Taha Muhammad Ali 1931-2011

The work of Israeli-Arab poet Taha Muhammad Ali has an almost unparalleled way of infecting his readers with feeling and shared experience.

Taha Muhammad Ali 521 (photo credit: COURTESY IBIS EDITIONS)
Taha Muhammad Ali 521
Taha Muhamm ad Ali was a poet and person of exceptional powers, so it shouldn’t surprise that news of the October 2 death of this most local of Palestinian writers traveled rapidly around the globe. Within hours, readers, friends, artists, and critics – famous and fledgling, British, and Polish, Libyan, German, Russian, Indian, and American – wrote from far and wide to convey their sadness at his death, and to express their gratitude for his life and work.
He came by neither easily. Born in 1931 in the Galilee village of Saffuriyya, Taha Muhammad Ali was his parents’ fifth child – and the first to live past infancy. He was raised in this pre-industrial, traditional setting, and left school after just four years in order to support his family.
In 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, Saffuriyya’s villagers were forced to flee when the fledgling Israeli air force dropped primitive bombs on the town. After nine months in Lebanon, Muhammad Ali returned, but by then the village had been destroyed by the army. He eventually settled in Nazareth, and opened a shop – selling first falafel, then groceries, and finally souvenirs – near the Church of the Annunciation. (The shop still exists and is now a thriving enterprise run by his sons and festooned with a large, bright sign announcing it as “The Prominent Souvenir Center of Nazareth.”) It was then that he began the long, slow process of schooling himself in standard Arabic, the classical Arabic canon, and much of modern Arabic literature. He also taught himself English, which he read avidly and eclectically, with an autodidact’s hunger.
Muhammad Ali turned to writing poetry relatively late. He published his first book in Arabic when he was 52 years old, and he remained a mostly underground figure in the Arab literary world – where, it should be said, poetry has always been a highly public medium. But with the years, word of his work spread, and an international reputation soon followed. By the time his selected poems were published in English translation (between 2000 and 2007 in Israel, the United States, and the UK), poet Edward Hirsch would declare in the “Washington Post” that Muhammad Ali’s work “ought to be required reading” in the US capital. And National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Eliot Weinberger wrote that Muhammad Ali was “perhaps the most accessible and delightful poet alive today.”
A Hebrew edition of selected poems would later emerge – French and German editions are currently in progress – and a steady stream of invitations to appear at literary festivals from China to Slovenia to India started arriving. (Although he loved few things more than to read his poems in front of an audience, by that point, Muhammad Ali was too weak for such trips to be possible.) A few months before his death, an Arabic gathering of his complete works was at long last published in Haifa.
Cunningly combining a plainspoken register with an idiosyncratic – sometimes biting, sometimes mournful – storytelling sense, Muhammad Ali’s poems are quietly sophisticated and often wryly funny.
They’re engaged and political in the deepest sense, though they eschew the direct approach to the so-called “conflict” that is the hallmark of the “poetry of resistance” written by many of his peers. Muhammad Ali often likened his own poetic method to what he called in English “bill-i-ar-des” – the word had four syllables when he said it. “You aim over here – ” a long, gnarled, delicately mottled finger would point to the right—“to strike over there.” The finger would bend sharply to the left.
In the years following the publication of Muhammad Ali’s work in English, the three of us traveled together a good deal, by plane, train, golf cart, car, and van, giving readings throughout the United States, Europe, and Israel.
Muhammad Ali’s company was much like his poetry: his approach to people and prices, buildings and streets – to meals, engines, tension, napkins, and occasions of diverse sorts – was transformative. (So much so that we came to think of him as the Thelonious Monk of Palestinian literature.) His window on the world was a joy to sit by, and response to his work was often overwhelming, cutting across lines of literary alliance, ethnicity, and religion.
And this because Muhammad Ali’s work has an almost unparalleled way of infecting his readers with feeling and shared experience that ranged widely – from catastrophe to splendor. Among the many things it does, his art makes us remember that the conflict in Israel/Palestine involves not only a clash of ideologies, as the pundits would have it, or a battle of competing national prides, narratives, or claims to property, as others might see it, but, above all, a struggle to preserve an essential dignity. For in taking us back to the root of our most profound sense of belonging and being, Taha Muhammad Ali’s poetry is neither innocent nor naïve – it is radical in the extreme: radically human.
WARNINGLovers of hunting, and beginners seeking your prey: Don’t aim your rifles at my happiness, which isn’t worth the price of the bullet (you’d waste on it). What seems to you so nimble and fine, like a fawn, and flees every which way, like a partridge, isn’t happiness. Trust me: my happiness bears no relation to happiness.
ABD EL-HADI FIGHTS A SUPERPOWERIn his life he neither wrote nor read. In his life he didn’t cut down a single tree, didn’t slit the throat of a single calf. In his life he did not speak of the New York Times behind its back, didn’t raise his voice to a soul except in his saying: “Come in, please, by God, you can’t refuse.”
* Nevertheless— his case is hopeless, his situation desperate. His God-given rights are a grain of salt tossed into the sea. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: about his enemies my client knows not a thing. And I can assure you, were he to encounter the entire crew of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, he’d serve them eggs sunny-side up, and labneh fresh from the bag.
FROM “TWIGS”And so it has taken me all of sixty years to understand 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 or felt, hate will be the first thing to putrefy within us.
REVENGEAt times ... I wish I could meet in a duel the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me into a narrow country. And if he killed me, I’d rest at last, and if I were ready— I would take my revenge!
* But if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him, or a father who’d put his right hand over the heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set— then I would not kill him, even if I could.
* Likewise ... I would not murder him if it were soon made clear that he had a brother or sisters who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Or if he had a wife to greet him and children who couldn’t bear his absence and whom his gifts would thrill. Or if he had friends or companions, neighbors he knew or allies from prison or a hospital room, or classmates from his school … asking about him and sending him regards.
* But if he turned out to be on his own — cut off like a branch from a tree — without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless, without a child, and without kin or neighbors or friends, colleagues or companions, then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness —  not the torment of death, and not the sorrow of passing away. Instead I’d be content to ignore him when i passed him by on the street—as i convinced myself that paying him no attention in itself was a kind of revenge.
If, over this world, there’s a ruler who holds in his hand bestowal and seizure, at whose command seeds are sown, as with his will the harvest ripens, i turn in prayer, asking him to decree for the hour of my demise, when my days draw to an end, that i’ll be sitting and taking a sip of weak tea with a little sugar from my favorite glass in the gentlest shade of the late afternoon during the summer. And if not tea and afternoon, then let it be the hour of my sweet sleep just after dawn.
* And may my compensation be— if in fact I see compensation— I who during my time in this world didn’t split open an ant’s belly, and never deprived an orphan of money, didn’t cheat on measures of oil or violate a swallow’s veil; who always lit a lamp at the shrine of our lord, Shihab a-Din, on Friday evenings, and never sought to beat my friends or neighbors at games, or even those i simply knew; i who stole neither wheat nor grain and did not pilfer tools would ask— that now, for me, it be ordained that once a month, or every other, i be allowed to see the one my vision has been denied— since that day i parted from her when we were young.
* But as for the pleasures of the world to come, all I’ll ask of them will be— the bliss of sleep, and tea.
Translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin.
(All poems besides “Revenge” are from “So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971- 2005,” published by Copper Canyon Press, 2006, copyright the translators, reprinted by permission of the press; “Revenge,” copyright the translators.) MacArthur-winning poet Peter Cole has translated many books from Hebrew and Arabic, among them Taha Muhammad Ali’s “So What.” Adina Hoffman’s “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century,” a biography of Muhammad Ali, won the UK’s 2010 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Together, Cole and Hoffman are the authors of “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.”