Writer: Amer Hlehel
Translator/Director Amir Nizar Zuabi
Director: Amir Nizar Zuabi
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Growing up in Palestine in the 1940s, Taha Muhammed Ali was already proving himself a shrewd businessman and intellectual in his mid-teens. Full of determination and with an intense thirst for learning, Taha takes it upon himself to drag his family out of poverty and delights in his own success. Life is good until, one day, his village is destroyed by enemy bombs and his family have to flee to Lebanon. Starting from scratch, having left with nothing, it doesn’t take the enterprising Taha long to get a business up and running again, and with enough money to get the family back into Palestine, he returns home.
Taha is a hugely personal story – the story of one man’s life as he fights against the odds to survive and thrive in a changing world. However, it’s not for his savvy trading skills that he’s remembered, but for his poetry, the output sparked by his father’s death, and which made him one of Palestine’s most notable poets.
Like Taha Muhammed Ali, Amer Hlehel is a beguiling storyteller. On a dimly lit stage he creates a life, and the sounds, smells and tastes of Taha’s village, Saffuriyya, the market places of Haifa and the streets of Nazareth. He conjures cosy rooms, filled with the aroma of coffee, where his father presided over salons. He bids us follow him, his family, and over a hundred other refugees as they walk through dark woods and over the disputed border. Hlehel’s performance is totally absorbing. For seventy-five minutes the audience is drawn into his story, one man’s experience in the midst of turbulent and frightening times. He draws out Taha’s delight in the world, his upbeat outlook on life, his disappointments and his raw emotions. The narrative (in English) is interspersed with Taha’s poetry (in Arabic with surtitles projected on a screen at the back of the stage). The surtitles are rather too speedily flicked through and difficult to read, but the sound of the verse in the Arabic language is beautiful, even where meaning is missed.
The final scene sees Taha standing on a stage at a conference in London. After a slapstick moment with his briefcase which makes the audience roar with laughter, he silences them with his poem Revenge in which he dreams of killing his enemy – ‘the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me into a narrow country’ – but then, with his characteristic sense of justice, sees him as a man like himself, with a family and friends, a human being caught up in the chaos of the modern world, and relents, leaving him be.
It’s this same sense of humanity that sings out in this beautifully crafted and wonderfully performed piece of theatre.
Reviewed on 1 July 2017