on My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, by Adina Hoffman (Yale)

On the night of July 15, 1948, the 5,023 residents of Saffurriya fled their village. Among them were 17-year old Taha Muhammad Ali, his parents, siblings, extended family and friends, and the girl intended to become his wife. According to popular Israeli accounts, Arab leaders exhorted the people to abandon their homeland, just then designated by United Nations’ partitioning as belonging to the new country of Israel. According to oral Arab testimony, Israeli warplanes bombed the town that night and everyone ran for their lives. Israeli troops occupied the village the next day. Saffurriya had long been regarded by the Jews as a treacherous lair. Muhammad Ali and his family, including his disabled father, made their way to Lebanon.

Ali6.jpgIn telling Muhammad Ali’s story, Adina Hoffman has written the first major biography of a Palestinian poet. But nearly 300 pages fly by before she asks, “Where, in the end (or the beginning), did Taha’s first poem come from?” When he drafted “Crack in the Skull” in August, 1971, Muhammad Ali was forty. His first book of poems appeared when he was fifty-two. Since 1953 he has owned and managed a gift shop in Nazareth. My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is thus a story of a poet’s long and surprising gestation. But also, Hoffman’s remarkable narrative is an act of cultural recovery, a painstaking and heartbreaking history, and an absorbing consideration of literary status and careers. Her husband, Peter Cole, is one of the poet’s translators. The two of them have toured and spent countless hours with Muhammad Ali, a notoriously entertaining story-teller, who has provided most of the tales, anecdotes and impressions that make up the portrait of life in Saffurriya and the exodus and resettlement of his family. But Hoffman is not a mere transcriber. She has integrated Muhammad Ali’s testimony, the memories of others, her knowledge of Palestinian literary culture, the historical record, and her own research so that she may come to her own understanding of how Muhammad Ali emerged as such an idiosyncratic poet. The subject must be partly shrouded in mystery, as it is for all unanticipated yet seemingly inevitable artists and art – and where mystery persists, she gives it ample berth.

Ali1.jpgThomas Mann said, “Who is a poet? He whose life is symbolic.” One poet starts early and works hard at projecting a symbolic profile, industriously creating a style recognizably his or her own. Another abstains until his inner life give some signal that it is ready to be transposed and reshaped into art. The first isn’t fraudulent because of his determination, and the other isn’t uncommitted because of his passivity. Edward Said wrote of the Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein, “It seemed enough for him, as for anyone who came to know him, to be a Palestinian, as if, in its existential and complicated state, our unfortunate lot as a people was a political statement.” But Palestinian identity, a single life lived and expressed, was not in itself a sufficiently expressive mask for a poet like Mahmoud Darwish who, as Adina Hoffman notes, cultivated the resistance poet’s visionary aura. Darwish virtually insisted that we place his headlined life beside his poems and their “incantatory gravitas” – hounded from his home in Haifa, writing poems in Israeli jails, hiding in a Beirut bunker during the 1982 Israeli invasion, or resigning from the PLO Executive Committee to protest the Oslo Accords. So while “Mahmoud Darwish received interviewers from all over the world in a grand office in battered, army-checkpoint-encircled Ramallah … Taha Muhammad Ali sat poring intently over a dog-eared dictionary in his Nazareth souvenir shop.” Nazareth, of course, is located in Israel proper; Ramallah is in the occupied West Bank.

Ali4.jpg“The poetry of the stones,” Muhammad Ali said in an interview, “is fleeting, and the true poetry that lasts is that which depicts what’s behind the stones and what’s behind the intifada, which shows life brimming with feeling and sensation and pain.” Hoffman says Muhammad Ali had devised “a poetics of shopkeeping. That is, the same ingenuity, thrift, modesty, vitality, sense of proportion, and essential joy that characterizes his best writing were also present in the thousand decisions and actions and interactions that made up a day’s work at the store.” A Palestinian poet was expected to deliver oracular pronouncements and adopt the persona of a prophet. But Muhammad Ali and his personae’s characters were “unassuming, even gullible.” His voice was “hushed and peculiar” and "jagged and personal" – but stubborn nonetheless, radiating his inbred sense of survival and the constancy of sadness. This is his 1989 poem "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.

Ali3.jpgSince his childhood, Muhammad Ali’s family had counted on the income from his various enterprises – selling eggs, then cigarettes and other small items in Saffurriya. “Providing for his family had, for him, an essential moral dimension,” Hoffman writes, “and he considered it a value above almost all others. Only when he had figured out how to care for their material needs could he set out to indulge this private, slightly selfish desire.” Muhammad Ali is an autodidact, having taught himself literary Arabic, reading Arabic and western classics, and then the modernists. It took him years to prepare, while working long hours in his shop which also served as a kind of local salon for constant literary debate and coffee drinking with his writerly friends. The first poems showed that Muhammad Ali “had no interest in replicating the standard rhymes and meters” of classic and even some modern Arabic verse. “He relied as he always did on more intuitive sounds and structures, which allowed him to explore a meandering, gently melancholy line of feeling and thought and to create a charged poetic landscape.” The result would sharply contrast with the more arch style of Darwish. Writing in a free verse style called shi'r nathr and rejecting the rhetorical flourishes expected of an Arabic poet, Muhammad Ali became a poet "squarely on the fringe ... Taha's books remain largely unknown to most readers of poetry in his own language."

After producing the poems for his first book, he went silent for yet another decade – until the invasion of Lebanon. Then, in a four month period, he wrote most of his second book. In this work, he addressed the figure of “Amira,” the name he gives to the girl-bride promised to him but from whom he was separated. She had remained in the camps in Lebanon – and part of Hoffman’s history is the telling of the terrors that she and her people faced at the hands of the Phalangists (and the Israelis, tacitly approving). Also, in these poems Saffurriya becomes mythologized, the locus of desire, the image of a fulfilling life and community now vanished.

Muhammad Ali finally met his Amira in Lebanon through the agency of a Jewish friend. From this moving encounter came this poem:


You asked me once,
on our way back
from the midmorning
trip to the spring:
“What do you hate,
and who do you love?”

And I answered,
from behind the eyelashes
of my surprise,
my blood rushing
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
“I hate departure …
I love the spring
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning.”
And you laughed …
and the almond tree blossomed
and the thicket grew loud with nightingales.

… A question
now four decades old:
I salute that question’s answer;
and an answer
as old as your departure;
I salute that answer’s question …

And today,
it’s preposterous,
here we are at a friendly airport
by the slimmest of chances,
and we meet.
Ah, Lord!
we meet.
And here you are
asking – again,
it’s absolutely preposterous –
I recognized you
but you didn’t recognize me.
“Is it you?!”
But you wouldn’t believe it.
And suddenly
you burst out and asked:
“If you’re really you,
What do you hate
and who do you love?!”

And I answered –
my blood
fleeing the hall,
rushing in me
like a shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
“I hate departure,
and I love the spring,
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning.”

And you wept,
and flowers bowed their heads,
and doves in the silk of their sorrow stumbled.

Ali8.jpgHoffman’s description of their meeting, as gleaned from Muhammad Ali, is moving in its own way: two people now deeply marked by tragedy and time, talking now at length as they never were permitted to as to-be-wed children in Saffurriya. The poem's world is mythic, a place where old loves are preserved and life is spoken of in simple, echoing terms. For Taha Muhammad Ali, “Amira” was the most deeply anchored image in his poetic psyche. Ultimately, his wife Yusra and the actual Amira came to know each other. Hoffman’s inquiry into the nature of this threesome is a comic moment – and as doleful as Muhammad Ali’s life story is, his buoyant nature leavens his tale with moving humor. I should add that Hoffman's prose seems to reflect the unassuming and direct personality of her subject -- but her rhythms and mode of thought are entirely her own. Every page in this book shows an unblinking intelligence, narrative skill, and maturity of emotion.

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is a story of oppression -- and a poet whose own experiences led him to create a poetry that expresses "how to wiggle out of all kinds of torments, how to live (and even die) on one's own terms -- without leaving tracks." For years the Arabs within the state of Israel faced curfews, limits to travel, censorship, shortages of food and water, daily humiliations. In the 2006 war against Hezbollah, 44 Israeli citizens were killed by rocket fire, and nearly half of the dead were Arabs. In Nazareth there are no bomb shelters. In the Israeli settlement of Upper Nazareth, there are 523 shelters. Ali’s life in Nazareth for the past fifty-five years is the focus of Hoffman’s examination of the Palestinian situation and its culture. “To be the victim of a victim does present quite unusual difficulties,” remarked Edward Said in a stylish understatement.

Ali5.jpgSaffurriya is the constantly looming if ghostly center of this story. Its people were never allowed to return. Some 350 of the 370 Jewish settlements built between 1948-1953 were established on “absentee” land. Saffurriya itself, an ancient village built on a Galilee hill, was erased. Hoffman uncovered the truth of July 15, 1948 in the Israeli military archive at Tel Hashomer -- the flight plans and bombing reports. She also effectively questions Saffurriya's reputation as a terrorist enclave. As a child attending Hebrew school in the late 50s, I would bring a dime to class to buy a leaf-stamp to be placed on a drawing of a bare-branched tree. When twenty stamps were collected, I would be given a certificate stating that I had purchased a tree to be planted in Israel by the Jewish National Fund. By that time, Saffurriya had been plowed under. And then, the JNF densely planted the hill with pines.

[Published April 2, 2009, 454 pp., $27.50 hardcover]

Copper Canyon Press published So What: New & Selected Poems 1971-2005 by Taha Muhammad Ali in 2006. Translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin.