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Bringing a Palestinian Poet’s Story to the Stage: An Interview with Amer Hlehel

By Jessie Chaffee


Amer Hlehel is the author and performer of the play Taha, which tells the story of the celebrated Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Adapted from Adina Hoffman’s biography My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, Taha has been performed by the playwright in both English and Arabic around the world, most recently at the Shubbak Festival in London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. WWB spoke with Amer Hlehel about the work’s inspiration, the experience of performing in multiple languages, and the contemporary resonances that make this play about one man larger than a single life.
 

Words Without Borders (WWB): What inspired you to write Taha? Are there aspects of Taha Muhammad Ali’s life and poetry that you felt made him an especially relevant figure to explore now?

Amer Hlehel (AH): I was initially inspired by Taha’s poetry. When I first read Taha’s poetry, I felt that I was reading something that I am not used to reading in Arabic poetry, especially in Palestinian poetry. He wrote about the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) in a very personal, deep, tender, and human way that was very new and that you don’t usually find in Palestinian poetry. Then I read Adina Huffman’s biography of Taha, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, and I discovered that Taha’s story is our story—the story of people who were displaced and lost their homeland and their lives and their nature. Taha’s story is also very similar to my grandfather’s story. My grandfather survived the 1948 war and was displaced to Lebanon during the Nakba. When he sneaked back into Palestine, he found it Israel, and he started to build a life from nothing in a new place because he was not allowed to return to his original village. What made Taha’s story more relevant than my grandfather’s was that he wrote the finest poetry about his experience, which gave me the ability to write a play that was larger than a single life in terms of the history and how we dealt with it as human beings.

 

WWB: You’ve worked in stage and film. Was there something about the story of this poet (or the book it is adapted from) that you felt made live performance the right medium for it?

AH: When I started researching the play and Taha, I thought it was going to be a big play. Then, after some time, I thought maybe it ought to become a film—it is a perfect story for an epic film. But during the process, I slowly began to feel that the right way to tell a poet’s story—considering that Taha was a great storyteller—is to let him tell us the story himself, and to let him tell it alone. I see poets as witnesses to human life, and they need an environment of loneliness to recreate the life they experience in the most economical form of art—poetry.

These days, after the two productions, Arabic and English, I am thinking about writing the film script I once wanted to write about Taha.   

 

WWB: The play was adapted from a novel, and the original script was written in Arabic and then translated into English. What were both translation processes like and were there particular challenges or pleasant surprises that arose in adapting the book for the stage and then in translating the script into English?

AH: That the book was not a novel but a biography allowed me to write the original play (in Arabic) more freely. You don’t have the same artistic decisions or determinations to consider when transforming a biography into a play as you would with a novel. The biography, which was written beautifully, gave me the freedom to build the story as I saw it. The challenges were the decisions about which version of some stories to adapt, because during my research with Taha’s family, I encountered differences in details between the family’s version and the book.

When Amir Nizar Zuabi, Chay Yew, and I worked on the translation at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, we spent most of the time trying to make a Palestinian story understandable for an international audience without converting the play into a lecture or a historical speech. But we also needed to provide the audience with the context of time and place and history to enable them to follow the story, and to make it easier for them to understand it and complete the picture.
 


Image: Amer Hlehel performs in “Taha.” Photo by Saheer Obaid.
 

WWB: You perform Taha in both Arabic and English. Does the language of the performance change the feeling of the play for you as an actor?

AH: Surprisingly, the feeling is the same in both productions. I thought that the English would feel different; I thought it would be a more intellectual experience for the audience, and it would lack the emotion that the Arabic production brings to life. But I was wrong. In the English version, people have also engaged with the emotion and the heart of the story, even if some of them didn’t know anything about Palestine and the history before they came to the performance. It seems we speak different languages but we experience life in the same way.

 

WWB: How present is Taha Muhammad Ali’s original poetry in the play? Do you see the voice of the play as being an extension of the voice of his poetry?

AH: I tried to use the minimum amount of poetry in the play. I wanted to give the audience only a taste of his poetry because I wanted people to seek out the poetry and Taha as a poet after the performance. And this works very well. One of the main reactions after the show is people asking about his poetry and where they can find his writings.

I feel the play is an extension of the voice of Taha’s poetry, and many people have told me that they discovered Taha because of the play. Theater is a collective experience, and through it you can spread thoughts and ideas quickly because you have audiences who carry the things you tell them out into the world and share them with others.

 

Palestinian actor, director, and writer Amer Hlehel is based in Haifa. His plays include Taha, Juha and Bahlol (a children’s play), What the Story is All About, and Almushakhesati—The Player (with Firas Khateeb and Ala Hlehel). He has appeared in numerous theatrical productions, including Shakespeare’s The Tempest in David Farr’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-on-Avon; Kafka’s In the Penal Colony at the Young Vic (London), directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi; and Diab, for which he received the awards for best actor and best solo performance at the Masraheed Festival in 2005. Hlehel’s film work includes the Palestinian films The IdolThe Time that Remains, Amreeka, Man Without a Cell Phone, and the Golden Globe award-winning Paradise Now. His work as a stage and film director includes What the Story is All AboutBreaking NewsFinding the DreamThanks, Prayer (on video), and, most recently, Altagreeba. Hlehel is the artistic director of the Al-Midan Theatre in Haifa and a Sundance Institute Theatre Program alumnus.

 

Further Reading

Against the Grain: Writing from the Shubbak Festival (July 2017 feature)

The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

Breaking Down Borders Through Comedy: A Review of “Borderline,” by Antoine Cassar

Tourism, “Tradition,” and the Politics of Humor in the Cuban Play, ¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón!, by Rebecca L. Salois


Published Aug 16, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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