art of resistance, Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine, travel

Taha Muhammad Ali: A poet’s life.

Palestinian poet and short story writer Taha Muhammad Ali grew up in Saffuriya, Galilee. During the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, he moved with his family to Lebanon for a year; since then he hadlived in Nazareth, where he owned a souvenir shop. Self-taught through his readings of classical Arabic literature, American fiction, and English poetry, Ali started writing poems in the 1970s.

taha-aliTaha Ali

His collections in English include Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story (2000) and So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971–2005 (2006)There’s also a great biography, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century by Adina Hoffman. 

To me, his poems are fragile and graceful creatures, their minds purified by the village winds, their hearts full of power.

There’s something so special in his work. It’s hard for me to describe what it is. Maybe it’s his life – self-taught, working in a souvenir shop, attended only a few international poetry festivals, never really enjoyed or had his international fame. That wasn’t his thing. To some it seemed like he takes nearly as much pride in his Nazareth souvenir shop as in his poetry.

Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower

 In his life

he neither wrote nor read.

In his life he

didn’t cut down a single tree,

didn’t slit the throat

of a single calf.

In his life he did not speak

of the New York Times

behind its back,

didn’t raise

his voice to a soul

except in his saying:

“Come in, please,

by God, you can’t refuse.” 

               — 

Nevertheless—

his case is hopeless,

his situation

His God-given rights are a grain of salt

tossed into the sea.

 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:

about his enemies

my client knows not a thing.

And I can assure you,

were he to encounter

the entire crew

of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,

he’d serve them eggs

sunny-side up,

and labneh

fresh from the bag.

Ali always seemed so humble and wise, a survivor, a gentle mind. I think he’s work is remarkable and essential in every poetry collection. In a direct, sometimes humorous, and often devastating style, he combines the personal and political as he details both village life and the upheaval of conflict. Comparing Ali to his contemporaries, John Palattella commented in a review in the Nation: “Whereas Darwish and al-Qasim, like most Palestinian poets, have favored the elevated and ornate rhetoric of fus’ha, or classical Arabic, Ali writes nonmetrical, unrhymed poems that blend classical fus’ha with colloquial Arabic.”

Taha Muhammad Ali

Ali spoke the language of the village, the language of the people. And that made his work more spacious, for all of us to take our place in it. It’s the melancholy and exuberance, it’s the land and the memory…

You asked me once,

on our way back

from the midmorning

trip to the spring:

“What do you hate,

and who do you love?”

 

And I answered,

from behind the eyelashes

of my surprise,

my blood rushing

like the shadow

cast by a cloud of starlings:

“I hate departure . . .

I love the spring

and the path to the spring,

and I worship the middle

hours of morning.”

And you laughed . . .

and the almond tree blossomed

and the thicket grew loud with nightingales.

You can listen to him reading his poem Revenge at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival (there’s an english translation too). His body language and emotion is amazing. And the poem – gives me shivers.

At times … I wish 
I could meet in a duel 
the man who killed my father 
and razed our home, 
expelling me
into
a narrow country.
And if he killed me, 
I’d rest at last, 
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!

*

But if it came to light, 
when my rival appeared, 
that he had a mother 
waiting for him, 
or a father who’d put
his right hand over 
the heart’s place in his chest 
whenever his son was late 
even by just a quarter-hour 
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.

*

Likewise … I 
would not murder him 
if it were soon made clear 
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him. 
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who 
couldn’t bear his absence 
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had 
friends or companions, 
neighbours he knew 
or allies from prison 
or a hospital room, 
or classmates from his school …
asking about him 
and sending him regards.

*

But if he turned 
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father, 
with neither a brother nor sister, 
wifeless, without a child, 
and without kin or neighbours or friends, 
colleagues or companions, 
then I’d add not a thing to his pain 
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death, 
and not the sorrow of passing away. 
Instead I’d be content 
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I 
convinced myself 
that paying him no attention 
in itself was a kind of revenge.

In my poetry,” Taha Muhammad Ali said, “there is no Palestine, no Israel. But, in my poetry, suffering, sadness, longing, fear, and this is, together, make the results: Palestine and Israel. The art is to take from life something real, then to build it a new with your imagination.”

He died in 2011. A great man, a great poet.

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