This year marks my 30th year living in Washington, DC area. The US premier of “Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali?” on March 24th and 25th at the Kennedy Center, pinnacle of Washington prestige and high culture, marks a milestone for the center of the US political establishment. It’s the first time I can recall a theatrical performance in this city featuring a Palestinian who witnessed first-hand the drama and trauma of of the Palestinian armed resistance movement of the late 60’s – early 70’s, albeit at a very young age.
The one-woman performance was written, produced and performed by Raeda Taha. It was one of three theatrical productions produced at the Kennedy Center hosted by the Sundance Institute Theater Program, “Theater by Palestinians.” Produced in Arabic with English subtitles, Philip Himberg, the program’s artistic director, explained in his introduction to the performance that Sundance encourages artists to “write in the language in which they dream.”
Taha provides her audiences with a touching, at times heart-breaking but never sentimental, glimpse into the lives of Palestinians who have lost family members at the hands of the Israeli military.
Before the showings in Washington DC, Taha took her dramatic, no holds barred autobiographical performance piece to seven cities around the world. Eight hundred seventy people attended a performance in Ramallah and 650 attended one in Bir Zeit. During the post-performance discussion on March 24, Taha told the audience that after her performances in Palestine and Lebanon, she was inundated by members of the audience who thanked her for telling her story.
On May 8, 1972, Taha’s father, Ali Taha, and three other armed Palestinians were killed during a botched airplane hijacking. Ali was just 33 years old. He left behind a 27-year-old wife and four young daughters. Taha, the eldest, was 7 at the time. So began her life as the daughter of a Palestinian “shaheed” (“martyr” in English)—a term that signifies a special place in Palestinian society.
Because Taha came from a martyr’s family, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat decided to take them under his wing, giving them special attention and showering them with gifts throughout Taha’s childhood. Later Taha worked as Arafat’s press secretary for eight years when the leadership the PLO was exiled to Tunis during most of the 1980s and early 1990s. Taha also includes a dramatic recounting of a deeply traumatic experience that occurred during that period, exposing some of the underbelly of Palestinian culture, particularly the inequitable treatment of women that is normally kept under wraps.
Taha goes on to describe Palestinian admiration for their freedom fighters and martyrs—along with the pain and suffering of those the martyrs left behind. She recalled her mother’s screams when she learned of her husband’s death. She described in intimate detail the aftermath of his death, in which their home quickly filled to capacity with mourners, along with the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke.
Taha’s subtle use of video and slide projections add poignancy to various aspects of her story. At one point, the hands of the female mourners are projected. They remove the red nail polish from Taha’s mother’s fingers during the Muslim period of mourning. Taha’s mother pulls back and protests that her husband admired the red nail polish. “But you are now the wife of a martyr,” a woman tells her.
Another projected image shows an empty kitchen with a sink brimming with dirty coffee cups and ashtrays.
Taha and her sisters were made very aware of their special status within the community as the “daughters of a martyr.” While still a child, Taha asked her school principal about the meaning of a “shaheed.” He explained that it meant “He is the one who dies as a sacrifice for the thing he loves most.” Taha then responded, “Oh, then my father loves Palestine more than me.” At that point, the principal broke down into tears. Taha tells the audience that her sister later proudly told her that it showed that the principal was merely jealous because “baba was the shaheed, not him.”
A particularly moving part of Taha’s performance is her depiction of her aunt’s attempt to retrieve her brother’s body. The Israeli authorities kept him in a morgue freezer for over two and a half years, and refused to release him to the family because he was an “Arab terrorist.” Upon learning of this, Taha’s mother suffered nightly dreams of her husband calling out to her, “I’m cold. I want to go to Jerusalem and pick figs with our daughters.” The visual imagery of figs and fig trees—both verbal and visually projected—are prominent throughout the performance.
Taha portrays her very colorful aunt—using colloquial Palestinian Arabic—as she searches for and eventually confronts Henry Kissinger in West Jerusalem in 1975. According to Taha, her aunt succeeded through perseverance, and at times humorous means, to convince Kissinger to intercede with the Israeli authorities. Taha goes on to provide a heart-wrenching description of the horrific experiences that both her mother and aunt underwent to finally bury their beloved Ali in Hebron.
Ultimately, the production is not only about Taha’s own experience as the daughter of a shaheed but about the experience of all those left behind by Palestinian martyrs.
As Taha said during the post-performance discussion, “My mother, my sisters and me… we never had a chance for memories.”
Taha wrapped up the evening by asserting that “Revolutions are not perfect. Revolutionaries are not perfect. We are not perfect. Our main intention was to free our land. Along the way, we made some mistakes. What is perfect is the dream of Palestine. Our intentions were good.”