Out of the past, something new

A review of Timbisert: A Moroccan bird

© Moshe Amar. Cover of Timbisert: a Moroccan Bird.

Erez Biton ‘inserts the oral tradition of Moroccan Judeo-Arabic literature, transmitted by women and therefore a feminine tradition, and one that did not exist in Hebrew, into the poetry written in Israel’.

The publication of Erez Biton’s fourth book, Timbisert: A Moroccan bird, is a very moving event. Biton is not very prolific, and each poem that appeared in recent years in a newspaper or a literary magazine is like a hidden treasure.  The new book collects most of his output over the two decades that have passed since his third volume, Intercontinental bird. His two first books, Moroccan offering (1976) and The book of mint (1979), marked a new path, one to which contemporary Hebrew poetry has responded to only partly in the meantime. [Biton’s oeuvre] has the potential to be a major focus for the Hebrew poetry being written now, and that will be written in the future, as well as a focal point for reading the Hebrew poetry of recent times.
Biton may be depicted in a number of ways, some of which are contradictory, and this is no accident. He rebelled against [ . . . ] new Hebrew poetry, and also returned to the tradition against which new Hebrew poetry itself rebelled. He is the founder of a new poetry tradition, as well as a descendant of and one who continues within existing traditions. Biton is the founder of the new Mizrahi* poetry in Israel, with its unique mix of Hebrew and Arabic, restoring the continuum of memory via stories about his family and the figures of his parents as an alternative to the grand narrative that rejected them.
Biton conducts a dialogue with the oldest tradition in Hebrew poetry, piyyut (liturgical poetry), which persisted until the 20th Century, and dedicates one of his poems,  ‘To speak at the moment of illumination’ to Rabbi David Buzaglo, the greatest Moroccan liturgical poet of modern times, a payytan (poet, composer and performer of piyyut). Biton speaks in the language of his family, Moroccan Judeo-Arabic, and in this way rejects the dichotomy between high culture and folklore. He inserts the oral tradition of Moroccan Judeo-Arabic literature, transmitted by women and therefore a feminine tradition, and one that did not exist in Hebrew, into the poetry being written in Israel. And he dialogues with the literature of his ancestral land, in literary Arabic, for example, dedicating the poem ‘A friend who became a brother’ to the memory of the Algerian poet Rabah Belamri.

Biton is also in dialogue with the new Ashkenazi Hebrew tradition of poetry, that of  Chaim Nachman Bialik, which he learned at school, and the personal-existential current, under whose influence he wrote his first poems. Inside this dialogue he has fashioned an alternative, one that does not discount various earlier Hebrew practices stemming from the Mizrahi experience. In this way Biton shaped the loveliest protest poetry within the new Hebrew poetry and in opposition to it. From the encounter of these traditions, a compelling intricacy emerges between the sacred and the profane, between Hebrew and other Jewish languages, between Judaism and Arabness, West and East, and between the periphery and Tel Aviv.

Parents hold center stage in [Timbisert] as in Biton’s earlier works. They appear for the first time in a story of his childhood, ‘My mother, her children did not live’:

My mother,
her children did not live,
my mother.
The first,
for her he didn’t live, the first,
who was called David,
after her father.
The second
he didn’t live for her, the second,
who was called Meir after Rabbi Meir the miracle maker,
and didn’t receive the miracle of life.
The third
lived for her, the third
who was called Yaish
which means life
and that was me,
and I lived for her.
what kind of life did I live for you,
my mother.

[ . . . ]

The movement [from the mother to the child-speaker] is especially surprising, as the speaker is the first child to live, and thus emotion is unleashed in the penultimate line, which switches from the third person used in most of the poem, to direct address.
In another poem, Biton visits ‘The Cemetery in Lod’, enumerating those among whom he lived during his childhood in that city, and who now rest in their graves:

Here is old Rabbi Yitzhak
and his wife, the blind Aisha
with whom I used to come to this very cemetery
to pick figs and carobs… at sunset, when we returned with a full basket
she generously gave me
two or three figs
and I was filled with joy at the day of pure pleasure . . . and here is Haroun Ben Hammo
who fell in the Six Day War,
and with whom we used to pray
in the small synagogue
named for Mother Rachel.
would stand up on the New Year
and read the sacrifice of Isaac in tears
and didn’t know
he was reading his own sacrifice. 
[ . . . ]

The poem is a sort of memorial, [ . . . ] Biton’s attempt as in all his books is to tell the story of his childhood in Lod before he was blinded, and the story of his mother, the village of her birth and her life before [it was disrupted by the move to Israel].
Now we are confronted by dead of Lod, distant in time, and so it is highly suitable for the poem to end with an image of his parents, and then a glance at the poet himself: 

And here is my parents’ cracked grave
that each year we say we’ll fix
and we don’t fix
and rain falls now and seeps in
my mother who couldn’t bear the cold
and always wore
her sweater year round
and here I’ll be buried
I want to be buried here
among the living
in the 1950s
in the city of Lod.
The Israeli past is filled with longing gone missing, but out of this the son creates something new.

© Almog Behar (Translated by Lisa Katz)

Source: Excerpted from Almog Behar’s review in Haaretz, 30.10.2009, and an extended version on his blog.

• Editors & Translators (Israel)

Subscribe to the newsletter

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (international)  

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (Dutch)