A Closer Look: Raeda Taha
The Middle East/United States Playwright Exchange is an ongoing reciprocal opportunity for playwrights from the Middle East-North Africa-Gulf region to interface with US playwrights—particularly those of Middle Eastern origin. This season's inaugural exchange will 36 Abbas Street, Haifa by Raeda Taha. Raeda sat down with Actor/Writer/Artistic Director of Noor Theatre Company, Lameece Issaq to give audiences a closer look into her play, her process, and to talk about the importance of sharing the Palestinian story.
LAMEECE ISSAQ: 36 Abbas Street, Haifa made me laugh out loud and in some moments, weep. Is any of this play drawn from your personal life?
RAEDA TAHA: My plays usually reflect my personal life because sometimes our truth is stronger than imagination. The Palestinian story will take ages to be told and I will never stop telling stories about how the Palestinians pay the high price socially and politically. I will keep on telling them until the day I die.
LAMEECE: My family is largely from Haifa, and therefore my recollections of being a child and visiting my grandparents and cousins is very tied to the history and geography of that city, from Wadi Nis Nas, to the Carmel, to the Bahai Temple to the sea. What is it about Haifa? What does Haifa represent to you - spiritually, emotionally, politically?
RAEDA: Haifa is the Forbidden City to most of the Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories. I have known people for the longest time who ask me continuously to say hello to the sea in Haifa and envy me because I have the privilege to visit historical Palestine. Haifa as well as Jerusalem as well as Ramallah as well as the rest of the cities in Palestine, to me, mean a spiritual and emotional home. Socially, one of my father’s best friends, Ali Rafi, lives in Haifa, and this friendship was passed to us as a family, and his daughter Nidal is my best friend now.
LAMEECE: Every time the story of a Palestinian returning to their lost home in Palestine is depicted, they typically find Israelis living in their former homes, not Palestinians. My paternal grandfather built a home in Haifa. They left to go to Lebanon and were able to return a few years later only to find Jewish families living there. My grandfather ended up buying his home - twice, and my uncles have it to this day. I loved the choice you made - turning that trope on its head. Can you speak a bit more to why you made the choice of the Palestinian family living in - and never forgetting - a home formerly belonging to another Palestinian family?
RAEDA: This is a crucial part of the Palestinian history under occupation, which was never revealed in this manner. My last show in Nazareth was a shock to the Palestinians of 1948. They expressed by saying “you have spoken the unspoken,” and that was one of my major messages in telling the Palestinian story. Dust under the rug.
LAMEECE: So many Palestinians share the same story of loss - and longing. I think even those who stayed. How do you personally connect to the themes of loss and longing?
RAEDA: I share the feeling of every Palestinian inside Palestine and the diaspora. The loss, and the Nakbba will always have a sour taste in our memories. There is not even one household who has not sacrificed a family member. More than twenty thousand martyrs, seven thousand prisoners in the Israeli prisons and more than five million people in the diaspora who lost their homes, their land and their belongings.
LAMEECE: I love the humor in the play - and the irreverence - I could SO hear your voice, Raeda! I remember when we first did a reading of our play Food and Fadwa, an American audience member literally told me that he was surprised Palestinians were so funny. I found this so odd! I think Palestinians are rather hilarious and the way they handle trauma with humor is vital to their existence. Can you speak about why and how you use comedy in your work?
RAEDA: Since we are all humans we all share human characteristics with others. It’s only normal to laugh and cry, to be serious and sarcastic, to be soft and cynical. My father Ali who hijacked a plane in 1972 was the funniest guy my mom ever met. So sense of humor is not exclusive to anyone. I sometimes resort to comedy to get my message across, as comedy is harsher than tragedy at times.
LAMEECE: Where has 36 Abbas Street, Haifa been performed and how has it been received?
RAEDA: It was launched in Beirut last September and we performed in Amman, Nazareth, Bahrain, Saida, and soon many more cities are lined up. Since people identify with real personal stories the reaction was beyond my expectation honestly. People wept, laughed, were stunned, had their hearts broken, and were appreciative of the reminder.
LAMEECE: Is this the first time the play has been performed in English? What has it been like having your work translated? Any particular surprises or challenges?
RAEDA: I have actually never performed in English yet, although my first play Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali? was translated to English. Usually the subtitles are projected on a screen behind where I sit on stage. However, I have done a few English readings that proved to be successful as the passion goes beyond the language barrier. Translation is always challenging for it needs to have a bit of adaptation with it. However with the help of professional translators the work often comes back very rewarding.
L: As Palestinian artists, it is often challenging to tell our story or have the outlet to tell our stories. What challenges have you come across while doing your work? Have there been particular moments that have stood out - in particular places?
R: As a Palestinian artist, I faced many challenges trying to perform in some parts of the Arab world funnily enough. I had no problem in the states or Europe but the biggest challenge was some of the Arab countries who unanimously rejected my script through censorship. I was really disappointed with such an attitude but I am a realistic person and I know that the Palestinian question and the cause, to this day, remains to be a threat to some of the Arab regimes. I get disappointed sometimes because this kind of awareness and storytelling is important to renew the memory of Arabs, but I was stood out in three countries. Though I still have the hope to go and perform there. So yes for challenges and up till today I am subjected to harsh censorship just because I tell a human story about the Palestinians.
L: What do you hope American audiences will get from watching 36 Abbas Street, Haifa?
R: Since I lived in the states for nearly five years while I was studying in George Mason University and resided in the DC area nearly 30 years ago now, I was often shocked from the ordinary Americans who have never heard of Palestine when I would reply that I come from there. They also sometimes mix up Palestine with Pakistan. The American media played a major role in brainwashing their people by revealing one side of the Palestinian cause through the Jewish story and not ours. I had the privilege to perform at the Kennedy Center after the Sundance Theatre Institute nominated Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali? with English subtitles. I was happily surprised to know the Americans knew more about our cause now. And when I was asked again by Americans where I come from they would actually tell me “oh yes Palestine” this is a huge step for me. My aim is to tell the American audience that there is another side to the story and that our cause is just, it’s a human cause, not only a political one, and I expect a lot of empathy, sympathy, and understanding because they are more aware of our cause and what’s happening in our part of the world now - be it in Jerusalem or Gaza or Palestine in general. They know more about the demolition of the houses, the occupation, the prisoners, Ahd Al Tamimi played a big role in that, the imprisonment of children in Israeli prisons. Despite all the direct impact of the media, people tend to look for the truth and find it. Although my contribution to Palestine is small, I believe it will make a change. Moreover, the accumulative contribution from all artists, because I believe that art is a sharp and immediate weapon that can travel, will empower the Palestinian image and story.
L: There's a quote in your play that really struck me - "Why is it that everything has to be a dream?" There is a thematic thread in the play that speaks to dreams - realized (Israel) and unrealized (Palestine). I'm not sure I know what I want to ask here, but it seems to me something in these aspirations - these dreams - even the one at the beginning where you are standing at the podium singing the Israeli national anthem about their dream - speaks to something larger. What is it? Can you speak to this idea? Are dreams hindering us or helping us?
R: Dreams are like hope. I can answer this in two sentences: only what you lose in your life and what you fight for become an unrealized dream that you want to realize. And we use this word very often. “I dream of going back to Palestine, I dream of seeing my grandfather’s house, I dream of having the opportunity to go back to my country and having the choice to live there. I have a dream to meet my cousins.” So dreams are a big part of our lives until we realize them. Why should everything be a dream… Palestine has become the only dream that all the Palestinians in the diaspora and inside have come to realize. Cause even the day to day simple things in life have become very difficult to achieve to an ordinary Palestinian. As for the idea of singing the Israeli Anthem and to dream in it is a true story. I dreamt that I was singing the Israeli national anthem and I insisted on starting the play with the anthem for a very good reason which is that a huge number of the Palestinians even among the leaders and in the diaspora and in the 1967 do not know the meaning of this anthem which talks about the Israeli strategy and the Jewish dream of going back to Palestine, the promised land. I found out through my research the meaning of the words and that shocked me. In my opinion if you don’t know the national anthem of your enemy and what it talks about, you will not have the right tools to fight him back and/or understand his strategy. So it was a slap in the face for people who didn’t know the national anthem of their enemy after I myself was slapped by the words and meaning of it.