art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

The Book To Read: My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness.

Adina Hoffman’s My Happiness Bears No Relation To Hapiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century is the best book I read this year, and it just might be one of my favourite books ever. I read it half a year ago, when it finally found its way through the jungle of air mail, and I am finally writing this review.

I mentioned the book in some of my previous writings, in connection to other stories, but never dedicated a full post to it. I needed time, I guess. The book tore me apart. Hoffman tells the story of Taha Muhammad Ali, great Palestinian poet, writing about his life, poetry, and the culture he emerged from.

9780300141504/photo via Yale Books/

I already loved Taha’s poetry so my expectations before reading this book were high. All of the doubts I might have had disappeared after reading the prelude pages. I think there was no better person to write Taha’s biography than Adina Hoffman. Her writing is so delicate, so rich in detail and encompassing at the same time, and simply – captivating. Taking in consideration the trust and the relationship Taha and Adina had developed over time (before this book was to be made), this was just a perfect combination.

Hoffman writes about Taha:

“Taha is a hardly well-known personality in the West; he is, in his own proud terminology, ‘a peasant, a son of a peasant!’, and is, moreover, a latecomer to poetry: his first book was published when he was fifty two years old. He’s a writer with a relatively small oeuvre (five collections of poems and a book of short stories) and a mostly underground reputation in the Arab literary world – where, it should be said, poetry has always been a highly public medium.(…) Taha Muhammad Ali is, meanwhile, nobody’s national poet. An autodidact, he has operated a souvenir shop near Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation for more than fifty years. Although his store has for much of that time served as a modest magnet for poets, intellectuals, teachers, and ordinary people of all Arabic-speaking stripes and camps, his perspective on modern Palestinian history and literature has remained unusually private.(…)

It also seemed to me then – and has only proven truer the more time I have spent with Taha – that his story is at once entirely singular (even eccentric) and completely representative of the sagas through which his people have lived. Born in 1931, Taha has witnessed enough history to fill several lifetimes, and I wanted, as I set out, not just to account for what he had seen but how he had seen it: to try, in other words, to convey  the ways such cataclysmic historical events look through they eyes of one exceptional man. As most everything in the Middle East inevitably is, the effort may be viewed as political – but it was insipired, first and foremost, by the far less absolute realm of art.”

Hoffman also writes about her perspective when taking on this project, her views as a Jewish woman, as an Israeli citizen, her experience of life in Jerusalem and differences in relation to Palestinian lives. She writes: “An American-born Jew who has lived in Jerusalem for much of her adult life – assuming a sort of bifocal nationality in the process – I carry two passports, American and Israeli, and am someone who arrived in the Middle East knowing not a word of Arabic and bearing no particular affinity for Palestinian culture.”  Around two decades later, she took on a hard role – to write a biography of a poet Taha Ali, to submerse herself in Arab culture, but also – inevitably – to tell a political story, a story of a Palestinian life in twentieth century.

mishra_1-120309/young Taha Ali, photo via BOMB Magazine/

That fact itself is a big sign of hope for the Israeli-Palestinian story. Because, more than politics, poetry, historical insights (all very important and present in this book), above all of that, Hoffman’s approach to Taha’s story is emphatic, human.

She describes Taha’s influences when growing up, writing about his father’s madafeh:

“Abu Taha, meanwhile, spent almost all his waking hours in the third room in the house, his madafeh. In Saffuriyya, as in other Palestinian villages of the time, a madafeh – literally, a place for dyuf, guests, could mean any number of things… But to call it a ‘humble’ room , or to detail its minimal contents – a few straw mats, several thin wool-stuffed mattresses, a low stool, the worn shoes of the men cast of by the door – is to do injustice to the vast place this small square of plaster and stone occupied in the imagination of the young boy. It was – as his basically immobile father was, the sturdy pivot around which all his own wanderings through the village and orchards unfolded. It was the place where he first heard poetry and pre-Islamic legends, first encountered local history and world politics, first absorbed how men talked to one another, first learned how to listen. It was ‘the university of fallah’, as his brother Amin describes it, more than half a century later. The guests in the madafeh, he says, would constantly tell stories and talk and argue and laugh: the conversation never stopped. ‘They had knowledge of life, they had experience. And they had confidence in themselves.’

Taha 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. His is the story of  melancholy and exuberance, the land and the memory. His own village, Saffuriyya, was bombed number of times in the night of Fifteenth of May , in 1948. Saffuriyya was bombed number of times in the course of that night – unarmed civilians were bombed number of times in the course of that night. It was the day of Nakba, the catastrophe.  The event is described in the book:

“Following the dirth path that ran beside the bayader, he walked for about five minutes, and it was then that he heard an odd, low, whirring sound, something circling in the air above. As it lifted to a whistle, then mounted to a roar, he saw a brilliant flash, felt a crash and tremor, and another – then everything was smashing glass and rising smoke, shouts in the distance, wailing nearby, people running, children crying, the sixteen goats yelping in terror as they scattered.

It was an all-defining moment for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

“They walked for two days and much of two nights, and under the fig trees of Bint Jbely, the people at last came to rest. The harsh July sun had followed them across the border, and thousands of children and women and babies and man sat in exhausted groups, the ‘lucky’ ones finding space beneath  the only semblance of a roof in sight – the wide pointed leaves of the trees. Infants bawled, old women whimpered, mules brayed, truck brakes screeched, and those who found refuge in these foreign orchards and fields were surrounded on all sides by a constant, anguished din.

Noise or no, it was perhaps the first time in the course of those long hallucinatory hours since they’d left the village that Taha and his family and the people huddled with them had a chance to pause and try to reconstruct what had just happened. (…)

In a poem written forty years later, he describes a night when ‘we had/neither night nor light,’ when ‘no moon rose’:

We did not weep

When we were leaving

For we had neither

Time nor tears

And there was no farewell.

We did not know

At the moment of parting

That it was a parting,

So where would our weeping

Have come from?”

Taha_breakfast_lunch_dinner_copy_body/Taha Ali, photo via BOMB Magazine/

It was an exodus, a dual one. While the body had to go, the mind and the heart stayed. But, in the meantime, everything changed, and when the body and the mind returned – there was no familiarity with the space, no warmth, there were only flashes of what used to be, only ghosts of history. And home was lost once again.

Hoffman writes:

“Although I know why Taha wants to go to Saffuriyya, I was not expecting a pilgrimage today. A few years earlier, in fact, when I’d ask Taha if he would take me to see what was left of the village, he’d begged off – insisting that every time he visited it he had a headache for three days. At that point, he had volunteered his brother Amin to accompany me instead – and had, in the end, written a poem called ‘The Place Itself, or I Hope You Can Digest It’, explaining his reluctance to return to the literal location of Saffuriyya, which is nothing but ‘dust and stones’, when emptied of the lives and life that gave it meaning: ‘For where are the red-tailed birds / and the almonds’ green? / where are the bleating lambs / and pomegranates of evening – / the smell of bread / and the grouse?'”

I am not keen on bombastic statements, but if you read one book this/next year – let it be this wonderful book.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

Sohrab Sepehri & Water’s Footfall

Robert Fisk & The Age of The Warrior

De Niro’s Game

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

Rashid Hussein: The tortured soul and a poet star of Palestine.

Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) was born in Musmus, Palestine. He published his first collection in 1957 and established himself as a major Palestinian poet and orator. He was the first celebrity poet to appear on Arab – Israeli stage, Darwish called him „the star“, he showed them it was possible to write about „human things“ – bread, hunger, anger.


Hussein was a tortured soul, he wanted to be accepeted by the Israeli Jewish society, he wanted to connect the Palestinians and Israelis. But that wasn’t easy.

His song The locked door was dedicated “to my Jewish friend who asked me – why don’t you describe the Negev and kibbutz and moshav in your poetry?”

You tell me to describe the beauty of the kibbutz and moshav

And the Negev and the Yarkon that drapes its sands as a gown.

But you have forgotten, my brother, that you have locked me out.

Do you want me to be a lying clown?

You’ve locked me out.

Hussein was dedicated to the Palestinian cause, he wanted his Israeli friends(and all the other people) to understand what it meant to be and live as a Palestinian without Palestine.

Without a Passport

I was born without a passport
I grew up
and saw my country
become prisons
without a passport

So I raised a country
a sun
and wheat
in every house
I tended to the trees therein
I learned how to write poetry
to make the people of my village happy
without a passport

I learned that he whose land is stolen
does not like the rain
If he were ever to return to it, he will
without a passport

But I am tired of minds 
that have become hotels 
for wishes that never give birth
except with a passport

Without a passport
I came to you
and revolted against you
so slaughter me
perhaps I will then feel that I am dying
without a passport

Hussein married a Jewish woman and went on to live in New York. He started to drink a lot, his life was in ruins. He tried to change the minds of his Israeli friends, but it seemed like there were forces in Israel which fear the Arab friend more than the Arab terrorist. Hussein tried to make sense of his life far away from home, he kept on spending the money and drinking.


„It seems telling that almost everyone who writes or talks about Rashid mentions food and drink, and in particular his almost desperate need to shower with edibles all those he loved“ , writes Adina Hoffman in her book My Happiness Bears No Relation to HappinessA Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century (biography of another great Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali). She also writes:

„He seems to have possessed an uncanny gift for making each of those around him feel his confidant in an instant, as many of his friends were also driven by the need to try and protect him – most pressingly, from himself.“

And really, he was so vulnerable, and his young life (41) ended in vain. His friend, I.F. Stone, said Rashid died of the disease called “homelessness.”  Mahmoud Darwish dedicated his poem On Fifth Avenue he greeted me to Rashid Hussein, and I think that one is a great way to end this post. I’ve also decided to put in black and white  photos of Palestine, it just seemed right (photos ©Occupied Palestine).

On Fifth Avenue he greeted me (For Rashid Hussein)

On Fifth Avenue he greeted me.

He leaned against a wall of glass.

There are no willows in New York.

He brought tears to my eyes,

He gave the river back its waters,

We drank coffee,

And parted seconds after.


For twenty years

I’ve known him to be forty

Tall as a coastal song

He came to us a blade of wine

And left, a prayer’s end.

He flung out poems

At Christo’s Restaurant

And all of Acre would rise from sleep

To walk upon the sea.


 He had roses. He had chains.

Nothing hurt him behind barbed wires

But his mighty wound.

Lovers would pass and promise meetings,

There were seacoasts that we lifted,

There were wild grapes that we tasted,

There were blue herbs that cried out

And we mingled in their cry.


We tore all songs apart,

We were torn apart by gazes

From dark eyes.

We fought and were killed.

While the knights came and went.


In every void

We saw the singer’s silence

Blue to the point of vanishing.

For twenty years

He has been throwing his flesh

In all directions

To the fowl and fish.


The son of two peasants

From a limb of Palestine,

Southern and pious,

He was big of feet

And pale of voice.

Brown to the point of familiarity,

He was poor as any butterfly.


He could see further

Than prison gates

He could see closer

Than studies on Art

He could see us,

See our refugee cards.


Simple, in cafes and in language

He liked the flute, and beer

The prose of meadows

The poetry of wheat.


 He visited his family Saturdays

To rest from the terrible, divine ink

And the police’s questioning.

He only published

Two slim books of his early poems

And gave us all the rest.


… Pale as the sun in New York,

From where will the heart pass,

Is there room, in this asphalt wood,

For the feathers of a dove?

My mailbox is empty

And dawn here does not sting

Nor any star burn in this crowding.


My evenings are narrow.

The body of my love is paper

No one wraps around my evenings,

Wishing to be river and cloud.

From where will the heart pass,

Who will pick up the dream

Fallen outside the bank and opera house?

A cascade of pins

Drowns my ancient desires.


 I no longer dream

I desire to desire

No. This is not my time.

Give me my limbs to embrace

And my winds to go forth.


From cafe to cafe

I want the other language

I want the difference

Between fire and memory.

Give me my limbs to embrace

And my winds to go forth.


Why do poems evade me when I’m far from Jaffa?

Why does Jaffa vanish when I touch her with my hand?

No, this is not my time.

Murals against the backdrop of the Jabalia refugee camp in Palestine. 24/09/2010

 He disappeared down Fifth Avenue

Or a Northern Pole

And all I remember of his eyes

Were cities that come and go.

He vanished.


We met again in a year

At the airport in Cairo

He said

If only I were free

In the prison cells of Nazareth.


He slept a week,

He woke two days.

He drank nothing of the coffee

But its colour.


We retraced our past steps,

The land that crawls in our blood like insects,

The death of friends,

Those who shared our days,

Then scattered.

They did not love us as we wished them to.

They did not love us, but they knew us.


He would rave when he woke

And wake when he wept.

Life has passed me by

And I’ve lost the essence of it all.

He disappeared with a sunset

Over the deep Nile

And I prepared a eulogy for him,

A funeral of palm.


My continuous suicide,

Can’t we start again from any parting,

Can’t you glow like the plants of Galilee

Or flame like a murdered man?

He disappeared.

crw5789cigszc1 On Fifth Avenue he greeted me.

He leaned against a fountain of cement.

There are no willows in New York.

Has anyone of us died? No.

Have you changed? No.

Is the journey still the journey

With the harbour in the heart?


He was so far

That he vanished like a deer

In a lake of fog.


He did not know or ask the time

Nor was he moved by those upright trees

Beneath his tenth floor window

In Manhattan

He only listened to the secret ringing

Of his bell

And saw another winter come.


Are we to remain like this,

Moving to the outside

In this orange day

Only to touch

The dark and vague inside?


I carry the earth’s weight

Girls have taken of my soul and gone.

Birds have nested in my voice,

Then have broken me and flown.

And the singing has dispersed me,

And misplaced me.


No, this is not my time.

No, this is not my flesh.

Translated by Rana Kabbani

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

The subtle echoes of Nakba and Taha Muhammad Ali.

The fifteenth of May came, and it passed – it passed like the air passes through our body – an everyday thing, quiet and subtle, although it’s so important and so essential.

It was the day of Nakba, the day when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled from their homes, when they watched the skies falling on their heads, when they died or continued to live – with sadness and longing, always looking back, back to that all-defining 1948.

nakba-620x350Nakba, image © Hanini

It was exactly on that day this year, that I found myself reading Adina Hoffman‘s My happiness bears no relation to happiness, a biography of the great Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. It was a regular day, I was sitting in a remote café close to Zagreb’s main square, far from Palestine, far from anything that could make my mind drift there. I had a break from work and opened the book. I wanted to read it for such a long time, I couldn’t wait. So I read, and I read.

I was in Palestine, in Saffuriyya, with Taha, selling eggs and feeding his family at the age of 11, with Taha and his father, listening to the stories of other village people in their madafeh, with his mother, Um Taha, preparing fresh bread with herbs. I was with Taha when he broke a little hole in the wall of his house and opened his little shop where he sold candies, soda, and all the little treats not easy to get in the village.

It was the month of Ramadan, and Taha decided to spend all his money to get a lot of good things, he even decided to buy a flock of goats, although his father warned him to save some money, because they’ve already heard the bad news about other villages and changes happening – they’ve also seen some refugees… Still, there was hope, hope nothing bad would happen. Why would it happen? Taha bought a lot of things, spent his money, and – on the evening of the 15th of May, set out with his goats to wander the hills for a while.

Now, for the part that followed, I will quote the book directly ;

Following the dirth path that ran beside the bayader, he walked for about five minutes, and it was then that he heard an odd, low, whirring sound, something circling in the air above. As it lifted to a whistle, then mounted to a roar, he saw a brilliant flash, felt a crash and tremor, and another – then everything was smashing glass and rising smoke, shouts in the distance, wailing nearby, people running, children crying, the sixteen goats yelping in terror as they scattered.“

Saffuriyya was bombed number of times in the course of that night – unarmed civilians were bombed number of times in the course of that night.

I couldn’t continue reading. It was too much. A great book can tare you apart, but when it’s a great book and you also know it’s not fiction – it can tare you apart and brake you down to your bones. It was a little later that it hit me – that I read that part on the same date – the fifteenth of May.

Taha lost his village sixty six yeary ago, he lost his little shop, he lost the life he knew as life. But he didn’t give up on it, he didn’t forget that image, those memories, those emotions. As most of the Palestinians do – he continued to live his Palestine. And it’s a painful thing, because emotions are not clothes you can get rid of when the season changes. You may forget the details, the names, the exact hours – but you never forget how you felt, how someone or something made you feel. “In my poetry,” Taha Muhammad Ali said, “there is no Palestine, no Israel. But, in my poetry, suffering, sadness, longing, fear, together, make the results: Palestine and Israel.“

The Nakba people felt fear, pain, anger, sadness… And it is still here, sixty six years ago.  Because not much has really changed. There’s still so much uncertainty, so much pain, fear, and anger that is being concieved and reborn under the status quo.

It is as if all the hills are echoing – justice, justice finally! But when will the Israeli government hear it? When will it acknowledge the echoes of the past that are spilling all over the present? When will it finally see Taha and his flock of goats, shivering in the darkness?