Playwright Amer Hlehel's family story mirrored in powerful play on Palestinian poet


January 28, 2018

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Amer Hlehel’s magnetic command of the stage in TAHA was feted with standing ovations when the one-man show was staged at London’s Young Vic theatre last year. His deeply moving performance as Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, a play Hlehel also wrote, has also been roundly praised by critics. The Haifa-based writer and performer sheds light on the personal connection he shares with the poet that has inspired his powerful performance about life, love and above all, relentless hope.

Like Taha Muhammad Ali, you are a Palestinian from Israel, and you have said the story is the story of your grandfather. Tell us more.

Taha’s family as well as my own were amongst the families who were displaced during the Arab- Israeli war in 1948, went to Lebanon and lived there for a while, then sneaked back into Palestine to return to their homes. They discovered their homes did not exist anymore, they were forbidden from getting close to their villages and the place they called Palestine was now called Israel. At that time, Taha and my grandfather were around the same age.

Is this the reason you wrote this play? Why was it important for you bring the story to life on stage, and did it help that you had a personal connection to it?

I was always researching the way of telling my family story. I didn’t want it to be too personal, I wanted it to be a story about people and a fine artistic story as well. So the similarity between the story of Taha and my grandfather’s is one of the main reasons for writing TAHA the play. On the other hand, I was always a big fan of Taha’s poetry, which I think is one of the deepest, most honest, prettiest and tenderest in Palestinian poetry, and I had always wanted one day to put his work on stage. When I read the biography about Taha written by Adina Hoffman and faced his story, I realised all the elements can now be pulled together and become one story, one piece.

My personal connection to the story made its way to the stage easier and deeper. I didn’t need any research about the place, time and the play’s world. It is all in me; my mind and my body know the world since I was born into that small, lovely and humble Palestinian family.

Taha has said he deliberately approaches politics from the “oblique angle of personal experience”, and his poetry is not polemical or political. As a storyteller, do you think this is sometimes a more effective way of bringing issues across?

Indeed, always. Political art doesn’t last; a polemical way of delivering ideas doesn’t last. Human art lasts, existential questions in art lasts. The best way of telling a political story is avoiding all the politics in it. One has to search for the truth and the core of the story he wants to tell, the things that can make the story the most universal. Good art is when everyone, everywhere can understand it and identify with it, even without understanding the background of it.

And the way to do it is to be as personal as much as you can. The closer to yourself, the closer to the entire world.

You play Taha on stage. How did you research playing him? How difficult is it to hold a stage by yourself as a performer, and a bare stage at that?

I studied Taha as character from the very first meetings with his brothers and family. At that time I was researching the story with them but my performer eye was always there caching any character details that can help me as an actor. Then I watched videos of him. But when I started rehearsing, I didn’t try to copy him. My aim was to bring the character’s feelings onto stage — the deepness of him more than the appearance.

Any actor will tell you that standing alone on stage for more than an hour trying to build a real world using your body, mind and imagination, inside the black box called stage, is a very hard mission. But if you succeed, it gives amazing pleasure and satisfaction.

In TAHA, there are personal tragedies against a complex political backdrop and also a tragic love story. What is the overriding story arc that you want audiences to walk away with?

It is not easy to decide, there is more than one story for me to build the arc of the play, but I think the love story with Amira and the father’s story can both be combined to create the arc that I am aiming for.

What is also really important to me is that after seeing the play, I hope people will think differently when they hear the word “Palestine” in future. 

  • 2018