Saturday, March 28, 2015

Raeda Taha play triggers fond memories

Raeda Taha performing with an image of her father serving
as a backdrop.
 CreditDiego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
It is one of the perks of social media to be able to find friends you have lost contact with for years and learn of the things they are doing.

And so it was that I heard about Raeda Taha, who I have not seen or been in contact with for more than 25 years!

Raeda was performing in a play she wrote at the Babel Theater in Beirut’s Hamra district. The one-woman show, titled “Where can I find someone like you, Ali,” was directed by Lina Abyad and ran from the end of February to March 7.

I heard about it from my cousin Lillian and it is with very fond memories that I read the article about the show in The New York Times.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, when I used to cover the Palestine Cause in general and its leader Yasser Arafat in particular, I landed often in Tunis where the Palestinian leadership had moved. After a few visits and stays in a hotel, I became friends with Raeda and started staying with her.

With Raeda at the beach in Tunis in the last 80s
Her hospitality, kindness and generosity made all the difference to these trips that sometimes lasted for more than a month at a time. Raeda was able to stay with me in London too once and spent Christmas with my family in 1990 if I remember well.

But all that is history and the future is Raeda’s seemingly brilliant career in writing and performing. Bravo Raeda! I hope I can see the play for myself sometime soon.

The following is the article, published on March 22, in The New York Times:

* * *

By Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In a measured voice, the middle-aged woman in the blue dress recalled how a colleague had come to her hotel room during a work trip years before and tried to rape her, retreating only after she had screamed to alert the neighbors.

In tears, she hid in the bathroom to ponder her dilemma: Should she tell her boss? Would that make matters better or worse?

Complicating her decision was the fact that her boss had been a father figure to her since she was a child. He was also, as it turned out, the iconic and controversial father of the Palestinian nationalist movement, Yasser Arafat.

With that story began the sold-out closing performance last week of the autobiographical one-woman show “Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali,” written and performed by the Palestinian writer Raeda Taha and directed by Lina Abyad at the Babel Theater in Beirut.

Ms. Taha’s show has drawn large crowds and critical acclaim since it opened here last month because of its deeply personal and often ironic take on a life shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From the 1972 coverage of the hijacking
Ms. Taha’s pedigree gives her a rare tie to the Palestinian struggle: her father was a militant killed by Israeli commandos after hijacking an airplane in 1972. Mr. Arafat then virtually adopted her and her sisters, lavishing them with gifts as the daughters of a “martyr.” As an adult, she worked as Mr. Arafat’s press secretary.

And in an unlikely twist, one of the Israeli commandos who participated in the raid that killed her father was a young man named Benjamin Netanyahu, who won an election in Israel on Tuesday (March 17) that will likely give him a fourth term as prime minister.

Ms. Taha still hates him.

“Netanyahu is still my enemy,” she said before the show. “He participated in the killing of my father.”

Ms. Taha’s show, and its sympathetic portrayal of a hijacker considered a terrorist by much of the world, was in no way controversial in Lebanon, where highly destructive wars over the years have left most people hostile toward Israel and supportive of those who fight against it.

That feeling was clear in Ms. Taha’s play, but her focus was much more on the Palestinians themselves and on the frequent clash between the public celebration of those who die fighting Israel and the private suffering of those they leave behind.

Wearing a blue dress and a necklace bearing a black and white photo of her father, Ms. Taha, 50, took the stage before spectators ranging from gray-haired intellectuals who remembered her father to bearded university students born long after his death. Seated near the front was a group of Palestinians from the West Bank sporting black and white kaffiyehs on their shoulders.

Ms. Taha sat on a couch and addressed the audience in Arabic, switching accents and postures as she embodied different characters and recounted tales from her life.

Many were from the 1970s, making the play a time capsule from a different Middle East. Palestinian militants led by Mr. Arafat planned attacks on Israel from Beirut; Islamist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah did not yet exist; nor did the Palestinian Authority. Nor peace talks aimed at ending the conflict.

Dwelling in the background was the story of her father, Ali Taha, one of four militants who hijacked a Belgian airliner on its way to Israel in 1972, seeking to swap its passengers for Palestinian guerrillas imprisoned in Israel.

The plot failed. Israel secretly disabled the plane, preventing the hijackers from fleeing, and a team of Israeli commandos disguised as mechanics stormed the aircraft, capturing two hijackers and killing the others.

Ms. Taha’s father was among the dead, making him a “martyr” and giving his relatives a status they struggled to make sense of. Ms. Taha was 7 at the time, and the youngest of her three sisters was 8 months old.

Ms. Taha recalled the family home filling up with people she did not know, wailing and bearing photos of her father.

She said she saw her mother on the couch, devastated, but surrounded by other women who tried to make sure she acted appropriately.

“Red nail polish no!” she said they told her mother, prompting laughs from the audience. “You are now the wife of a martyr.”

She joked about men who flirted with her mother, mixing slogans like “Revolutions need blood!” with compliments about her eyes and hair, prompting more laughs.

Her mother was torn, she said, once saying that she wished her husband had been a “radish seller” who had stayed alive rather than a fighter who got killed.

Other stories talked about Ms. Taha and her sisters dealing with their father’s death.

At one point, they asked their school principal what “hero martyr” meant.

 “He is the one who dies as a sacrifice for the thing he loves most,” the principal said.

“Oh,” Ms. Taha replied. “My father loves Palestine more than he loves me.”

At that, the principal started crying and Ms. Taha’s sister quipped that he was jealous because “dad is the hero martyr and not him.”

Raeda on stage (Photo Mohammed Khayat)
Ms. Taha also poked fun at the attention she and her sisters received as the “daughters of a martyr.” They were paraded about at official occasions and traveled to countries that supported the Palestinians, causing ironic jealousy among their friends whose fathers were still alive.

In one story that drew hearty laughs, a friend of Ms. Taha’s could not conceal her glee when her own father was assassinated by Israeli intelligence.

“Now I can travel with you!” the girl said.

The last part of the show narrated the quest by Ms. Taha’s aunt Suheila to get the Israeli authorities to hand over Mr. Taha’s body so it could be buried.

After trying multiple avenues, the aunt confronts Henry A. Kissinger, then the secretary of state, who agrees to help.

That story could not be independently verified; Ms. Taha said after the show that it was “100 percent true.”

After the family buries Mr. Taha, the show closes with a video of Suheila, who still lives in Jerusalem, singing a song about her departed brother.

After the show, some in the audience spoke of what had and had not changed between Israel and the Palestinians in recent decades.

“The past was different in many ways, but the occupation is still the same,” said Hanadi Abu Bakr, 50, who was visiting Beirut from the West Bank city of Nablus.

She had wanted to visit Beirut since she was a child, she said, but tensions between Israel and Lebanon had always prevented her.

Chantal Hoyek, a Lebanese translator, said the play recalled a time when many Arabs believed that armed struggle against Israel would help the Palestinians return to their homeland. Ms. Hoyek, 28, still supported that struggle but did not think it would succeed.

“It’s not a revolution anymore,” she said. “It is a hopeless case.”