Reflections on Taha Muhammad Ali



It is hard to think of another Palestinian poet of Ali’s generation who writes with such intimacy while skillfully modulating between the personal and the public spheres of life.

Written in a forceful, direct style, in short lines of varyingbeats, with a minimum of fuss and a rich array of images drawnprimarily from village life, Ali’s poetry recalls in contemporaryterms the work of the great modern Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet,as well as the Central and Eastern European poetry of Ungaretti,of Holan, of Ró¿ewicz and Herbert, and of Weöres and Juhász,poets who wrote with unflinching honesty as the lights dimmedin their native lands. Such poets replaced the “poeticisms” oftheir elders with a stark, emotional directness. Montale spokeof wanting to “wring the neck of the eloquence of our old auliclanguage, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence,” a turn ofphrase which seems particularly applicable to Ali’s own poetics.But the poet’s spoken rhythms and lean diction also suggeststhe down-to-earth vitality and inventiveness of America’s earlymodernist poets. Williams Carlos Williams comes to mind: “Andin proportion as a man has bestirred himself to become awake tohis own locality he will perceive more and more of what isdisclosed and find himself in a position to make the necessarytranslations. The disclosures will then and only then come tohim as reality, as joy, as release.”

Ali has bestirred himself awake, and in doing so he has releaseda complex of emotions of startling and often unexpected force.One may be charmed by the poet himself, the village chroniclerand seller of trinkets, the self-educated poet who has describedhimself as “a camel fleeing the slaughterhouses / galloping toward the east, / pursued by processions / of knives and assessors, / women wielding / mortar and pestle for chop meat!” But the parallel thrust of Ali’s work is revealed in a harsh, often painful realism, in emotional desolation, and in telling images of desertion, ruin, and the sudden eruption of violence that act as a foil to any temptation to give in to mere folklore and nostalgia. Not infrequently pain, joy, bitterness, and hope are inexorably linked, as in “The Evening Wine of Aged Sorrow,” or in the poet’s marvelous story, “So What,” where a child’s walking barefoot for the first ten years of his life leads to cuts and scars from “daggers ofsplintered glass,” and “thorns sharp as venomous stingers,” but also to the unmediated, tactile exploration of his surroundings:

…I’d walk, stand, and then walk in the water which usually
covered my calf muscle, feeling against my bare legs and
the flesh of my feet and the nerve-ends of my toes small
pieces of metal, for the most part little coins with holes
at their center, coins that had been lost by their owners
and swept up by the water, or marbles, bullet casings, and
old ladies’ copper rings which had been thrown away by
grandsons, and small keys, and sometimes bigger keys, in
addition to crooked old nails, bent like the words of liars.

It is hard to think of another Palestinian poet of Ali’s generation who writes with such intimacy while skillfully modulating between the personal and the public spheres of life. Ali speaks in what might be called a figurative plainness, reducing the traditionalrhetorical flourishes of Arabic literature to a minimum. In “EmptyWords,” for example, he addresses his “little notebook / yellow asa spike of wheat,” in a tone reminiscent of Waller as echoed inearly Pound. Though here, too, pastoral fancy soon turns intounremitting and even brutal sorrow—a sorrow that is at once privateand communal as the poet alludes to the exodus of Palestinians fromthe Haifa seaport in 1948. The poetry may be acutely personal, buttime after time it conveys the sense that happiness is not somethingthat “flees/every which way/like a partridge.” It is ofanother order altogether, and must in the end ally itself to theaesthetic realm, and the natural world embodied in the Blakean“minute particulars” of Saffuriya. Lightened by a touch of thetrickster’s wiles (Fooling the Killers is the title of thepoet’s second volume of poems) the poetry is at once lyrical andblunt, graceful and harsh in its veracities.


Invited once again to Jerusalem to read from his work in the springof 1997, Taha Muhammad Ali prefaced his poems with another short tale. (Introducing his poems with a story, the poet explained,was like watching the animated trailers that used to be run beforea feature film appeared on the screen.) This time the poet spokenot of wooden camels but of an old-fashioned mousetrap. The storywent something like this: One day, back in 1941, Ali’s motherdiscovered a mouse in their home. She gave her son two piastersand told him to run off to the local shopkeeper in Saffuriya andbuy a mousetrap. Ali returned with the mousetrap, which theshopkeeper had mentioned was rare and made only in Hebron, and at exactly five o’clock he heard the trap door click shut. “I then saw,” the poet exclaimed, his wrinkles creasing in histroll-like face, “the most beautiful mouse, with green eyes and a belly white as cotton.” Fifty years later, the poet’s wife spotted a mouse in her Nazareth kitchen and implored her husband,“Taha, quick, fetch me a mousetrap.” Ali drove into Nazareth and was told that the sort of mousetrap he was looking for no longerexisted, though someone had heard that they were still being madein Hebron, now part of the West Bank. A week later, it just so happened, the poet was scheduled to read his poems at the Hebron Sports Club. Ali recited his poems and was then invited to asumptuous lunch. At the conclusion of the meal he asked his new friends, “By the way, does anyone in Hebron sell old-fashioned mousetraps?” A young man said that he knew where they could be purchased, and promptly drove the poet to one of the local storeswhere Ali saw the exact same mousetrap he had bought for twopiasters as a child. “Did you make these traps?” he asked theowner of the shop. “No,” the man answered, “they were made bymy father, Ziab Al-Shantawi.” Ali paused, and then said to theJerusalem crowd: “This was the very same name as the shopkeeperin Saffuriya.” And so he returned home with a new-old mousetrap,and the next day, he added, at exactly five o’clock the mousetrapclicked shut, and once more he saw “the same, beautiful mouse,with green eyes and a belly white as cotton …”

The audience of Israelis—and a handful of Palestinians—chuckled, uneasily perhaps, and somewhat beguiled, for all were nowdislocated: aware that the poet had caught them in the snare of his words, though it was hard to know just how. Ali, too,was visibly shaken by the story, as Saffuriya of half a centuryago was suddenly, disturbingly present, while present and futureseemed every bit as fragile as the past he had summoned tohis poems.

© Excerpted from: Taha Muhammad Ali, Never Mind: Twenty Poems and Story
Translation: Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin
Publisher: Ibis, Jerusalem 2000

© Gabriel Levin  
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