For the past six years, I have intermittently helped a friend with a project based around photographing and recording the memories of people who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As he recently wrote in an introduction to an exhibition of the portraits: “The goal of From Above is to put a human face to the words in the history books. Many people view war through statistics and dates. They forget that war affects real people.”
Watching Taha by Amer Hlehel at the Young Vic on Friday, I was reminded of these sentences. Programmed as part of the Shubbak Festival, Taha recounts the life of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammed Ali, intercutting the biographical details with segments of his poetry performed in English and Arabic. From the perspective of an outsider, just the word ‘Palestine’ is so pumped full of politics it can be hard to imagine it as an actual place with actual people living in it, and not a pawn shoved around the global political chessboard.
Hlehel’s play undercuts the major narratives of history to present a life-story that picks up on the banality and beauty of everyday existence. A quick Wikipedia search will tell you that the seventeen-year-old poet fled with his family to Lebanon when their village was bombed in 1948. What it will not tell you – but this play will – is that the teenager was returning home from a trip to the nearby town to source produce to sell in their shop. Imagining that the approaching Eid al-Fitr would result in extra sales, he had gone against his father’s cautioning and spent all the available money on a haul of goods including lambs to fatten and slaughter. In the ensuing mayhem, the lambs scatter. Reunited as a family, his father is decidedly unimpressed with his son’s imprudent behaviour. The political background to the bombing is never mentioned, yet it’s these quotidian details – and the universality of a son thinking he knows best – that humanise the story.
The poetry performed by Hlehel is likewise a two step dance between the commonplace and the transcendent. Reading though a selection of Taha Muhammed Ali’s works at the weekend, I come across Tea and Sleep, a poem that captures this dualism succinctly. The voice of the poem asks an unnamed divine ruler to see that his last moments on earth involve “sitting and taking a sip / of weak tea with a little sugar / from my favourite glass / in the gentlest shade of the late afternoon / during summer.” Just tea, the voice requests, quite sweetly, before later augmenting this with another plea – “to see the one my vision has been denied / since that day I parted / from her when we were young.” But if that is too much to ask (the voice swerves back to the original track) then just “the bliss of sleep – and tea” will suffice.
It is these types of tiny details – drinks perched on a block of ice; a fist beating the chest of a keening mother – that stick in the mind after exiting the theatre. Whilst watching it, however, these vivid passages are interspersed among others where the everyday becomes simply that, the everyday. At the end of a very hot Friday with a cold beer in my hand, there are times when the pace of the performance is almost too in tune with the rhythm of normal life and I have to force my attention back to the stage. With all art that finds the majesty in the mundane, there is always the risk of finding simply the mundane in the mundane.
But that’s OK. If there’s something I’ve learnt from reading the stories of those who lived through August 6th or August 9th 1945, it’s that the stories underneath the iconic mushroom cloud are often just ones of walking to school or delivering post. They’re the memories of being about to decant the tea leaves when, out of nowhere, the whole world as you know it dissolves in a flash of light. There’s a peace present in humdrum reality that is rarely appreciated until it is stolen away.
Taha is on at the Young Vic until 15 July 2017 and then at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Click here for more details.