|Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005
Taha Muhammad Ali
Translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin.
Copper Canyon Press (2006) 280 pp.
In the wake of 9/11, the Palestinian people, already largely ignored by the mainstream American press beyond memory, were even more abandoned. The Intifadah (or "uprising") that began in September 2000, shortly after Ariel Sharon strutted around the Temple Mount in order to show that the Arab holy site could be transgressed at will, and well after Israel had begun stonewalling on the implementation of the Oslo Accords, could not have come at a worse time. A year later, Al-Qaeda operatives rammed commercial jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the Palestinians, some of whom had committed suicide attacks prior to that against Israeli civilians, lost all of their limited political support at a blow.
The only images Americans were likely to be familiar with were of Yasser Arafat, young men firing automatic weapons in the air and children throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Their only allies were their fellow Arabs, who were tentative for their various reasons, or themselves perceived as dangerously anti-Semitic and anti-American, and who, until quite recently, had no media outlets.
The Palestinians are a people caught in a historical and political discontinuity; there can be no just solution. They can only choose between bad alternatives and worse and their failure to come to grips with their situation has ravaged their culture for generations. Their near absence from American media condemns them to undergo their trials with no effective counterbalance within the public opinion of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
Taha Muhammad Ali's So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, then, can only come as a surprise to its American audience. Ali, the Palestinian owner of a souvenir shop, has been an Israeli citizen for many years. It is a disconcerting occupation for a poet, as Peter Cole, one of the three translators of So What, points out at the beginning of his introduction to the volume:
Having found Taha Muhammad Ali's store on Casanova Street in the old quarter of Nazareth empty, I sat on one of the low wicker-topped stools and let my eyes roam about the shop. The shelves running up the vaulted ceiling were crammed with imitation pearl-studded scabbards, ceramic bowls of various shapes and sizes, colorful kaffiyehs, olive-wood camels, inlaid boxes, narghiles, postcards of the legendary church rising above the shops at the end of the narrow street.
This wasn't exactly what I had expected. Some months earlier, when I'd first tried to translated two of Taha Muhammad Ali's poems, I had been told by a friend, who was then editing an anthology of Palestinian poetry, that the poet was a dealer in antiquities.
Friends tend to be a little embarrassed for souvenir-shop-poets and promote them to antique dealers.
In the same vein, Ali has had a mere three or four years of formal education—presumably primary school. He is all but entirely self-taught and is said to be well read in the Arabic classics. He has taught himself English and read many of the classics of that language as well as the new work of the 20th century.
Alongside passages redolent of the Kitab al-Aghani, the Thousand and One Nights and the poetry of Muhammad al-Sayyab, the reader will find a reference to Shakespeare's Lear and several Lorca-esque passages. It is all done with an exceptionally deft touch and unobtrusively.
What is not unobtrusive, however, is the harsh life of the Palestinian. Ali's home village, Saffuriyya, was obliterated by Israeli forces in 1948 and part of him—a central part—lives there still. The fate of him and his people is the subtext of all the deep humanity displayed in these poems. At times it finds its way into the text itself:
I cease attending
to my sacred obligations:
barking, and the gnashing of teeth.
Ali is by no means entirely unaffected:
...bitterness follows me,
as chicks trail
after the mother hen.
His obvious and abiding love of life is an act of will. It is his in spite of the hardships he has had to endure.
In the title-piece (actually a prose reminiscence) of So What, the poet recalls the great humiliation of his childhood:
I went barefoot the first ten years of my life...
But going without shoes gave him fortitude to wear throughout his life, one suspects. It also added a simple pleasure to his life:
It is entirely possible that the joy I took exploring, the pleasures of hunting and running around and playing, were experienced by none of the boys in the neighborhood in the same way that I experienced them, as most of them had shoes, something which denied them the delights of descending barefoot into the canal and feeling for things with their toes, and scooping them up skillfully from the water, and running back with them to the house, like a hero returning home with a prize...
Still, the temptation offered by an itinerant Moroccan shoe salesman, arriving in little Saffuriyya, proved too much to bear in the end. There is only so much a very human 10- year-old can resist. He would have to live considerably longer before he would come to cherish simple joys and to subdue his bitterness in order to flourish in adversity.
This volume repeatedly reminds us of the ironic fact that the richest life often comes out of trying circumstances and harsh landscapes — so long as they are not too trying and harsh. So long as dreams remain possible, there is fertile ground:
I first caressed
the air of this world
with the tips of my fingers—
I've been dreaming...
The reader finds the record of those dreams in Ali's poems and the record of his struggles in a face deeply etched with adversity. In Ali's world even sorrow is husbanded. While it takes it also gives, and it gives a great deal. It is a gift:
and you, O river—
after my sadness is freed from you,
rivers will no longer be rivers,
nor birds birds,
and even flowers themselves
will cease being flowers!
For without my sorrow,
at the end of the day,
rivers will be only water,
and the flower merely a plant—
without my grief.
These are his birthright: birds, flowers, simple joys; the chronic burden of his sadness. They are inextricably bound together. As a child, he learned the possibility of terror in the operations of nature:
In my childhood,
I saw a songbird
being attacked by a viper.
The bird had been maimed
and the flock had left it,
and the fear I witnessed
exploding in its eyes...
as it tried to flee—
I cannot forget:
Forests, moons, and lakes—
and pastures the eye can't hold—
all were heaped around its neck
and gave way,
unraveling in a flash,
so strong was its fright!
Massacres and cities
were gathered there in its gaze
with tremendous speed
and, in terror, were burning—
spreading across its feathers,
its cry, its legs!
In the delightful poem "The Kid Goats of Jamil" he recalls a simple episode that taught him the possibility of joy. The title character and his three barren wives are enchanted by the playful, childlike innocence of their six newly-born kid goats. Their ebullience cannot be contained and spreads throughout the tiny village of Saffuriyya.
So What does not try to portray the seemingly irresolvable animosities between the Jewish people and Palestinians through stories of oppression and violence. It portrays a life of simple pleasures and wisdom wrought from endurance. Its stage is the village, the neighborhood around a souvenir shop, life lived day-by-day. Little exists outside of these venues.
Taha Muhammad Ali makes no attempt to strike a direct blow in the continuing battle. The battle rages, yes, and he is part of it, but it is present as shoeless feet, the struggle with bitterness and the memory of old friends who may have escaped their fate and be living still. Instead, he contributes to a more promising Intifadah: the Intifadah of a deep personal humanity, and he is exceptionally well-drilled with his weapon.