Presented by Amer Hlehel
Reviewed 15 March 2018
The performance is by turns poignant,tragic and amusing but always a tour de force. Written and performed by Amer Hlehel, the play tells the story of Palestian poet Taha Muhammed Ali. The story has been adapted from My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century by Adina Hoffman and the poet’s work. It is also the story of Hlehel’s own family.
The poet grew up poor in a small village but his family still managed to send him to school where he fell in love with words and poetry. Taha was still a child during WWII and couldn’t understand the looming threat his father saw at war’s end. The boy wonders what his father can mean when he warns, ‘They will steal our land’ and imagines it being pulled out from under them, like a rug, while they are asleep, leaving them sleeping on…nothing.
How prescient this image turns out to be as the family is forced to flee when their village is bombed in the war which follows the establishment of the state of Israel. They are left with nothing to sleep on, living in a UN tent in a refugee camp in Lebabon
The simple lighting state on a bare stage, except for a wooden bench on which sits a brief case, casts threatening shadows which contrast starkly with a large square, cleverly lit in a golden yellow glow. This space becomes representational of his home, the café, and his land, where we are immersed in the sights and sounds of the village, the streets and his exile. When returning from exile Hlehel walks around and around this space, signifying the long and difficulty journey home – except Taha can’t go home as his village is now in a military zone.
There are many wonderful lines in the play, particularly Taha’s poetry, spoken in both English and Arabic. One that remained with me was the description of a Palestinian Muslim selling Christian souvenirs to pilgrims from his shop on Casanova Street in the Jewish town of Nazareth. Through this we see what many Palestinians have been forced to do, to get on with their lives, to do what they can.
Despite the many losses and set backs in his life Taha continued to read and educate himself, having had only four years of formal education. His love of poetry inspired him to write his own work, combining the classical style of Arabic poetry with a more direct, at times humorous style which Hlehel has adapted into a wonderful play.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw