RAMALLAH — Wearing traditional costumes and dancing the traditional dabke, a dozen male and female actors move across the stage dominated by an image of a white horse. For the last two months, Ramallah-based Wishah Popular Dance Troupe has been performing a musical inspired by one of the cornerstones of Palestinian literature: Ibrahim Nasrallah’s “Time of White Horses.”
In the novel, Nasrallah — winner of the 2018 Arab Fiction Award — weaves the saga of a Palestinian family by starting toward the end of the Ottoman rule in Palestine and continuing all the way to the Nakba, the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. With its tapestry of traditions, values, conflicts and alliances, the novel provides a strong narrative of the history and identity of the Palestinians. The relationship between Khaled, a young man from the village of Hadiya, and his white mare becomes a symbol of descending tyranny with one colonizer after the other attempting to take control of the lands and Khaled’s most treasured possession, his horse.
The musical, called “Khayl” — which means "horse" in Arabic — takes only one of the stories of the multigenerational novel. It revolves around Khaled, the main character who lives in the village of al-Hadiya in the district of Haifa, where hard living conditions are further coupled with high taxes demanded by the Sublime Porte. When the villagers refuse to pay their taxes, armed Ottoman gendarmeries arrive to confiscate their properties. The soldiers try to take Khaled’s horse as well, but the protagonist stands up to them with a rifle in hand, ready to escape the village on horseback and become a fighter.
The musical, performed in Ramallah last March and at Lourdes University in Ohio this April, consists of 21 musical scenes all performed with traditional dabke and lyrics based on the novel and sung by a chorus.
“The novel is compelling. It reflects the Palestinian identity while charting the events of a historical era. It is a mixture of joy and sadness, vibrant, full of stories. Adapting a musical from the novel was a great pleasure,” Mohammad Atta, founder of the Wishah Popular Dance Troupe and choreographer of the play, told Al-Monitor. He added, “'Time of White Horses’ embodies a large chapter of the epic chronicles of the Palestinian people’s struggle for their rights that have been going on for more than 100 years.”
He also admitted that the novel, some 500 pages, was not easy to bring to the stage, “The show, which combines dancing, singing and cinematographic effects, was a major challenge for the group,” Atta said.
In 2017, the Wishah Troupe collaborated with the Palestine Popular Theater Society to stage a play under the name “Stories from Time of White Horses,” which also chronicles the novel’s events. The musical was written and directed by Fathi Abdel Rahman and choreographed by Atta, but it is a different work that relies less on dance and music.
Palestinian Minister of Culture Ehab Bseiso, who spoke at a performance of “Khayl” in March 17, underlined that “Time of White Horses” was not merely a work of fiction. “It depicts the true pulse of Palestinians during that era,” he said, pointing out that the events described in the book were based on interviews, which Nasrallah carried out with older generations, which adds more reality to the novel.
Since the novel was first published in 2007, there have been talks about the possibility of making it into a television series along the lines of the “al-Taghreba al-Falastenya," a popular series on Nakba, but the project has never materialized.
“There is no news about the series, and I believe this idea is a bit far-fetched for now at a time when the Palestinian issue seems more eschewed than ever before by Arab regimes that control the most important satellite channels. That is why I highly doubt the series would come about any time soon,” Nasrallah told Al-Monitor.
Commenting on the power of the novel that has inspired playwrights and performers, Nasrallah said, “The novel is rich in drama events that can be adapted into a theatrical work. Although the focus was mainly on the first part of the book, under the Ottoman Empire, the rest of the novel can also be exploited in theatrical works.”
When asked if the musical was successful in encompassing the details and richness of the novel, Nasrallah responded, “It is difficult not to omit some details of a long novel in theatrical or cinematic work. I think maybe a drama series could cover all the aspects and details of the book.”
In 2016, Nasrallah’s “The Lanterns of the King of Galilee” was also adapted into a musical performed by the Palestinian National Theater.