Elissa Blake from Audrey Journal explores Arabic-Australian Theatre and Riverside’ latest offering, Taha.
In recent years, Riverside Theatres has become the leading host and producer of Arabic-Australian theatre in this country.
It’s hardly surprising. Arabic speakers have a long association with Western Sydney, particularly the suburbs of Auburn, Canterbury, Bankstown, Granville and Parramatta and this diverse community is increasingly keen to see itself mirrored in Australian culture and on the stage.
In 2016, National Theatre of Parramatta premiered Hakawati in the El Phoenician restaurant, a show that brought 40 audience members around a table to break bread while listening to tall tales blending elements of classical Arabic storytelling with modern dilemmas.
NTofP also presented The Cartographer’s Curse, a devised drama asking its audience to consider the echoing effects of the ways in which the map of the Middle East was redrawn by European powers during World War I.
Riverside then presented Monkey Baa Theatre’s Where the Streets Had a Name, a play for younger audiences based on the book by the Palestinian-Egyptian-Australian novelist Randa Abdel-Fattah, a portrait of family life in modern day Bethlehem.
Coming next is a play paying homage to one of the great writers in Arabic, the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
Written and performed by Amer Hlehel, an actor and director based in Haifa, Palestine, it tells the story of how a young villager and his family are swept up in calamitous events, and of how the boy went on to become the pre-eminent poetic voice of his dispossessed people.
“Taha Muhammad Ali is a very unique voice in Palestinian poetry,” explains Hlehel. “I first came across his work around 17 years ago when I was sharing an apartment with my brother. I was at drama school at that time, and I remember one evening I went home and found a book on the table in the living room. It was Taha’s book.
“I didn’t know him at that moment, then my brother said to me that I had to read and know Taha. And from the very first lines I fell in love, a love that would grow more and more through the years and end up with me writing and performing this play.”
Taha Muhammad Ali was born in 1931 in the village of Saffuriyya in Galilee. His father was poor, a cripple. His mother kept house. Like many boys at that time, Taha began working young, selling eggs in Haifa from the age of nine. Later, he opened his own store.
But he was always fascinated by poetry and literature and, even though he worked full-time to support his family, he never gave up attending school.
Taha’s life – and the lives of everyone in Saffuriyya – changed drastically in June 1948 when Israeli forces evicted Palestinians from their homes. A village of 10,000 was emptied almost overnight, then demolished.
“Taha’s family and village were part of this displacement and were pushed to leave for Lebanon,” Hlehel explains. “They lived there for a year but when they snuck back they found the new state of Israel controlling the country and the village closed as a military zone. So, he spent his life in Nazareth and wrote his poetry in his souvenir shop.” [Taha operated a souvenir shop near the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a role he jokingly described as “a Muslim selling Christian memorabilia to Jews.”]
While other Palestinian writers and poets turned the experience of the Nakbar (“the catastrophe”) into polemic, Taha used it to inspire deep and tender poetry. “Taha’s poetry is so personal but also includes all the pain of the entire Palestinian people in it,” says Hlehel.
“In almost every poem, I find meaning for me because I come from a family that made the same journey as him. Taha’s story is so similar to my grandfather’s. They both were living in a village in Galilee, they both were teenagers in 1948, they were both forced to leave to Lebanon, and were not allowed to return. And they both rebuilt their life from zero.”
Hlehel has performed Taha at the Young Vic in London, in Luxembourg, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and, recently, in the 2018 Adelaide Fringe Festival. The play has been praised as a “dramatic and lyrical tour de force”.
Taha Muhammad Ali died in 2011 but left many recordings and video footage, which Hlehel has studied closely.
“I also studied him through his brother whom I met during my research and tried to figure out how was he as a person,” Hlehel says. “But I never meant to imitate him or to copy him. I was more interested in his inner character than his external being. But I was lucky with my choices because after the first performance, his daughter told me she could see her father alive for an hour on stage. That was the best comment any actor could wish for.”
While Taha has profound resonances for audiences of Palestinian heritage, the play strikes a chord in everyone who sees it, Hlehel says. “I was surprised to see the play getting almost the same exact responses from all kinds of audiences; I think it is because the play is about a human experience and about a man’s story. It doesn’t demand any opinion from the audiences in terms of political views. I did do some context work in the English language version. I wanted to make the time and place elements clearer for the audience, make it easier for people who don’t know the history of Palestine to follow and understand.
“Of course, Palestinians see the play differently,” Hlehel adds. “They see themselves in it, they see their stories in it. They don’t need any explanation or hints to understand and identify with it. But in general the responses are the same everywhere.”
Taha’s message is universal, Hlehel believes. “I kept the play personal because I believe, in art, the closer to yourself you are, the closer to the world you will be.”
And Hlehel’s favourite poems?
He nominates The Falcon, The Forth Qassida, and Twigs. The latter he particularly loves:
it has taken me
all of sixty years
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendour in people’s hearts.”