Khalid Taja the Anthony Quinn of the Arab drama in Gaza tunnels
From ‘The Lorry Driver’ to ‘Kingdom of Tunnels’, Taja highlights the misery of the oppressed.
By Iqbal Tamimi
‘The Father of Ants’, coming to you from the tunnel next to you
The 70 years old Syrian Kurdish actor Khaled Taja, the iconic figure of Arabic drama is going to play the leading role in a movie about the tunnels of Gaza.
Taja the Syrian Kurdish actor was one of 12 leading Syrian actors who managed last month to visit Gaza and offer his solidarity to the actors at the theatre of Gaza, and he is one of the few actors who were able to translate the political and social aspirations of the average Arab citizen who is crushed by desperation and the almost unachievable dreams. He is an icon in the Arab world drama that the late Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish described him as ‘the Anthony Quinn of the Arab world’.
Taja was born August 25 of 1942 and found himself since an early age captivated by drama that he produced a large number of movies, and TV series.
Some of his very early produced movies in Damascus were the ‘The Lorry Driver’ 1966, ‘Days in London’, ‘AlFahad’, and ‘AlAr’ (the Shame).
But now Khaled Taja is getting ready for another new controversial role in a movie about the tunnels of Gaza, The mentioned movie is entitled ‘Mamlakat AnNaml’ (The Kingdom of Ants) which is going to be produced by the Tunisian Shawqi AlMajiri.
The movie will reflect the details of the daily life of Palestinians working in the tunnels that Israel failed to destroy after forcing the Gazzans to dig them up to smuggle every day urgently needed consumer goods following the enforced long siege almost 4 years ago.
Taja will play the leading role of ‘Abu AnNaml’ which translates “The Father of Ants” who creates an underground kingdom of smuggling tunnels through which he supplies materials for the besieged Palestinian people. The movie will be filmed between Tunisia and Syria at a budget of more than two million US Dollars.
Taja is one of the most brilliant drama actors of Syria. As a child he was obsessed with art, and haunted by acting and drama to a point he started his professional work at the age of seventeen. He began his drama mission on the theatrical stage and as a writer at the same time. He was fond of the small details in the lives’ of the poor, the simple humble people and the oppressed.
He started his cinema experience with ‘The Lorry Driver’ movie followed by 23 other movies, but after that he became very sick and his financial situation deteriorated and he was abandoned by the people working in the drama business. He decided then to isolate himself from everything after reaching the point of despair, his escape of all that was to travel all over Europe and Africa and get himself detached of all his emotional burdens, but at the end of his journey he returned back to the arena he was passionately in love with, with the support of a friend who offered him a new scenario that brought him back under the lights.
Taja lived the characters he played, and brought them to live. He played diverse complex multilayered roles thus harvesting many awards. He became a gigantic drama figure especially in his documentary roles that offered an insight of the colonial history in the Middle East with much of the focus on Palestine and Syria like his role in ‘AtTagrebeh ElFalasteeneyeh’ or the Palestinian Exodus. He was a genius in his roles that the late Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish said: ‘This is the Anthony Quinn of the Arabs, take care of him’.
When he was a young boy he used to impersonate other people’s actions and movements and how they talk and walk. He used to wear his mother’s coat, or wear an old man’s beard to impersonate a woman or an old man.
But the breaking start happened when he was only ten, when he found out what he wanted to do after seeing a professional theatre act in a cafe close to his home. It was a shadow theatre that used to be popular in the Arab world at that time, especially the two shadow figures of ‘Krakouz’ and ‘Awaz’ popular amongst Syrians.
He liked the idea of the shadow theatre where the personalities used to be reflected from behind a transparent screen with the help of the accurate amount of light. He loved the idea even though he did not understand the mechanism of creating such characters. But still he went back home and started cutting his own paper figures, and made a screen out of a sheet of a thin cloth and created his own theatre for the youngsters in his street to watch. They used to pay him in sweets or one penny to watch his show, but funny enough his first theatre was set in the family bathroom because it was the darkest area that would reflect the best quality of light he was aiming for to show his characters.
One day Taja found himself in front of AnNasir theatre in Damascus so he went in, and saw for the first time ever real characters of flesh and blood playing on the stage. He liked the idea so much that he went home and called three boys in his neighbourhood and established his own first theatrical group and started training them to be actors.
When he became 17 he joined AlHurya Theatre where Abdellatif Fathi used to be the manager and where a number of iconic drama figures played, like Sabri Ayyad, Anwar ElBaba, and Hikmat Muhsen.
After one year he became a member of a group of young actors who established AlZahra Artistic Club, which became the gathering place of the educated young generation who used to live in the newly built popular housing areas of Damascus. They were all interested in art, literature, and society development. During that period he wrote his first theatrical script which happened to be a three parts comedy play titled ‘Altafar Kanzon La Yafna’ or Never Ending Treasure. The play talked about the agricultural reform and the poor majority. Some of the most prominent theatrical figures who participated in this play were the acclaimed actors Rafeeq Subaeei, Mohammad Khair Halawany, and Abu Shakir.
During his work at the theatre, the General Organization for Cinema was established and started its production. And a Yugoslavian director working at the organization then was looking for a new face for his first movie ‘The Lorry Driver’. He interviewed many actors then chosen Taja to play the leading role of the driver, and from that point Taja entered the movie acting experience where he played challenging roles in 23 Syrian productions.
After the production of ‘The Lorry Driver’, Taja suffered an infection in his lungs and was admitted to hospital. He had to go through intensive treatment for 7 years during which he felt despair because he felt he could not pursue his dream for financial and physical reasons, besides the fact that as he puts it ‘ I suffered the ignorance of the artistic community at that time. I was never demanding, I was only an artist who dreamed of a modern clean theatre, I was a person who held bold courageous ideas, and called for rejecting old useless traditions. But the possibility of financing the theatre I was dreaming of was not possible; this is why the artist inside me was burning’.
Taja withdrew from the stage, but the writer Ahmad Qabalawi insisted that Taja should return to the profession of acting, but this time he wanted him on TV screen. Taja refused at the beginning, for he did not believe in TV then, and as he explained his stand: ‘For me the TV in its early stages was only an extremely small box, it was not cinema nor it was the theatre’. But Qabalwi’s persistence paid off. Taja wrote a TV script titled ‘Khareef ElAyyam’ or the Autum of Days; it was a good start that attracted attention to his talent by a number of producers who started offering him more contracts, eventually he participated in almost 100 TV series.
Taja confessed that his dream was bigger than reality, his capabilities, his country’s potentials, and the bad present the Arabs experienced on every level, be it politically, economically or socially. All that curbed the artists’ ambitions. His favourite writers in Syria are Waleed Saif, the late Mamdouh Odwan, Hasan Yousif, Nihad Serese, and Fuad Hamerah. Yet he confirms that there is what he calls a ‘book crises’, and production crises even though there are great directors in Syria like Haitham Haqqi, Najdat Anzor, Hatim Ali, Laith Hijjo, and Basil AlKhateeb.
In general Taja was and still is the politically aware actor who highlighted corruption in his society on every level. In an interview he explained his stand by talking about few examples like ‘the late Egyptian President Jamal Abdul-Nasser who scolded his son for going to university by a car that belonged to the palace, he requested of him to live his life like any other Egyptian student’. Taja talked of another example of the late Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli (1891- 1967) who was expecting a guest at the Mazzeh airport but his car broke down, and there was a need to buy another car for the Palace. ‘At that time it took the parliament a full year of discussions to find out whether they should buy a car for the President or not’ Taja said, ‘now we witness with our own eyes the sons of the state officials driving cars that matches the colour of their clothes’ Taja explained.
These sensitive matters of social and political corruption are of extreme need to be highlighted through drama, but Taja lamented that a great deal of dram efforts were censored. But Taja did not give in to what he describe ‘the scissors of censorship’, he found a way around that obstacle by finding parallel from history and use such symbolic images to reflect the present, it is almost like history is recycling itself.
As an example in the script of ‘Molook AtTawaef’, or The Kings of Congregations, the writer reflected in a genius way the breakdown, corruption, internal conflicts and the sense of defeat Arabs were in a very similar way to our present time situation.
When Taja was asked if he sees the Syrian drama as an act of venting people’s views, he said: ‘I am against just venting; I support anger and protests that reflects a more accurate picture of people’s feelings. Even USA is manipulating democracy. In democratic countries no one is above the law, while here the officials are, and the Syrian drama has been successful in reflecting this reality in a frame of intelligent black comedy, unlike Egyptian drama approach of tackling this problem by direct zaniness and laughter.