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The middle voice

Books Adina Hoffman's new biography reconstitutes the vanished life of a Palestinian poet's village and traces the rise of literary culture from the rubble.
Taha Muhammad Ali, 'nobody's national poet', gives a reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2007.
Taha Muhammad Ali, 'nobody's national poet', gives a reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2007.

Adina Hoffman's new biography reconstitutes the vanished life of a Palestinian poet's village, reconstructs the night of its destruction and traces the rise of literary culture from the rubble, writes Robyn Creswell.

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: a Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century Adina Hoffman Yale University Press Dh101 Adina Hoffman's biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is a triumph of sympathetic imagination, dogged research and impassioned writing. More than the story of one man's life, it brings to light entire strata of historical and cultural experience that have been neglected or purposefully covered over. For readers of English, there is no comparable work - certainly nothing so densely detailed or eloquently argued - for understanding Palestinian intellectual life in the second half of the 20th century. And for all that, it is anything but dry or ponderous or, to invoke a cliché that no critic of biography seems able to do without, monumental. Instead, Hoffman's book is an unconventional and avowedly personal study - the record of an engagement with a man and a literary tradition that both deserve a wider audience.

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is the first biography of any Palestinian writer in any language - hard to fathom, but true - and the choice of Muhammad Ali as a subject, especially in this light, is a surprising one. For most of his life Muhammad Ali has not been a poet but a Nazarene businessman, selling souvenirs from his shop near the Church of the Annunciation. "A Muslim who sells Christian trinkets to Jews" is his humorous self-description. He didn't write his first poem until he was 40 years old, and though he has now published five volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories, it is still a relatively modest oeuvre.

The more obvious subjects for a pioneering biography, as Hoffman is well aware, are writers such as Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish or Emile Habibi, whose works defined the parameters and protocols of modern Palestinian literature. This is a literature that has often favoured the public voice over the private one, the outspoken over the plain-spoken, sloganeering rather than subtlety. So it is understandable that Muhammad Ali, whose characteristic poems are wry and cunningly off-kilter ("nobody's national poet", Hoffman calls him), played a marginal role in this history. According to Hoffman, Muhammad Ali has often compared his poetic method to that of the billiards player: "'You aim over here - ' a long, gnarled, yet delicately mottled farmer's finger points to the right - 'to strike over there.' The finger bends sharply to the left."

In fact, Muhammad Ali is probably better known internationally than he is at home and his reputation abroad is due, in large part, to the efforts of Hoffman and her husband Peter Cole, a gifted translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry. Hoffman and Cole are the publishers of Ibis Editions, a small Jerusalem press that put out an initial selection of Muhammad Ali's poetry, Never Mind (2000), with English versions by Cole. A more extensive selection was published in So What: New and Selected Poems 1971-2005 (2006), which features some of the finest translations of modern Arabic verse I have read. Translation into English, and a regular role at international poetry festivals, has given Muhammad Ali's work a much larger public, with much different tastes than his local Palestinian and Israeli one. It is to this greater public that Hoffman has attempted to explain and elucidate the life and times of the man she refers to familiarly as "Taha".

That life begins in the Galileean village of Saffuriyya, a place that Muhammad Ali's poetry has transformed into an especially vivid lieu de memoire. Saffuiyya is also where the biographer's difficulties begin. The problem is not simply that the village was bulldozed by Israeli troops in 1949, and its inhabitants dispersed. Even before that devastation, Muhammad Ali's native village was not a place that kept the sorts of records that biographers take for granted. It was a peasant community, famed for its pomegranates and mulukhiyya, but it produced very few written documents. There was no public records office, no school yearbooks, and most of the population was illiterate. For the first 20 years of his life Muhammad Ali lived in an almost entirely oral culture, though it was - as what patch of land in this corner of the world is not? - a place with a rich material past. Confronted with a hodge-podge of oral testimonies and damaged, though still-valuable relics, Hoffman imagines herself at one point as "an archaeologist, entrusted with an especially precious - but partial and vulnerable-to-the-elements - mound of chipped relics and fragmented memories, each of which must be examined and placed in a pattern that makes some kind of sense."

In view of such difficulties, Hoffman's reconstitution of this vanished place, which takes up the first third of her book, is an astonishing feat. Relying on local historians, the rare documents that survive - for example, a notebook kept by the town water distributor - oral testimonies, the photographs of missionaries and archaeologists, and the state archives of Britain and Israel, she reimagines the close-knit, human milieu that nurtured Muhammad Ali as a child: its dominant personalities, daily routines and quirky institutions. Hoffman is even able to conjure the smells of Saffuriyya, as when she ventriloquises how the place presented itself to Muhammad Ali as a boy: "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."

Saffuriyya was no idyll, however. Muhammad Ali's early years were hard. His father was lame - the result of a childhood polio infection - and the boy began working at a very early age, selling eggs to merchants in nearby Haifa (a latecomer to poetry, Muhammad Ali was clearly a prodigy when it came to business). The political history of the period was also grim: rising tensions between the yishuv and Palestinians, the revolt of the late 1930s, and an ever more erratic and ineffectual mandate authority. This history culminated in the Nakba of 1948 and Hoffman's handling of this trauma, as it was experienced in one Galileean village, is remarkable for its self-awareness and ethical clarity. It is one of the book's signal achievements.

Though Hoffman does not dwell on the matter, it must have been difficult for her to find many Saffuriyyans willing to re-experience those moments of terror and flight, and to recount them to a stranger. But she did, and she uses their testimony to build a detailed account of the IDF's attack on the village in July 1948. According to the villagers, the attack began with air strikes: bombs and incendiary devices dropped from propeller planes just after dark. The villagers had already fled to their orchards and fields when the ground attack began a few hours later. But Israeli military accounts tell a different story. In these narratives - Hoffman goes so far as to interview the nonagenarian company commander who was in charge of the operation - there are no planes. In official histories, the IDF forces are described again and again as outwitting local forces, whom they rout in a risky but precise surprise attack.

The two accounts are irreconcilable, and a lot hangs on the discrepancy. Was the battle for Saffuriyya a story of Israeli pluck and strategic genius? Of Palestinian ineptitude and cowardice? Or was it a less heroic, and also less shameful story of forcible expulsion? Hoffman doesn't try to make the story of Muhammad Ali's village more representative than it is - she cleaves, here as elsewhere, to the particular - but the wider resonances are obvious. In the end, she discovers proof of the Saffuriyyans' account in an IDF archive: there were planes and they did drop bombs hours before the ground assault. Hoffman is aware of all the ironies here: that the villagers' version is finally verified - for Hoffman and her readers, if not for the Saffuriyyans themselves - by the same army that drove them from their homes. But the discovery clarifies Hoffman's sense of her own solidarities. Leaving the archives, she writes, "It is Taha and his terrified goats that concern me now. It is Imm Taha abandoning the unwashed iftar platter... It is Saffuriyya. It is the people escaping into the darkness as the sky above them falls."

Muhammad Ali and his family fled to Lebanon, where they lived for almost a year before returning to the Galilee, finally settling in Nazareth (Saffuriyya had been bulldozed; an Israeli settlement called Tzippori was founded on the site). The next section of Hoffman's book deals primarily with the literary culture of Palestinians in the new Israeli state. In the early 1950s, that culture was almost nonexistent. Most local intellectuals fled during the war and had not returned; a strict regime of censorship meant that few books or magazines from the wider Arab world reached readers in Israel.

"Culturally speaking," Hoffman quotes one journalist as saying, "the Arab reader [in Israel] lived in a desert." And yet, 20 years later, Palestinian poets and novelists had produced some of the great works of modern Arabic literature: the lyrics of Darwish's A Lover from Palestine, Kanafani's groundbreaking novellas and criticism, Habibi's The Pessoptimist. Hoffman's history of how this happened is fascinating in its own right, and contains a great deal of original research. She recreates the poetry festivals that were the first significant venues of literary expression for Palestinians in Israel; she delves into the fledgling magazine culture of Haifa and Jerusalem and she gives lively portraits of the period's significant writers (Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Rashid Hussein). Muhammad Ali played a role in this history - he was friendly with many of the protagonists, and his shop in Nazareth became a kind of informal salon - but it was a minor role, and sometimes we lose the thread of his personal story here. He did publish a few short stories and some scattered criticism, but he seems to have spent most of his time tending to his shop and acquiring, in autodidactic fashion, an extensive reading knowledge of Arabic and Western literature.

The fruits of that painstaking self-cultivation began to appear in the early 1970s, when Muhammad Ali wrote his first poems (he did not publish his first collection until 1983). Hoffman's reading of this work, which takes up the last quarter of her biography, is sensitive and informed. She provides useful information about the occasions of the poems and their historical references, but she is most helpful in specifying their characteristic tone, their distinctive music.

What distinguishes Muhammad Ali's work from that of his compatriots is, for Hoffman, its "hushed and peculiar" quality, its dark humor, its refusal of grand gestures - or else, as soon as the gesture is made, it is doused in irony - and its method of indirection. His poetry is peppered with words from the colloquial language, something that most Palestinian poets have shied away from. And he typically uses an unmetered line, which for many Arab readers means that what Muhammad Ali writes is not poetry at all. Eschewing the highly wrought, declamatory style that has characterised so much Palestinian verse of the past 50 years, he has invented something like a middle voice: an address pitched somewhere between the merely personal (or confessional) and the prophetic voice of multitudes. And though Hoffman is careful not to draw the distinctions too sharply, it is clear that she favours Muhammad Ali's rather homespun poetics to those of his better known, more openly politicised peers. Muhammad Ali's poems, she notes, "would sound rather strange if shouted into a bullhorn".

Beyond its individual virtues, to which Hoffman is the best guide, Muhammad Ali's poetry seems to have arrived at the right time, when a retreat from politics has taken hold in so many fields of literature. (Even Mahmoud Darwish, the very embodiment of "the poetry of the resistance", was in later years inclined to dismiss his lyrics of the Sixties and Seventies as too political, too engagé.) In this sense, Muhammad Ali is not so much the contemporary of Darwish and Samih al Qasim, the great poets of Palestinian literature's heroic age, as he is their successor. And perhaps his own poetics - the triangulated poetics of the pool player - will in time seem as representative of this era as those more familiar, more confrontational strategies of the ever more distant past. It is the great merit of Hoffman's absorbing, intelligent biography to give us both the short view and the long view, the portrait of a man, a mind, and his times in all their luminous and manifold complexity.

Robyn Creswell is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at New York University.

Updated: April 10, 2009 04:00 AM