“This production insists, gently but powerfully, on the human contact at the heart of performance.” Alison Croggon on Amer Hlehel’s tribute to the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali
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 splendor in people’s hearts.
Twigs, Taha Muhammad Ali
A man alone in a square of light, clutching a battered briefcase. “Nothing came easy,” he says, gesturing with a hand that trembles with palsy. “Not life, not poetry.” And so begins Taha, Amer Hlehel’s theatrical tribute to the major Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
Hlehel launches into the story of the poet’s birth in the long-vanished village of Saffuriya in Galilee. Ali was the fifth child, but only the first to survive past two years: by the time he was born, his parents had given up hope. No one celebrated his birth, no one praised God or his mother, because they were sure he would die.
But he didn’t die. This whole story – the first in what looks like an unmissable series of shows presented by Arts Centre Melbourne this winter, Big World Up Close – is about survival. No, it’s about much more than survival: it’s about how joy, beauty, humour and love are human splendours that are as necessary as food.
Born in 1931, Ali lived to see the way of life that his ancestors had followed for millenia vanish beyond reparation in the brutal geopolitical divisions that followed Wold War 2. Two of these divisions ended up defining modern history: the splitting of Germany between the Allied powers and Soviet Russia, which culminated in the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which divided what was then known as Mandatory Palestine into independent Jewish and Arabic States in 1947. The UN resolution was swiftly followed by the catastrophe of the Nakba in 1948, when Israeli forces expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and razed hundreds of villages to create a Jewish state on the ruins of their homeland.
By 1948, Ali was 17. He was a successful merchant, the major support of his family (he left school at 11 to become a trader). Against his father’s advice, he had spent all his savings on a flock of sheep, because he calculated that by the end of Ramadan that year, everyone would want to buy food to celebrate and he’d make a bundle.
Ali had Plans. One of the most moving parts of this show is the alternative future the youthful Ali imagines: he will build a market place in Saffuriya, like the market in Haifa which enchants him with its various peoples, languages and smells, with apartments above to house his brothers and sister and parents. He will marry his cousin Amira. He has no idea that his whole future is about be changed irrevocably by the forces that seem abstract and far away. He doesn’t believe Saffuriya is important enough for anyone to attack it.
As we all know, he was wrong. Israeli forces bombed and invaded the village during Ramadan, and Ali and his extended family were forced to flee to Lebanon. After ten months in Lebanese refugee camps and the death of his sister, his father decided they were returning to Palestine. They crossed the border in defiance of Israeli directives, only to find that Saffuriya no longer existed: the village had been reduced to rubble and was now a military zone. Eventually the family ended up in Nazareth, and Ali opened a souvenir shop, “a Muslim selling Christian souvenirs to Jewish tourists”.
Based on Adina Hoffman’s biography of the poet, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, Taha only deals glancingly with the vexed politics of Israel/Palestine that form the broader shapings of Ali’s life. The gift of Ali’s poetry and Hlehel’s performance is their insistence on the material human dimensions of what those politics mean.
The creation of Israel as we know it depended, as is true of all nation states, on the erasure of the memory of what was there before, the reduction of complex lives to abstract notions. Ali’s writing is a vivid memory-capsule of a forgotten life that has been erased like the native trees – olives, figs, pomegranates and almonds – that were bulldozed and uprooted in Saffuriya and replaced by stands of European pines. He vividly evokes a peasant life that has all but vanished almost everywhere in the world, its harshness, comedies and seemingly immutable truths.
Poetry came late for Ali, an autodidact who taught himself English by reading modern poetry, although all his life he ran salons attended by major Palestinian writers like Mahmoud Darwish. He didn’t publish until he was 52. The most extraordinary part of Hlehel’s extraordinary performance is when poetry arrives at a point of terrible grief: he becomes a body possessed by language, a physical embodiment of tormenting contradictions that only poetry can resolve.
The poetry itself is at once direct and complex, and owes much to Ali’s peasant background. Like much contemporary Arabic poetry, it melds influences from formal traditions of Arabic poetry and European modernism. Comparing Ali to his contemporaries, the critic John Palattella comments: “Whereas Darwish and al-Qasim, like most Palestinian poets, have favored the elevated and ornate rhetoric of fus’ha, or classical Arabic, Ali writes nonmetrical, unrhymed poems that blend classical fus’ha with colloquial Arabic.”
Hlelel’s text, restrained but full of feeling, is beautifully written and structured. The poems, mostly recited in Arabic with English surtitles projected behind the actor, arise organically from the text as moments of intensity before relaxing back into the storytelling. This production insists, gently but powerfully, on the human contact at the heart of performance. Amir Nizar Zuabi’s austere direction focuses our attention always on Hlehel, who creates a portrait of a man who has all the complexity of true simplicity. He’s stubborn, gentle, funny, and often physically awkward (later in his life Ali suffered from elephantiasis).
And in Ali’s refusal of dehumanisation and hate in the face of everything that happened to his family, it plants, as Ali himself says art should, “a measure of splendour in people’s hearts”.
After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
and all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
hate will be
the first thing
to turn to dust
Twigs, Taha Muhammad Ali
Taha, written and performed by Amer Hlehel, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi. Design by Ashraf Hanna, lighting by Muaz Jubeh, music by Habib Shehadeh Hanna. On the stage of the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 14. Bookings
Please note: There is a total lockout once this performance commences.
Assistive hearing and Companion Cards are available for this performance.