinian poetry scene. He wrote about his personal pain, loss and love when all of his colleagues wrote about the general, political and collective pain and loss of the Palestinian people. He is a very special poet, deep, tender and the most human.”
Hlehel’s personal story is also intertwined with his work: “Any artist wants to be free with his work and talk about his own point of view about his life experience. But in our case, as Palestinians, we experience a story that belongs to everyone.”
“My personal story and formation cannot be separated from my Palestinian one,” he continues. “You can’t separate yourself as an artist from your place, time and environment. If you do then something is missing from your understanding of what the role of the artist is.”
Hlehel was inspired to become an actor by the Egyptian comedian and actor Adel Emam – in the eighties he was the “one and only in the Arab world”, he says.
“I dreamed as a child to be like him. He was doing very commercial theatre and at that time I thought that this is what theatre was about. So I followed my dream to be Adel Emam and went to drama school but very quickly discovered that my dream is different from being a commercial star.”
It took Hlehel a long time to encourage himself to write plays as well as act in them and for this he was inspired by Harold Pinter and Shakespeare. He has also acted in prominent films, such as Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now. The difference between acting in plays and in films, he says, is the percentage of projection in your acting.
“In films you don’t project what you feel and what you think, the camera can see it if you just think and feel. In theatre you need to help your thoughts and feelings and you need to project them to reach the audience.”
Hlehel grew up in Jish in northern Palestine and today lives in Haifa with his partner, Saheer, and their three-year-old daughter Noora, which makes him one of Israel’s 1.4 million Palestinian citizens. When I ask him what it’s like living as one of Israel’s minority of Palestinian citizens he answers using an allegory:
Imagine a small child that has a very beautiful toy that he loves so much, then another child – bigger, more powerful and with more support – takes the toy by force claiming that the toy is his.
“Then the strong child tries with all ways especially by force to persuade the small child and the entire world that the toy is his.”
“But he will be so ‘kind’ and will let the small child play with ‘his’ toy as long as the small child admits that the big child is right. And what is the small child supposed to do? Play or fight or leave? This is the kind of relationship between us Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and Israel.”
Having an Israeli passport has made it easy for Hlehel to enter the UK as he doesn’t need a visa. For other members of his team, however, it hasn’t been so easy. His light technician, Muaz, is from Jerusalem and production manager, Khawla, is from the Golan Heights, both places which were occupied during the 1967 war. As a result they don’t have passports, only travel documents, as they are not considered citizens by Israeli law.
Every time they need to travel anywhere they need to apply for a visa and they don’t always get it.
“Muaz wanted to come with his family to London, but the family – his partner and three-year-old daughter – didn’t get the visa.”
Restrictions on travel are just one of the ways life under occupation is intolerable for Palestinians. Israel is the new South African apartheid regime, says Hlehel, in which Palestinians are separated from Israelis on buses and prevented from returning to their homes.
The world has to act on Israel’s aggressive actions against Palestinians everywhere.
“This aggression must stop and artists, performers, writers and academics around the world have the power to let people know and have the power to put pressure on Israel. Boycotting the regime is one of the main ways to help bring justice.”
Hlehel hopes Taha will help the audience change their way of thinking about Palestine. “We are not a political case, we are a very human case, and no deal can solve what happened in 1948, only an understanding and a recognition that the Palestinians lived through a catastrophe. That we are not numbers, maps and borders, we are people with feelings and stories and a life that we lost.”
“Taha is the example of the beauty of Palestine – a teenager who lost his home, business, family and love yet managed to rebuild an alternative life and succeed to win again, against all the chances, and become a poet. Taha is a story about winning the catastrophe.”
Taha is showing at the Young Vic in London from 5-15 July as part of the Shubbak Festival.