Connect to share and comment

When poets do the talking

A new book examines the lives of Palestinian poets, including Taha Muhammad Ali.

Taha Muhammad Ali, a Nazareth-based poet whose "deceptively incisive" work inspired Jerusalem-based writer, Adina Hoffman, to write the first biography of its kind, focusing on Palestinian poets. (Nina Subin)

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.