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