For a Palestinian: Translating pain and poetry in exile

For a palestinian
5 min read
07 October, 2022

Abdul Haleem Hafez’s Ahwak, a song of pained but unwavering love, accompanies the audience as we drift in, to sit before a purpley-blue and softly lit stage. It is empty but for a pile of preserved oranges, a chair over which a blazer is draped, and a plain frame.

This is the sparse but already emotionally charged environment that welcomes us to For A Palestinian, a play written by Bilal Hasna and Aaron Kilercioglu, and performed by Bilal Hasna.

The play follows the concordant narratives of effervescent Bilal, a young British-Palestinian, set to visit Palestine for a wedding and impassioned yet bumbling Wa’el Zuaiter, the Palestinian translator Bilal fixates on during his period of preemptory research. 

"Kilercioglu and Hasna explore the emotional unravelling intrinsic to being an immigrant, and to being of the ‘vanishing’ Palestinian diaspora"

In the play, Wa’el’s life begins in Italy, in a Pensione owned by Mariucia, a haggard but wise old Italian woman.

He is surrounded by gaudy and affected characters, trundling after the energetic Italian loverboy Salvatore, disagreeing with conservative and wealthy Brit, Corey, and collaborating with the French bohemian, Laila, with whom he is co-translating A Thousand and One Nights, his magnum opus.

She stands there with two fingers up, holding a metaphorical cigarette and inadvertently flipping off the audience, emphatically forcing Wa’el to dig deeper when translating, pushing him to shed the mechanical nature of literal translations.

It’s in Italy where we watch Wa’el meet Janet, his confident Australian soulmate. He compliments her paintings, fixating on the oranges that remind him of Yaffa, earnestly telling her “We always find each other…people of the sea”.

As their love story progresses, Bilal erupts into a bright dance number, effortlessly engineering a time jump to 1967. War is unfolding in the Middle East and Wa’el’s ardent longing for his home country comes to a head as he travels back to join the resistance. He doesn’t make it so far as the Six-Day War is over as quickly as it began.

Deeply distressed by his lack of political involvement, he establishes Italy’s first organisation in solidarity with Palestinians. We watch with bated breath as Wa’el pushes himself to burnout, expanding the organisation and battling death threats all while trying to maintain his relationship with Janet.

Bilal Hasna in 'For a Palestinian' at Camden People's Theatre [photo credit: Alessandra Dawson]
Bilal Hasna in 'For a Palestinian' at Camden People's Theatre [photo credit: Alessandra Dawson]

In other contexts, the vignette structure of the play, jumping from Bilal to Wa’el, would have been jagged and difficult to follow.

Given that it is a one-man performance, there was also potential for the form to push every character but Bilal and Wa’el into insignificance. However, each character is so vibrant, all very distinct and well fleshed-out, that it feels they too are on stage, even when Hasna is not energetically channelling them. 

Hasna and Kilercioglu, take this unfaltering energy to great heights by rounding the playoff with a political and emotionally charged polemic that reveals to us Wa’el’s untimely demise.

He is the first of many assassinations that made up Israel’s Wrath of God operation which targeted Palestinian Liberation Organization members who were considered responsible for the Munich massacre, and the murders of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972. It is a painful revelation given the initial orange-tinted ebullience of the play.

In this quasi-epilogue, Kilercioglu and Hasna explore the emotional unravelling intrinsic to being an immigrant, and to being of the ‘vanishing’ Palestinian diaspora.

Holly Khan’s soundtrack is at its finest in this transition, smoothing over the abrupt departure from the play’s previous lightness. Khan’s aural wizardry brings the performance so close to an emotional rupture, without letting everything brim over. Hasna’s performance is also lacerating, splintering the sweet veneer of the play.

For those better acquainted with the conversations around forced migration and the labyrinthine identities and discussions that sprout from it, the points made in this speech are very recognisable. The ever-pervasive efforts to quantify how well connected someone is to their heritage and the frustration at involuntarily weakened familial bonds clearly eat away at Bilal’s character.

But Kilercioglu and Hasna are able to temper this seemingly hopeless rehashing, by drawing our attention to the interview recordings of Hasna’s Palestinian family and friends, interspersed throughout the play. As such, the play has a very archival feel, one of its strongest points. It serves both as an ode to Zuaiter, Bilal’s family and a brief insight into the difficult makeup of the modern Palestinian identity.

In the lobby of the Camden People’s Theatre, at the final showing of For a Palestinian in London, people stand with red eyes and tear-stained faces, recounting their experience of the play.

Some are silent, staring at the floor, being held by their friends as they process the story.

These reactions are testimony to Hasna and Kilercioglu striking an impressive balance between literary momentum and generating a deep sense of solidarity and relatability. Instead, they have created a piece of work which is controlled but still raw, skilfully drawing together the threads of Palestinian histories and futures.

Hajar is a researcher and culture writer based in London. She is interested in translated fiction and theatre