When poets do the talking

JERUSALEM — Whenever Palestinian and Israeli artists get together for public “dialogues,” it always seems to end with the Israelis saying, “We’re sorry,” and the Palestinians responding, “Screw you anyway.” 

That was how it went at a literary conference in the Jerusalem monastery at Tantur where I moderated a couple such discussions two years ago.

Except for the opening session.

The day began with a reading by Taha Muhammad Ali, a poet who lives in Nazareth, and his translator Peter Cole, a native of New Jersey and now a Jerusalem resident. Taha, who was then 75 years old, recited several of his poems, which Cole read in English.

Taha was avuncular and bumbling, endearing him to the audience of international publishers. But his poetry was deceptively incisive and personal, transcending the sense of victimization that would color the panel discussions for the rest of the day. Somehow he seemed to be the only one that day who had anything real to say.

"Don’t aim your rifles / at my happiness, / which isn’t worth / the price of a bullet,” Taha read. “My happiness bears / no relation to happiness.”

The warmth and intelligence of Taha’s readings drove Adina Hoffman, a Jerusalem-based writer and wife of translator Cole, to plan a biography of the poet (“My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century,” Yale University Press). Only then did she discover that, despite all the ink spilled on the Palestinian issue over the years, no one had ever written a biography of any Palestinian poet.

So she expanded the book. Using Taha as the central figure, she constructed the intersecting life stories of writers as diverse as Mahmoud Darwish, the "national" poet whose death last year prompted weepy editorials around the world, and Rashid Hussein, the most original and tortured of them, who died alone and drunk in New York 30 years ago.

Hoffman’s book is a way for readers to get around the usual stereotypes of the Palestinians as they’re portrayed in the cliches of their political struggle. She looks at the fascinating day-to-day, emotional history of this troubled people as told through their dynamic poetic culture.

“One can get a different idea of Palestinians as people through the history of their poets,” Hoffman told GlobalPost. “Poetry and poets occupy such an essential role in Palestinian society: Throughout much of the last century, poetry has served as one of the most important means of political and social expression for the Palestinian people — and the poets who’ve given voice to that impulse are central to the culture.”

Their poetry forms a gap in our knowledge of the Palestinians because of the way reporters cover their story — focusing on the violence and pyrotechnics and screaming, rather than on what people actually feel beneath it all.

“So much of the news coverage of the Palestinian story winds up treating them as a faceless group — whether a group of terrorists or a group of downtrodden victims,” Hoffman said. “I wanted to offer a view of Palestinian life that depicted as precisely and deeply as possible the full human range of feeling and complexity that exist in that culture.”

Hoffman uses Taha’s story as the framework for an alternative telling of Palestinian history, eschewing the slogans of political leaders and focusing on the soul-searching of young poets and writers.

You might think that would draw you away from reality into the realms of fantasy. But, as I’ve discovered in writing a series of Palestinian crime novels based on real stories I’ve reported, it’s only when a writer examines the underlying emotions of his subject that he uncovers the truth.

“The truest poetry is the most feigning,” Shakespeare wrote. Journalists, from whom we’re accustomed to getting our information about the Palestinians, aren’t supposed to be “feigning” at all. The result: no poetry and, often, no truth.

Hoffman’s telling of Taha’s story is particularly important because his life encompasses almost every element of the Palestinian experience. Born in 1931 in the village of Saffuriya, his family was expelled during the 1948 war which founded Israel. They fled to Lebanon, snuck back to Nazareth, and became refugees within Israel. He saw the devastation of war, too, on a visit to Lebanon in search of his childhood sweetheart.

Taha supported his family by running a souvenir shop for tourists visiting the town where Jesus grew up. He slowly developed a literary style that was at odds with traditional, highly formulaic Arab verse. Neither did he follow the incantatory public style of Darwish and the best known Palestinian poets.

Hoffman observes that Taha’s largely free verse (which many Palestinians rejected as simple prose chopped up into lines) is based around a classical Arabic concept of “a difficult, elusive, or even inscrutable simplicity.”

That simplicity is embodied in the poet’s peasant background, which Hoffman tells in vivid detail. Much of the book’s early chapters are devoted to life in Saffuriya, before the village was replaced with an Israeli community.

But it isn’t yet another regurgitating of Palestinian suffering. Her portrait of the village illustrates the richness of life there, showing how the memory of Saffuriya was part of “the world that surrounded these poets and that inspired them to write,” as she said.

It’s the remembrance of that world that dominates Taha’s poetry even six decades after Saffuriya ceased to exist. Hoffman’s account preserves the memory by recounting it and by introducing readers to the poetry that grew out of it.

(Photos, L-R: Adina Hoffman, the cover of her book, “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century,” Yale University Press.)

               

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