An Unlikely Dramatic Hero: Poet Taha Muhammad Ali Takes Center Stage

Taha Muhammad Ali is an unlikely dramatic hero. His arms shake with age and infirmity, his legs occasionally buckle, and he often appears lost on stage, as if adrift in a vast expanse of sadness. But for an hour the story of this Palestinian poet has a vice-like hold on our attention and our hearts.

The one-man show “Taha” receives its English-language premiere on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. It offers not only a rare chance to learn about one of Palestine’s finest poets, but provides a visceral account of what it was like to live through the Nakba – the Catastrophe that befell hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from their homeland in 1948.

Its author and star, Amer Hlehel, has been performing the play in Arabic since 2014. He hopes he has been able to help young Palestinians rediscover Taha Muhammad Ali’s poetry following his death in 2011.

Hlehel, like Taha, belongs to Israel’s large minority of Palestinian citizens, numbering today some 1.7 million, or one in five of the population. They have found themselves forced into a unique and troubled position: inside Israel territorially and nominally as citizens, but outside the state’s Jewish self-definition, Israel’s popular consensus and its circle of ethnic privilege. As a result, the minority has acquired an unusual and illuminating perspective on both the Israeli and Palestinian experience.

Young Palestinians in Israel, says Hlehel, are tired of thinking about the Nakba only as a political event, or a piece of tragic history. The outlines of the Nakba are increasingly known, even to foreign audiences: more than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled in 1948 – and their hundreds of villages razed – to create a Jewish state on the ruins of their homeland. But Taha’s poems give voice to the concrete experiences of those refugees.

“His poetry is only political indirectly,” Hlehel tells me. “It is highly personal, full of human feeling, deceptively simple. It was quite unlike other Palestinian poetry of that time and has been influential on younger poets. The idea of the play started because I wanted to find a way to perform his poetry on stage.”

The long Nakba silence

Hlehel notes that few of the Palestinian generation that experienced the Nakba were prepared to speak of it in more than general, collective terms. It was a wound too deep to address individually, to put into words of personal suffering.

That was true for Taha too, points out Hlehel. He only began writing seriously in his fifties. On stage, Taha tightly grips to his chest the only prop – a battered leather suitcase – as though it contains memories he is too afraid to share but at the same time still more afraid to lose.

It was that fearful silence about the Nakba inside Hlehel’s own family that bothered him and drew him to Taha.

“My grandfather’s experiences were almost identical to Taha’s, but he never spoke of them – ever. He was expelled from his village to a camp in Lebanon. He risked the journey back to find the village destroyed. He had to rebuild his life from scratch inside Israel, and only a short distance from where he formerly lived.

“Taha’s story was my grandfather’s story, and many other Palestinians’,” he says. “That was what made it clear to me that I had to write the play.”

(Abu Arab, Taha’s brother, in Saffuriya’s main cemetery.  The forest on the hillside behind was planted over the ruins of the villagers’ homes.)

The Nakba traumatized an entire generation, observes Hlehel, but there was an additional reluctance to speak about it among the refugees living in Israel. “They had managed, at great personal risk, to stay in their homeland. They wanted to be close to their former homes. They were terrified that, if they spoke out, if they said anything, they would be expelled again. So they kept quiet, concentrated on the small things that helped them to rebuild their lives.”

Hlehel says he has been overwhelmed by the feedback from Palestinian audiences. “People told me how much they were touched by the play, because it did not just show Taha as a victim of the Nakba. In a way, he triumphed over the Nakba by transforming his experiences into poems, by writing about them with such honesty, sensitivity and beauty.”

An expulsion to Lebanon

Taha was from a large and famous village in the Galilee, called Saffuriya. Home to nearly 6,000 residents, it lay next to – and took its name from – the impressive ruins of Sephoris, where the Roman governor of the Galilee resided 2,000 years ago. Saffuriya’s villagers were also caretakers of the substantial ruins of a Crusader church that marks the site where Mary, mother of Jesus, is believed to have been born.

Taha was too young to have a clear recollection of a more recent episode in Saffuriya’s history. In the late 1930s, under the leadership of Izzeldine al-Qassem, the village led a massive revolt by Palestinians against Britain’s colonial rule and its support for the mass immigration of Jews. It was for this reason that in 1948, as its forces pushed northwards to the edge of the Galilee, the newly declared state of Israel placed Saffuriya at the very top of its list for destruction.

Under the United Nations’ partition plan of the previous year, Saffuriya was supposed to be part of the Arab state, not the Jewish one. That is perhaps why Taha made a mistake for which his father struggled to forgive him. As the Israeli army attacked Palestinian communities close by, the 17-year-old used the family’s savings to buy lambs to fatten up and sell in time for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

He never got his investment back. Ignoring the limits set by the UN plan, Israel attacked Saffuriya one evening during Ramadan. It bombed the village from the air, “softening it up” before ground troops arrived from the south the following morning. Gunfire from the Israeli army propelled Saffuriya’s families northwards, forcing them to refugee camps in Lebanon.

Taha recounts that flight in this extract from his poem “There Was No Farewell” (1988):

We did not stay
awake all night
and did not doze)
the night of our leaving.
That night we had
neither night nor light,
and no moon rose.
That night we lost our star,
our lamp misled us;
we didn’t receive our share
of sleeplessness –
so where
would wakefulness have come from?

Taha would spend several months in a Lebanese camp with his parents, two brothers and a sister. It was his sister’s death, and his mother’s breakdown over her double loss, that spurred the family’s decision to make the dangerous journey back, in violation of Israel’s new policy against what it termed “infiltration”. Once home, they found nothing left – the village had been blown up by Israeli army sappers. The family hid in the nearby Palestinian community of Reine, before finally settling close by in Nazareth.

In truly Orwellian language, Israel classified these internal refugees – one in four of its new Palestinian minority – as “present absentees”: present in Israel, but absent from their homes. Saffuriya’s returnees created a neighborhood on the edges of Nazareth they named Suffafra, in honor of their former village. Their new homes, on a Nazareth hillside, look down on the valley where Saffuriya once existed.

Only traces of a village

To the casual visitor, the clues that Saffuriya was ever there are likely to be missed: the ruined walls around a spring; a neglected cemetery; one surviving house that has been reinvented as a bed and breakfast; and overgrown prickly-pear cactus bushes, which were once used as fencing. The rubble of the village itself is largely concealed under a forest.

(Saffuriya’s spring is still visited by internal refugees. Children paddle in the water, and some families fill water bottles to last them the week.)

Unlike the families left behind in Lebanon, including that of Taha’s fiancee Amira, the present absentees were denied the solace of nostalgia. From close by, Taha watched the rapid transformation of Saffuriya into an exclusively Jewish community called Tzipori. His poetry often appears to be written in a desperate effort to cling on to the memories of what was lost in the face of this new reality.

In this extract from the poem “Thrombosis in the Veins of Petroleum” (1973), he cries out in refusal to be erased himself:

I won’t die! I will not die!!
I’ll linger on – a piece of shrapnel
the size of a penknife
lodged in the neck;
I’ll remain –
a blood stain
the size of a cloud
on this shirt

A new Jewish agricultural community hungrily devoured Saffuriya’s now-empty lands. Recent immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria created a moshav specializing in dairy production. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has called Israel’s efforts to erase traces of the Palestinian presence in historic Palestine “memoricide”. That extended beyond the built environment. Even the name Saffuriya was displaced by the similar-sounding Hebrew name Tzipori.

In an undated short poem, with the ironic title “Balance,” Taha contemplates the foreshadowing of those changes with a stripped-down simplicity:

In 1948
we owned
a noble bull
with horns
like those of other bulls.
And they
had an ordinary tractor
with a chain
like those
of the other tractors!

My first guide through Tzipori, helping me decode the landscape to find Saffuriya, was Abu Arab, one of Taha’s two younger brothers. Next to a large cow shed, past cactus grown rampant, he showed me a clearing that was once the municipal graveyard. Outlines of stones marking peasant graves were interspersed with the remains of grander stone tombs immortalizing Saffuriya’s elite.

A memorial out of sight

A forest of European pines was planted nearby, over the rubble of Saffuriya’s homes. It served several purposes: its year-round shade concealed the ruined village and avoided embarrassing questions; the trees made impossible any reconstruction of Saffuriya, even for those villagers like Taha who managed to return; the pines doubtless offered a reminder of Eastern Europe to Tzipori’s homesick new residents; and the uprooting of native tree species – olive, citrus, carob, fig, pomegranate, almond and walnut – stripped returnees of the ability to subsist from the land, as their ancestors had done.

The forest was planted by the Jewish National Fund, an international Zionist charity. For decades, it has been collecting tax-deductible donations from Jews in North America and Europe, including from school children, in its famous blue tin boxes. Few presumably appreciated how their money was spent: to plant forests over hundreds of villages like Saffuriya to prevent the inhabitants from returning. In short: to enforce a war crime.

A path along the forest edge leads to the ruins of St Anna’s church, Mary’s birthplace, now overseen by two Argentinian priests. The Vatican appoints only foreign clergy at the site, presumably under pressure from Israel. Allowing Palestinians to live there might, it seems, set a tiny precedent for a right of return.

Despite its importance as a holy site, the church rarely has visitors, even though it lies only two miles outside Nazareth. I have taken groups there for more than a decade, but never once seen a pilgrim. Most licensed tour guides seem not to have heard of this holy site; I have been told it is not on their Israeli-set curriculum. Is this another example of memoricide? Does Israel fear dozens of pilgrim coaches daily wending their way past the rubble of Saffuriya, asking troubling questions?

The isolation of the site, on a track few of the moshav’s Jews have ever traveled, has offered an opportunity. An improvised, “secret” memorial to Taha has been created on a few stones that were once the wall of a home like the one Taha’s family left behind. Images of Taha’s face, as well as lines of his poetry in Arabic, have been grafted on. It is a modest tribute Taha would have appreciated, and one slowly being lost to the elements along with these neglected stones.

As I pause here, I often think of an extract from the poem “The Place Itself” (2004):

And so I come to the place itself,
but the place is not
its dust and stones and open space.
For where are the red-tailed birds
and the almonds’ green?
Where are the bleating lambs
and the pomegranates of evening –
the smell of bread
and the grouse?
Where are the windows,
and where is the ease of Amira’s braid?

Two lovers separated for life

Hlehel says he wanted to perform the play in English to bring a personal account of the Nakba to western audiences. “We need to speak to the world about the origins of this conflict, if there is to be any political solution. The Nakba isn’t just about lost homes, lost lands and lost orchards. Palestinians are a people who experienced terrible personal traumas. Taha was separated from Amira, the love of his life, across a border. It is a loss he never recovered from.

“So Taha’s story is also a tragic love story – and that is something everyone can relate to.”

In this extract from “The Fourth Qasaida” (1983), Taha writes about that loss:

When our loved ones leave, Amira,
as you left,
an endless migration in us begins
and a certain sense takes hold in us
that all of what is finest
in and around us,
except for sadness,
is going away –
departing,
not to return.

There is much mischief and humor in Taha’s poems too, often captured in his readings. That strange mix of humor and melancholy is illustrated in poems like “Fooling the Killers: Warning” (1988). In this extract, Taha makes a request:

Lovers of hunting,
and beginners seeking your prey:
Don’t aim your rifles
at my happiness,
which isn’t worth
the price of the bullet
(you’d waste on it).
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn’t happiness.
Trust me:
My happiness bears
no relation to happiness.

The last line – My happiness bears no relation to happiness – became the title of a biography of Taha written by his friend Adina Hoffman, herself a noted writer. Her husband, the poet Peter Cole, worked on many of the translations of Taha’s work.

Hlehel only met Taha in passing at literary events and says it was Hoffman’s detailed account of Taha’s life that provided the material he needed to recreate on stage episodes from his life.

After its short run in Washington, the play will move in the summer to Europe, with performances in Luxembourg, London, Manchester and at the Edinburgh festival.

Taha, performed in English, is on for two nights, March 15 and 16, at the Kennedy Center. On the first evening, there will be a discussion after the performance with Amer Hlehel and the director, Amir Nizar Zuabi. For information and tickets, visit the Kennedy Center website or call (202) 467-4600.

All translations come from Taha Muhammad Ali, “So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005″, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin (Copper Canyon Press, 2006). Reprinted by permission of the translators.

• All photos by Jonathan Cook

• First published in Mondoweiss

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.