Cover story The Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali has led a life far from the spotlight, and published his first book at age 52. In an exclusive excerpt, Adina Hoffman depicts the life of an exceptional man in the tumult of a tragic century.
The place itself
Photograph by Nina Subin
The Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali has led a life far from the spotlight, and published his first book at age 52. Adina Hoffman's biography - the first of a Palestinian writer, in any language - depicts the life of an exceptional man in the tumult of a tragic century. In an exclusive excerpt, Hoffman sets out to discover how an elderly souvenir-shop owner with four years of education has forged the memories of his destroyed village into a stark and powerful body of verse. The house is dark in the February damp, but when she opens the door to let me in, Imm Nizar is laughing. It seems to tickle her that I got lost on my way to the home she almost never leaves, and that - after driving in confused loops around a dingy Nazareth neighbourhood where teenagers tinker with half-stripped cars and packs of chickens scuttle - I gave up, pulled to the side, and called to ask for help. In fact, Imm Nizar appears to be giggling or at least grinning much of the time, the still-girlish planes of her grandmotherly face opened out into a permanent, amused high beam. And though she's sneezing and coughing today as she greets me in her long terry-cloth robe and two cardigan sweaters, her head swathed in a loosely knotted wool scarf, she waves me over the threshold and into the chill of the large living room with such insistent good cheer - "Ahlein, ahlein," the standard welcome transformed in her full-throated delivery into a kind of credo - I feel like a traveller returning home after a long and arduous journey.
Never mind that my trip is really just beginning. This morning I packed myself and my new tape recorder into a shiny rental car and trundled westward then north from Jerusalem, past the year's first almond blossoms and toward this frigid room in Bir el Amir, the Well of the Prince, the Nazareth neighbourhood where Taha Muhammad Ali and his family have lived for more than 20 years. The approach to this house always entails a subtle recalibration, a gentle, almost unconscious readjustment of one's pulse and gaze. In this case, the gnawing drive I've just taken through the traffic-clogged centre of the country and into congested downtown Nazareth began to fall away when I at last regained my bearings and turned down the steep hill that leads into the neighbourhood. Not that the scene there is in any way pastoral or uplifting: the entry is marked by an ugly clot of concrete apartment buildings painted in fading shades - tan, cream, sickly yellowish and grey, one with a pink, confectionary stripe around the side, and each with laundry flapping.
Taha's own house is something else altogether - in the context of this dreary block, the first sign that one is now in the proximity of serious imagination. Invisible from the road, the driveway leads into the heart of a thick grove (really a small forest) of fruit trees - orange, lemon, grapefruit, olive, pomegranate, fig, pecan and tangerine, pomella and almond and more olive, all planted close. Prickly pear, rose, jasmine, oleander, geranium, potato vine, chicory, daisy, and narcissus also cram the plot - as do swarms of apparently ecstatic blackbirds and sparrows. I would be content to sit in this thicket of colour all day, but it is Taha who I've come to see, and after making my way up the bougainvillaea-drenched staircase to the second-floor entrance and being whisked indoors by the laughing Imm Nizar, Taha's wife (like most Palestinian women, she is known to all as the mother, Imm, of her oldest son), I am ushered without much pomp into the bedroom - the only heated space in the house - where Taha is lying down.
And now it is my turn to laugh - at the sight of him, prone in a puffy, full-length quilted robe of gold-tinted synthetic leopard skin, with long purple tassels and a two-inch-thick calico lining. "My children call it Gorbachev," Taha announces a bit cryptically, then explains with mock grandeur that the garment is "Circassian", a gift from a friend after Taha tripped and broke his leg in the living room a few months earlier and the doctor ordered him, after an operation, to stay warm. He wears it today over an old running suit and with his usual black pancake cap tilted at a rakish angle, and though his outfit is absolutely ridiculous, it does, in its peculiar way, suit him - equal parts clown and king.
I am here today for a complicated web of reasons, some plain to me, others more obscure, but all of which amount to the fact that I have decided - or, in point of fact, felt myself weirdly compelled - to try and write the life and times of this man, the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. The choice may seem peculiar. Taha is hardly a well-known personality in the West; he is, in his own proud terminology, "a peasant, the son of a peasant!" and is, moreover, a latecomer to poetry: his first book was published when he was 52 years old. He's a writer with a relatively small oeuvre (five collections of poems and a book of short stories) and a mostly underground reputation in the Arab literary world - where, it should be said, poetry has always been a highly public medium. The centrality of verse is perhaps even more pronounced in the Palestinian context, where for much of the past century certain contemporary poets have been - and even in the era of the satellite dish still are - treated as nothing less than national heroes and where poetry has been the medium of popular choice for both literary and political expression.
Taha Muhammad Ali is, meanwhile, nobody's national poet. An autodidact, he has operated a souvenir shop near Nazareth's Church of the Annunciation for more than 50 years. Although his store has for much of that time served as a modest magnet for poets, intellectuals, teachers and ordinary people of all Arabic-speaking stripes and camps, his perspective on modern Palestinian history and literature has remained unusually private. He has never edited an important literary journal or run for office or published a fiery political manifesto - all of which other writers, including many of Taha's shop guests and good friends, have done with gusto in the extremely dynamic Palestinian cultural scene of the last half century.
Taha was born and grew up in Saffuriyya, a Galilee village that Israel destroyed in the wake of the 1948 war, and most of his poems well up from the hard ground of that setting. Cunningly combining a plain-spoken register with an idiosyncratic (sometimes biting, sometimes mournful) storytelling sense, these are quietly sophisticated lyrics, many of them populated by "simple" characters like the trusting and doomed peasant-everyman Abd el Hadi. These poems are engaged and political in the deepest sense - the word, after all, comes from the Greek politikos, "of a citizen" - though they eschew the direct approach to the so-called Struggle that is the hallmark of the "poetry of resistance" written by many of Taha's peers and by the next, most acclaimed generation of Palestinian poets. Younger than Taha, Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al Qasim, for instance, began to write much earlier and came to widespread fame almost as soon as they did. Taha has often likened his own poetic method to what he calls in English "bill-i-ar-des": the word has four syllables when he says it. "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.
Venturing to reconstruct the years of Taha's childhood and adolescence, or to imagine Saffuriyya in all its vanished richness and complication I sometimes feel myself 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 gingerly placed in a pattern that makes some kind of sense.
There are obstacles. "Arkhas hibr, afdal min idh-dhikr" (the cheapest ink is better than memory), as Amin, Taha's then-70-year-old and youngest brother, once told me, explaining his own passionate work as amateur historian and president of the Saffuriyya Heritage Society, a cultural-political group he founded with several friends in 1993. Among the society's goals is to salvage the remnants of the material and human past of Saffuriyya and other obliterated villages like it, through the preservation of oral history and the collection of daily objects. One floor of Amin's Nazareth house is home to the society's offices and a remarkable, single-room museum. This is a generic, almost corporate space with fluorescent lights, fibreglass ceilings, and shiny tile floors - filled almost to bursting with the incongruously preindustrial and heartbreakingly modest paraphernalia of pre-1948 Galilee village life: baskets and mortars, shaving kits and wooden dowry boxes, a gauzy woman's headscarf, trimmed with a dainty, handmade menagerie of silk-thread birds and flowers. Amin has, it seems, paid for much of this collection out of his own pocket, and driven himself into debt in the process. When he sees an old Palestinian object, he must have it for the museum - rescue it, as it were, from near-certain oblivion and so somehow restore it to its proper place in the order of things. (He himself doesn't talk in such cosmic terms but does admit to the slightly obsessive nature of his collecting.) He has also single-handedly performed a kind of oral-history triage, as he realised that he had to act right away or else the older people would take with them to the grave irreplaceable information about the village - the popular names, for instance, for the different parts of town. Almost every plot in Saffuriyya was known to the villagers by a name based on its past or present owners (Khallet ish Sheikh Hassan, Sheikh Hassan's Knoll), what grew there (Juret iz za'tar, Hyssop Gulley), or some more mysterious association (Balatet il hayyeh, the Stone of the Snake).
At some point in the 1990s, Amin told me, he realised that "the old people are dying, and those names will disappear. I told myself I have no choice. I'll ask them: What do you remember of the names from the village? I'll write it down. From here 10 names, from there 20 names, from there 30, from there 15. Then I'd go back and say, okay, we're in Saffuri, we want to go to Shafa 'Amr [the next large village] - what is the name of the first block? The first parcel of land, what's it called? And what's after it? And after that? And after? And how big was this one? And this? It wasn't exact. But how much, approximately? I worked on this list for maybe two years. And the names I didn't write down are gone."
Saffuriyya was an almost entirely oral place, and written documentation of the village - of the sort biographers tend to take for granted when constructing timelines and portraits of their subjects - simply does not exist. The village had no local newspaper, no records office, no medical files, no school yearbook. None of Taha's relatives or friends kept date books or diaries or wrote newsy letters to out-of-town aunts; his mother hung no smiling wedding pictures from her walls, and she did not memorialise her children's growth in a scrapbook or photo album. And whatever private papers of Taha's that might once have existed - his report cards, his first attempts at writing, the single photograph taken of him as a child - were destroyed when the village was destroyed.
"We have a problem. Our problem is that our people aren't historians. We depend on listening. You hear a story, and you tell it, and distort it. You add to it, you take away from it," says Amin, and aside from the information and old photographs that he himself has valiantly gathered, and that the Saffuriyya Heritage Society printed in two glossy magazines and a wall calendar, the written vestiges of the village are sketchy in the extreme: recently a former villager published a catch-all collection of Saffuriyya history and lore - which includes folk songs, family names, pictures of ancient coins and oil lamps found in the village, a chronicle of "Saffuriyya during the Crusader Aggression", lists of local birds, the "martyrs" killed in 1948, herbal medicine prescriptions, wedding customs, and so on. And another slender memorial volume was compiled in Syria by two refugees who live there and whose work is apparently unknown to their former neighbours, the Saffuriyyans in Israel. Beyond that, the only paper trail left by the village is a thin, fascinating, and distinctly misleading one - which passes through archives now housed in Israel and England. These records provide a glimpse into the life of the village that is, on the one hand, marvellously concrete - not precarious and shifting like memory and so an exciting discovery for someone trying to rebuild the village, as it were, on the page. The tabletop-sized Mandate-era Nazareth police station logs that have survived the years, for instance, offer the most tangible facts about the people and pulse of the village - who bullied who, who cheated who, who beaned who with a rock at exactly what hour on what day. But as these few examples indicate, and as logic dictates, the only sort of events that are preserved in the law enforcement files are the grumbling, ugly ones: this is merely a story of grievances and arrests. And though the tale told by these records is no doubt true - and important to account for, somehow, as one tries to conjure the village - it also leaves out the contented, day-in-day-out, uncomplaining side of Saffuriyya. And according to the people who lived there, this was the place they knew and loved.
Why Saffuriyya, which is, after all, but one small piece of the shattered and scattered Palestinian whole? And why Taha Muhammad Ali, who is by no means the most famous of Palestinian poets and in some ways not famous at all? The Arab Middle Ages, among many others, theorised that the microcosm contains the macrocosm, and approaching my own middle age, I wanted to know, as part of a larger desire for understanding, how an elderly Palestinian Muslim with four years of formal education, few teeth, and a literary obsession with a place where I myself have never been - and could never go - could "speak," as the idiom has it, so powerfully to my experience and to that of so many. Taha's frank, keen, off-kilter presence - both in person and on the page - has transformed Saffuriyya into something much larger than a single vanished village. Quite conscious of the difference in scale and notoriety, Taha has often, and not without irony, likened his Saffuriyya to Homer's Troy, a "lost" city whose mythic essence has fuelled the imaginations of writers and readers for more than thirty centuries.
Beyond that, Taha's story is at once entirely singular (even eccentric) and completely representative of the sagas through which his people have lived. Born in 1931, he has witnessed enough history to fill several lifetimes, and I wanted, as I set out, to account not just for what he had seen but how he had seen it: to try, in other words, to convey the way such cataclysmic historical events look through the eyes of one exceptional man. As most everything in the Middle East inevitably is, the effort may be viewed as political - but it was inspired, first and foremost, by the far less absolute realm of art.
That said, Taha is hardly the only artist in his story. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever written a biography of a Palestinian writer before, in any language (including Arabic), and that - together with the fact that most western readers have little if any experience of that culture and literature - brings with it extra responsibility. To understand Taha and his place in Palestinian and indeed Arabic letters, it's crucial to be conscious of the range of personalities that have surrounded him over the years.
Many of these poets and novelists are, as I've noted, a good deal more famous than Taha, and there will be those who question the decision to focus on him. Where, they will ask, is Emile Habiby's biography? Mahmoud Darwish? Samih al-Qasim? Tawq Zayyad? They are right to wonder, and I can only hope that those books will also be written one day. But these writers are part of Taha's story as well. Intellectuals everywhere draw sustenance, influence, and aggravation from their peers, and the situation is especially pronounced in Palestinian circles, which overlap to an uncommon degree and where everyone seems somehow linked to everyone else.
Similar imbrications and connections have also typified much of the rest of Taha's experience. And while he is unique, Taha is not alone; his story is laced through with the stories of many others, as it is with the story of Saffuriyya and its loss - and, by extension, Palestine and its loss. So that even when it is his "own" story, it may also belong to his society in a more collective sense. In Taha's 1984 poem The Falcon, he writes of watching a songbird being attacked by a viper and seeing the terror explode in the bird's eyes: "Forests, moons, and lakes - / exile, streams, / and pastures the eye can't hold - / all were heaped around its neck / ... / Massacres and cities / were gathered there in its gaze." This makes him realise how "That small bird's fear / cannot possibly be / its alone! /... / The fear of that small bird / ... / cannot be fathomed except / as the fear of the flock as a whole."
Although it is something of a saw to suggest that one must write of what one knows, in Taha's case that familiar idea would - almost half a century later and decades after the village's destruction - pave the way for some of his best work, poems that twine the simple and subtle, the gentle and stark. In some of these poems, Saffuriyya exists as a precise and very populated place - not a mere piece of real estate, that is, but a village crowded with the people whose presence gave the place meaning. The Kid Goats of Jamil, for instance, one of Taha's most musically exuberant works, describes "Jamil / my father's cousin / our neighbour in Saffuriyya" who
married three wives but had from them neither a son to inherit his name nor a daughter to refresh his heart. This same "Jamil, my father's cousin, / our neighbour in Saffuriyya," owned a wide-eyed, long-haired, blond Damascene she-goat that gave birth to six wooly kid goats two days after he returned from Mecca; their silken breath reminded you of the childhood of the world! And even when the poems do not speak of the literal village of Saffuriyya, they all embody the spirit of the people who once lived there and so preserve their mores - not in the formaldehyde of nostalgia but in the dynamic present tense. That trademark poem Abd el Hadi Fights a Superpower, for instance, published in July 1973, doesn't mention the village by name, but it is clearly inspired by the homely ethos of the place:
In 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." Like many of the characters is Taha's poems, Abd el Hadi faces sinister forces he does not recognise, though the poet himself sees them closing in all too clearly. Abd el Hadi is a mild-mannered peasant who means no harm. "Nevertheless - " Taha writes,
his case is hopeless, his situation desperate. His God-given rights are a grain of salt tossed into the sea. And although the poet empathises with Abd el Hadi, it would be wrong to confuse him with his subject. As a public defender of poetic sorts, he pleads the case of this Arab everyman: 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. Abd el Hadi would become a recurring figure in Taha's work - at times (in the 1990 poem "Abd el Hadi the Fool") coming to represent the innocent, vulnerable aspects of the poet's personality and at other times (as in the poem at hand) standing at a clear remove from him. Like a good screenwriter, Taha has his character's back story straight, and he explains when asked about this made-up prototype that Abd el Hadi is a man who was forced to leave Saffuriyya in 1948 and now lives in Nazareth; the poem was inspired by a radio report about how the USS Enterprise docked in the Suez Canal, and the Egyptian villagers ran to sell bottles of Coca-Cola to the American marines. "Hi! Hi!" Taha imitates them broadly. "Coca-Cola one dollar!" Taha says that when he first dreamed up Abd el Hadi, he imagined a composite of certain fallahin he knew from Saffuriyya - and the hapless movie fat man Oliver Hardy.
A single map of the village exists. It is a carefully rendered English plan of the older parts of town, dated 1945, and though it does not contain the maniacally precise agricultural and architectural minutiae of other Mandatory maps from around the same time - whose coloured keys include dainty symbols for such features as Mosque with Minaret, Coniferous Trees, and Limekiln, along with a sternly italicised proviso: "N.B. The representation on this map of a Road, Track, or Footpath, is no evidence of the existence of a right of way" - its cartographers did take pains to chart every building in Saffuriyya. Amin's museum boasts a blurry poster-sized copy-of-a-copy of this map, and one evening when I am in Nazareth he offers to bring it over to Taha's house so that the two of them can give me a "tour" of the village.
First Imm Nizar makes the rounds with the usual nutstuffed cookies and small cups of coffee, then she sits, exhausted as always after a full day's housework, talking, sighing, and giggling with Imm 'Arab, Amin's wife, who was also born in Saffuriyya but who dresses and carries herself differently from Imm Nizar, like a city woman. They are just a few years apart but belong somehow to two distinct generations, as do Taha and Amin - whose four-year age gap seems multiplied severalfold in both physical and psychological terms. With his crooked lope, booming rasp of a voice, prodigious wrinkles, and ability to take command of any room, Taha is not just the older but an elder - a kind of born mukhtar. Amin, meanwhile, though now grey-haired and fairly wrinkled himself, is very much the younger brother. Sprier, itchier, more coiled to spring than Taha, he seems thoroughly unconcerned with his appearance but cannot help his own slightly down-at-the-heels handsomeness. Almost despite himself and his polyester pants, he bears a rather uncanny resemblance to the ageing Marcello Mastroianni.
After all my time in the archives dowsing for some - any - trace of the people of Saffuriyya, it is a relief to sit with Taha and Imm Nizar, Amin and Imm 'Arab, sipping coffee in this familiar living room with its worn couches, plush drapes, and brass bric-a-brac. Under the gaze of a plastic wall clock, a large reproduction of the Mona Lisa, and perhaps the most iconic photo of Saffuriyya that exists - a 1931 panorama of the village, shot by a photographer on an archaeological dig - we huddle over the map of the lost town. Amin ignores the women's soft laughter and begins to point and narrate in intent Arabic, leading me from front door to front door - "This is the house of H'ssein Ibrahim, and this is the house of Flefel..." Taha adds (in English), "the one with the goats." Amin: "Flefel . . . what's his name?" Taha: "Salim." Amin: "Salim il Flefel, Salim. Here's 'Brahim Abu Qasim." Taha: "He is a relative." Amin: "And here, here's our house... here's the street... and here's the compound of Sheikh Saleh Salim" - this name is offered in chorus, the two of them singing it out.
Taha: "He had many houses... for his brothers and his three wives... And here's 'Ali H'ssein - no! First it was Qasim Mustafa." "No," says Amin. "You are right," says Taha. "And this is Shantawi... No, no, next to it - What's his name?" "Who?" "The one with the books, the one who read many books, an educated one,"says Taha. "Who do you mean, ya Taha? This here is Abu Ahmed's house, next to it is, eh... Sa'id Amin. Near it is the house of il-Imbadna - am I right, ya Taha?" and on into the night we go - with Imm Nizar and Imm 'Arab gossiping animatedly and sometimes chipping in the chortled nickname of a neighbour or store owner, at one point even bursting out into a series of Saffuriyya wedding songs, whose jubilantly simple refrains appear to have resurfaced suddenly after more than fifty years underground: "Leina ya Saffuriyat, leina, /farah jdid mbarak 'aleina" (O women of Saffuriyya, a new joy has blessed us).
As they sing and talk I'm scribbling to set down whatever I can, and the brothers are taking turns pressing their fingers into the tiny cubes that indicate what once were houses on the map. The longer we sit here, the more involved the two become in each other and in their sometimes disparate visions of the village, which begins, nonetheless, to emerge in composite before me on the fuzzy Xerox. Their tone veering from excitement to melancholy and back again, one will gently place a hand on the other's wrist to correct or argue or agree as now they chuckle at some newly remembered detail and now fish in vain for a name that has disappeared into the distance.
Adina Hoffman is the author of House of Windows and an editor at Ibis Editions. Excerpted from My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century by Adina Hoffman, to be published in April by Yale University Press. © 2009 Adina Hoffman. Taha Muhammad Ali's poems come from So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin, Copper Canyon Press, 2006.