Twenty Poems and a Story
Taha Muhammad Ali
translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, Gabriel Levin
Ibis Editions ($11.95)
by Kim Jensen
Ibis Editions, based in Jerusalem, is a small literary press which offers work related to the Levant, mainly translations from Hebrew and Arabic. Ibis has published a number of interesting little books in the past few years, including Michael Sells's translation of Ibn 'Arabi's Stations of Desire and The Little Bookseller, Oustaz Ali by Egyptian poet Ahmed Rassim. In 2000, they put out a small but exceptional translation of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali; the volume, entitled Never Mind, includes an introduction by Gabriel Levin, a nice selection of poetry, and a gripping short story called "So What," about an impoverished village boy who longs desperately for a pair of shoes.
Something of a local legend, Taha Muhammad Ali's poetry is well known in the Arab communities of the Galilee and beyond. Born in the village of Saffuriyeh in 1931, Ali was already a young man by the time his village was razed by the Israelis in 1948. Ali became a refugee, settled a year later in nearby Nazareth, and eventually opened a souvenir shop in the souk.
Ali's poetry arises from the fertile yet relentlessly bitter grounds of personal and collective experience. His poems are suffused with imagery from everyday Palestinian life, both before and after "al-Nakbah" (the catastrophe). Combining a literary and colloquial Arabic, his work has taken on a folkloric status in the Galilee. A few of his poems, especially those about his fictional character, Abd al-Hadi, have become popular enough that they have variant verses and lines, as happens when poetry evolves in the oral sphere.
Ali uses a direct language in his poetry, which translates into English quite well. The poems have the story-telling quality reminiscent of such committed poets as Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, and early Darwish. But their simplicity of language and structure belies a depth and swift lateral movement that make for a powerful undertow, as in exceptional poems such as "Abd El-Hadi Fights a Superpower," "Thrombosis in the Veins of Petroleum," "Fooling the Killers," "Crack in the Skull," and the heartbreaking "Warning":
Lovers 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.
Oscillating between tender nostalgia and its wounding laconic edge, the poetry's particular Palestinian sorrow finds its echo in the wider registers of the universal.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003