Waiting for Taha

Adina Hoffman has written biography of another kind, the story of a Palestinian poet.

happiness book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
happiness book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness By Adina Hoffman Yale University Press 464 pp., $27.50 (hardcover) The story begins with an unlikely friendship between an American Jewish woman who has come to call Jerusalem home and a Palestinian poet, old enough to be her father, who today lives in Nazareth just miles from a home that no longer exists. The story begins with a young Palestinian boy eking out a living for his parents and siblings during the British Mandate period. The story begins with the tumultuous events of 1948, with villagers who weren't fully aware of the magnitude of the events around them and with young Jewish soldiers who were, by some accounts, equally naïve. Adina Hoffman's My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is about all of these narratives, more, and none. And in the space where all these stories converge - where they fade in, fade out, and bleed into each other - dwells Taha Muhammad Ali, a lesser-known Palestinian poet and the subject of Hoffman's biography. Taha, as Hoffman affectionately calls him, was not only the inspiration for the book, his life is something of an inspiration itself, his birth included. Born in 1931, Taha was the first child to survive after his parents' first four infants died successively. The village of his birth and early years, Saffuriyya, feels at once tangible and magical as conjured by Hoffman. She writes: "Even before he could see the village, he has said, the scent of it was overpowering - the thyme and the mint and the lemon trees, the broom and the wheat and the olives. The thorns themselves seemed to smell sweetly there, and though he couldn't say which perfume belonged to what plant - or explain how he knew the difference between the fragrance of a Nazareth sage bush and a sage bush with its roots in the soil of Saffuriyya - the boy was convinced that he could tell in his nose when he'd crossed the border..." Saffuriyya, under Hoffman's artistry, feels like an idyllic paradise. And more. Thanks to Hoffman, Saffuriyya breathes. The reader comes to know the rhythms of daily life in this quiet village in Galilee. One can smell the coffee, hear the conversation and see young Taha manning the small but profitable kiosk he ran from his family home. This was no small task for Hoffman. Because this past and this place - recorded in oral history and in the stones of a village that is now no more than a memory - has been obliterated, Hoffman had to take the splintered, scattered fragments and reconstruct the landscape herself. She has done so with aplomb, and the portrait of Palestine is vibrant, enchanting and emotionally compelling. This is why the reader mourns - and approaches understanding of the mourning and anger that later infuses Taha's poetry - when Saffuriyya is irretrievably lost one night in 1948. Taha and his family flee to Lebanon. Taha, a gifted young entrepreneur, quickly gets to work supporting his parents and siblings despite, or because of, their bleak circumstances. Eventually, the family sneaks back into the country that has been transformed from Palestine into Israel. Their village gone, they settle in Nazareth, where Taha resurrects the burgeoning kiosk he'd run from his family home, the stones of which are mere miles away. And life seems to go on. But in some respects Taha's life, like his memory of Saffuriyya, is frozen. He waits for Amira, the cousin he has spent most of his life betrothed to, in hopes she will return from Lebanon so that the two may marry. She doesn't. Instead, she eventually arrives as a muse. She becomes a haunting figure in his poetry that comes to embody Saffuriyya and all that Taha, his family, and (one cannot resist making the analogy) the Palestinian people, have lost. In "The Fourth Qasida," written in 1983, Taha says: When our loved ones leave Amira as you left, an endless migration in us begins and a certain sense takes hold in us that all of what is finest in and around us, except for the sadness is going away - departing, not to return. MORE THAN three decades lapsed between Taha's settling in Nazareth and the writing of this poem. In this time his business thrived and grew, becoming one of the two souvenir shops he owns today. Though his own literary career doesn't begin until late in his life - and late in the book - for many years, his store doubled as a gathering place for Palestinian literary figures. And Hoffman takes advantage of this period, shifting her earlier focus from a biography of place to offer the reader instead what she refers to as "a kind of a group portrait." But it's crowded in here. Throughout the book, the reader searches the enjoyable, yet sometimes too full, pages and continues to ask, "Where is Taha?" And though he always reappears, he rarely stays on stage for long enough for the reader to get a real feel for the person this biography is about. Luckily, along the way the reader is treated to Hoffman's rich, detailed recounting of certain, though certainly not all, aspects of Palestinian culture and history. But this, too, is problematic. Though Taha typically steers clear of the political in his own writing - even though his writing is imbued with a political edge as it springs from the politically charged times he has lived - it becomes apparent throughout these pages that Hoffman hasn't. Her politics clearly lie on the left and this transparency leaves the reader, even a left-wing reader, suspicious that the story might be a little one-sided at best. However, the reader knows from the start that he or she isn't getting a dispassionate recounting of Taha's life. Hoffman doesn't attempt to hide her close relationship to Taha and his family, nor does she hide her unbridled affection for them. But the best biographies are those that maintain enough coolness and distance to present complicated, contradictory humans with similarly wide-ranging impulses, such as the multitonal portrait of Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List. When Hoffman steps back a bit and lets Taha himself do the talking, though, he is a vivid, exciting figure. He is a businessman who in the wake of 1948 made the choice to learn English rather than Hebrew because he "figured that any Tel Avivian who wanted to speak to him could do so in English, which had, it seems, the added benefit of leveling the linguistic playing field." But his ideology is not simple - on Islam, Taha offers the wry commentary, "The more mosques, the less poetry." It is Taha's poetry itself that gives the loudest volume to the life we, as readers, are searching for. In Abd el-Hadi the Fool, written in 1990, Taha speaks: Before the dough of my skull was ravaged by the buzzards of the world, I was a fool... After the springs were buried alive, after the watercourses' destruction, the flame swept through me. After the pillaging of the shadow and the sundering of spikes of wheat... after the murder of doves... I was charged with a sharpened hatred... His hatred quickly falls away, leaving in its wake a variety of more complicated and unexpected emotions and giving the reader, at last, a glimpse of a nuanced portrait of the poet. But it is only a glimpse. Taha never seems to come fully into focus. The result is a book that is off to a promising start but that fails to fully deliver what, or whom, it ought to - Taha Muhammad Ali. Much as the land that was once Saffuriyya is now home to a village of another kind, the moshav Tzipori, the reader ventures into the territory of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness only to end up with a biography of another kind. That doesn't mean that this hybrid of a book should be overlooked. Indeed, it is an important work. It gives the uninitiated reader a crash course on Arab poetry and Palestinian literary figures. It serves as a primer, of sorts, for pre-1948 Palestinian life and leaves the reader unsettled, and such rattling, such discomfort is always a good thing. It is the first biography of a Palestinian poet to be written in English. And, most importantly, it brings the reader's attention to the work of Taha Muhammad Ali, a man who at once embodies and speaks to many things - a lost era, a tumultuous moment in history, a lingering ache and the Palestinian everyman of today. Taha Muhammad Ali and Adina Hoffman will be reading from their works on Sunday, June 14, at 5:30 p.m. at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem.