I was deeply saddened to hear of the recent death of the poet Taha Muhammad Ali. He was a great spirit, and his poetry will endure through the ages. I was privileged to meet Taha and spend time with him when we both taught at the Block Island Poetry Project several years ago. The following essay appeared in The Post and Courier in April 2008.
Taha Muhammad Ali
Taha Muhammad Ali, Poet, Storyteller, Survivor
Sometimes one person’s story can illuminate history. Palestinian poet Taha Mohammad Ali’s life is that kind of story. In Adina Hoffman’s new biography about Taha, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, published by Yale University Press, the life of this gifted poet unfolds against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The book reads like a novel and balances the personal story of Taha and his family with his fascinating literary development. I was astonished to read in the prelude to the biography, that “no one has ever written a biography of a Palestinian writer before, in any language (including Arabic)… Adina lives in Israel, and her research and open minded approach to the material imbue the book with a heartfelt and accurate portrayal of historical events most of us no very little about.
I was fortunate to meet Taha, Adina, and her husband Peter Cole; who translates Taha’s poetry, when we taught together last year at The Block Island Poetry Project in a series of workshops called “Poetry, Resilience, and the Human Spirit.” Peter is a prize winning poet and translator. Adina is a renowned essayist, critic and author. They are both Jewish Americans who have lived in Jerusalem for many years. Taha, well into his seventies, is one of the most charming people I have ever met in my life. He is a born story teller and fills every room he enters with laughter. He couldn’t stop talking about the brief ferry ride over to the island, because he had never been on a boat before. Amazing! When Taha does poetry readings, Peter reads his poems in English. If you met these three incredibly gifted people you would guess they are family. Their love for one another is palpable. In the context of the Middle East, it is a most extraordinary relationship. At times the situation in that part of the world seems like a tangled knot that no one can unravel, but this story is a hopeful reminder of the power of the arts to cut across political, religious and cultural differences.
Taha’s life story reads like an epic novel. Born in 1931 in Galilee, Taha and his family were forced into exile from their village of Saffuriyya during the 1948 war which resulted it the founding of Israel. They traveled on foot to Lebanon where they lived for about a year before returning and settling in Nazareth. Saffuriuyya was virtually destroyed in the conflict, and young Taha, who had run a small shop since he was teenager; began to operate a souvenir shop for tourists near the Church of the Annunciation. He married and began raising a family under extremely difficult conditions. (Israeli Arabs lived under martial law until the mid 1960s.) Although he had very little formal education and his wife was illiterate, Taha began to study classical Arabic texts after work. He taught himself English and read American literature. He began writing and publishing stories before publishing poetry, which didn’t appear in periodicals until the 1970s.
His poetry eventually landed him in the US, where he and Peter read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in front of thousands. In 2006, Copper Canyon Press published an excellent collection of translations of Taha’s poetry in So What, New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, which introduced Taha’s poems to a large English speaking audience. His poetry is often narrative in nature and uses colloquial speech, which is an innovative approach for one writing originally in literary Arabic. Like Adina’a biography, the poems alternative between the personal and public sphere; between intense sadness and overwhelming joy. The poem “Twigs” embodies Taha’s joie de vivre and wisdom in the face of the tragic times he has lived through.
By Taha Muhammad Ali
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.
My love for you
is what’s magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
are ordinary people.
goes beyond poetry
beyond the realm of women.
it has taken me
all of sixty years
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.
After we die
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
on all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
hate will be
the first thing
(“Twigs,” from So What, New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005 by Taha Muhammad Ali – translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin – is reprinted with permission of Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA, 2006.)