The Ghost of a Martyred Father Hovers Over Babel Theater

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Raeda Taha on the stage of “Where can I find someone like you, Ali? at Beirut's Babel Theater. Photo: Mohammed Khayat

By: Pierre Abisaab

Published Monday, February 23, 2015

We spent an exceptional evening at Babel Theater in Beirut Thursday night at the opening of “Where can I find someone like you, Ali?,” a play written and performed by Raeda Taha and directed by Lina Abyad. Curiosity brings you to Babel Theater. You go because you are intrigued by the play’s subject matter, which recalls the time of the Palestinian armed struggle in a happy Beirut of the 1970s. What makes you stay is the work’s artistic power, its humanist thrust, its unique and intimate questions and ability to move seamlessly between the private and the public and unite the personal and the historical.

It is a little story on the margins of the big story about the hijacking of the Sabena Flight 571 by a group of fedayeen (Palestinian guerilla fighters), narrated from the author’s perspective as the daughter of the group’s leader who died fighting Israeli commandos after the failure of the operation. Raeda was seven years old in 1972 when her father, Ali Taha, was martyred leaving behind a widow in the prime of her life and four girls, of whom she is the oldest, who will become the “daughters of the martyr.”

After all these years (Taha is nearly twice her mother’s age at the time her father died), a woman in her 50s — who never fully healed from her sense of void, fatherlessness and alienation — stands before us exposing her open wound, stripping bare her emotions as though she is trying to reclaim her father from the myth. Is there nothing more tragic than the lifestory of revolutionaries who sacrificed for us? Yes, there is. It is the fate of their loved ones, cast off at the wayside of life. Raeda narrates — as stated in a prologue to the play — to become the daughter of the martyr, this time, however, “willingly.”

Taha went through her parents’ archives, considering papers, clippings, documents, letters, photographs and testimonies of the survivors (her mother Fathiya, the young widow living between Beirut and Amman and her paternal aunt Suhaila — Mother Courage — who stayed in occupied Jerusalem).

Partnering with Lina Abyad for a new play (she was in “Returning to Haifa” and “Eighty Degrees”), Taha is the real surprise in this monodrama. The dramatic structure of the text she wrote, its rich historical accounts and human depth, its originality, narrative techniques, poetic undertones, mixing tragedy with humor, variegated dialects, characters and small details, pull you in. She captivates you with her style, which centers around a first-person narrative and an ability to maintain a critical distance between the “I” and the “we,” between the now of the narrative and the past of the story.

This intimate sensibility amid the clamor of the collective saga takes us back in time to an important period of the Palestinian people’s struggle. It is not political propaganda, it is a play about a stolen childhood and an absent father. Everything we see, hear and conjure comes to us through the memory of a child forcibly pulled away from her ordinary happiness, becoming an anomaly, living an open-ended fatherlessness in the name of the nation and the cause. It is a personal, critical perspective of a woman who grew up with an regenerate sense of fatherlessness, incompleteness and loss. All this gave rise to a need for a public retelling of the story. If Scheherazade told stories to protect her life, Raeda Taha tells this story to reclaim hers.

The other, perhaps more important, surprise is Raeda’s acting, which exhibits force, spontaneity, honesty, an ability to convince, an ease in reincarnating characters and stories, traveling between cities, and engaging with audiences directly, taking their breath away and seizing hold of their emotions. She is a first-rate storyteller, moving between narration and acting, diagnosing and reincarnating. It is a complicated task. Acting her real life role heightens her ability to emotionally move her audience, but it deprives her of a safety net (derived from fiction, imagination and displacement) that an actor needs in order to step into this black hole in front of us.

Perhaps the writer/performer owes her stunning success to the unique nature of this experience. She is enacting a text she wrote, telling painful episodes of her own life, which happens to be part of a collective memory and a public narrative, whose events, heroes, happenings, junctures, twists and turns, places and symbols we know quite well, beginning with Yasser Arafat. Taha was close to the Palestinian leader and lived under his fatherly protection (incapable though it may have been of compensating for the absence of the real father as we will quickly find out).

The leader in the image of the father?! We are at the heart of a patriarchal structure that molds our consciousness, conscience and needs, our personal and collective history. The young woman wandering in the shadow of an absent “hero,” whom she tries to make up for with the image of the leader. A rape attempt that the author went through in her mid 20s — reminding her that she has no protector to support her and no one to rely on — put her face-to-face with the state of fatherlessness that she has struggled with since childhood. This shock is the entryway to retrieving the story from the jaws of private and collective trauma. With a lot of poetic flare, wit, sorrow and deferred anger, she performs her long fragmented monologue based on a series of tender and harsh moments that mix poetry, sarcasm, realistic depictions, laughter in the face of tragedy and the people’s spontaneous behavior. For example, the story of the aunt with Kissinger in Jerusalem, the ghost of the martyr’s corpse, the story of the freezer and Ali Taha’s farewell letter, among other stories in which women take center stage in the absence of the missing hero.

Director Lina Abyad had to take on this legacy, deal with it and turn it into a theatrical performance that approaches the story and stands delicately on the edge of a personal trauma, which will soon coalesce with our collective trauma. It is not an easy feat. The director is walking a tightrope trying to avoid getting crushed under the weight of a ready-made narrative, which is the life of the actress who plays her own character on stage, or competing with the text and the performer, thus having to resort to technical games and aesthetic and ceremonial trappings that allow her to subjugate and tame the beast. She could have imposed herself as a director, stealing the show so to speak.

But Abyad, who has a lot of experience under her belt and is aesthetically and intellectually mature, found the magic formula that gives the play its poetic edge, force and distinctive voice. She listened respectfully to the story from up close and worked silently and skillfully to provide everything that enriches it visually, performatively and kinetically, and enables its cohesiveness and emotional power. She worked on lighting, rhythm, interruptions, breathing, managing the actor and the techniques of the storyteller and the narrative. She added a third dimension, a visual element consisting of videos, documents, photos, documentary footage and drawings shown against an unmatching background that fractures and deconstructs the images. The visual discourse compliments the oral narrative with its rich poetic details such as close-ups of hands and feet, stacked cups, 1970s embroidery, family letters and black and white photos. She also built a familiar decor with Abdel Halim Hafez and Sabah’s songs atop a “poor” stage, creating the proper background, frame and dynamic for her protagonist.

We see Raeda in her blue dress that goes slightly below the knees, taking different positions on a couch from the 1950s, or abruptly standing up to keep pace with a moment of crisis or to dance a revolutionary dabke. The director succeeded in creating this kinetic, visual and audio range with a lot of simplicity and austerity. So much so that her role appears almost marginal when in fact it is critical and essential. Abyad disappeared behind the work itself, to where we can barely see her, as all good directors do.

“Where can I find someone like you, Ali” is indeed a rare moment in the history of Lebanese and Arab theater. The powerful performance, the rich text, the skilled minimalist direction, the unique subject matter at the intersection of the private and the public, the title itself from Sabah’s song, and a shot of a Jerusalemite aunt, are some of the elements that make for an exceptional play — a play that is both worth watching and open to debate.

Abyad who had previously adapted Ghassan Kanafani’s novel “Returning to Haifa” to the stage has matured as a director since working on “Darling come back to bed.” As for Raeda Taha, it is a joy to discover her as a writer and actor. The guerrilla operation reveals itself to us through her memory, along her journey of searching for her missing father, the hero and the martyr, even as her critical approach leaves us wondering about the question of carrying on the armed struggle with the means available today. Is it a page that has been forever turned in the eyes of the writer who is preoccupied with her personal queries and trauma? Or has the protagonist — like Annemarie Jacir in the film “When I saw you” — not recovered from that period, and so she interrogates it in light of the current moment, spurring us to search for ways to revive it?

God bless the days of Ali Taha, leader of the 1972 Lod Airport operation, who fell a martyr on his way to Palestine. “Where can I find someone like you, Ali?/ And you are in this eye... and this eye Ali.”

”Where can I find someone like you, Ali?” is playing until March 7 at Babel Theater in Hamra. For more information, call: 04/521 689

The Lod Airport operation

On the evening of May 8, 1972, a Boeing 707 operated by the Belgium national airline Sabena landed at the Lod Airport. Its pilot informed the control tower that it is under the control of militants. It was the William Nassar group whose members chose to take Sabena flight 571 flying from Brussels to the Lod Airport in occupied Palestine to take on the enemy on its own turf. It had four freedom fighters, two men and two women from the Black September organization who demanded the release of a hundred prisoners in Israeli jails in return for the hostages. They fell into a trap when they accepted the request of the Red Cross to extend the ultimatum and continue to negotiate allowing to bring more food on the plane. Israeli commandos led by Benjamin Netanyahu stormed the plane. Taha and Abdel Raouf al-Atrash were martyred while Terese Halsa and Rima Issa were captured (they were later released in a prisoner exchange operation in 1982). Thus the Lod Airport (later Ben Gurion International Airport) operation failed. It was said that Ali Hassan Salameh (who would later be martyred) planned it.

Pierre Abi Saab is the vice-editor of Al-Akhbar. Follow him on Twitter: @PierreABISAAB

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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