What can poetry do that bombs, bullets, and knives cannot? Adina Hoffman shows us in this biography of Taha, former resident of Saffuriyya, a Palestinian village with a long history of resistance against authority. Saffuriyya was bombed in 1948 by Israeli aircraft, and ever since the mere mention of the town carries the whiff of resistance.
"Even before he could see the village, he has said, the scent of it was overpowering—the thyme and the mint and the lemon trees, the broom and the wheat and the olives. The thorns themselves seemed to smell sweetly there, and though he couldn’t say which perfume belonged to what plant—or explain how he knew the difference between the fragrance of a Nazareth sage bush and a sage bush with its roots in the soil of Saffuriyya—the boy was convinced that he could tell in his nose when he’d crossed the border, and as he made his way toward home through the basatin, as the orchards and vegetable gardens were known, the scents grew stronger and more complicated, more human. The fruit trees were everywhere, and at the Qasral spring he got a clean, cold whiff of the abundant water that made the village lands so rich (and, according to local lore, its people so strong-headed), then, getting closer, the smoky perfume of the cabbage, parsley, cauliflower, scallion, cucumber, and his favorite, mlukhiyyeh, the dark green mallow that his mother would chop fine or spread out to dry and that they would eat as a stew. Thinking of it would make him hungry and eager for the other scents to come: the way the garlic she fried before adding the leaves would blend and merge with the piercing aroma of the basil planted in clay pots before the nearby houses."Hoffman’s biography of Taha Muhammad Ali is resistance literature also: the quiet, unsensational accretion of fact and personal testimony, newspaper accounts, and the patient unpicking of tangled threads of disputed reports or repressive memory. What Hoffman has done indirectly is raise serious questions about race, identity, and belongingness, about nationality, statehood, and the nature of resistance. She places the poet Taha squarely in the events that influenced his creative consciousness: the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Saffuriyya was always a “turbulent community,” police records filled with mention of locals talking with their fists amongst themselves. Hoffman suggests
"Saffuriyya was, let us say then, a 'village of murderers' in the sense it was a village with murderers in it. Saffuriyya was, however, also a village of tinsmiths—and shoemakers, shepherds, teachers, teething babies, laborers, shopkeepers, new brides, barbers, folk poets, gravediggers, carpenters, landowners, teenaged boys, builders, dyers, musicians, butchers, tailors, traveling salesmen, knife-sharpeners, old women, and a wandering ice-cream vendor who would appear on holidays and sell the children melting half-piaster scoops of their favorite flavor—chocolate, vanilla, or mint. It was a village of brilliant talkers, blubbering idiots, fat grocers, thin imams, of a kind Italian nun named Georgina, a fez-wearing Egyptian male nurse known as Sheikh ‘Umar, and Abu Qasim the peripatetic ritual circumciser, who never went anywhere without his black doctor’s bag and noisy motorcycle."So you see how Hoffman agrees with the official line and undercuts it in the same breath, how she forces us to acknowledge that we cannot paint a people with a broad brush. When the Israelis came, after they bombed the village in 1948, they found Stone Age olive jugs and oil jars in the ramshackle houses—could this be the same population they believed had no culture? A difference of perception combined with a will of steel might break what bombs cannot, and while many individuals have fallen, the Palestinian consciousness remains. In fact, its art may be a product of the half-century of oppression.
In this week's (Nov 29, 2015) NYT Book Review is a discussion of the complete works of the Jewish writer Primo Levi, who claims he may have never written anything without his experience in Auschwitz, another example of how constraints often inform and beget an insurgent art. But Levi also believed, in the words of reviewer Edward Mendelson, that "the core of Nazi barbarism...was its reduction of human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category--Jews [or Palestinians?] for example--that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value. The core of Levi's [and Hoffman's] science...[is] the refusal of generalizations and theories that transcend the realities of particular things." In her biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, Hoffman often asks us to distinguish between the thoughts and actions and poetry of Taha and his fellow poets from Palestine, between the peasant Taha and his better-heeled, or more radical and lesser-educated compatriots. By the strength of her writing, Hoffman is showing us how to unmask, and nurture an understanding of, the individual within the collective. Hers is a work of extraordinary power.
"That many of the Jewish state’s new and future immigrants had just suffered the torments of the Holocaust at the hands of European Christians did not, to Palestinian minds, explain why they themselves were being asked to forfeit their hold on vast tracts of citrus groves and fields of grain, to give up direct access to the Red Sea and to the port at Jaffa, or to become—as 40 percent of the Palestinians suddenly would—members of a minority in a Jewish state."Now Saffuriyya is forested and has been designated a National Park in the Israeli state. Displaced Palestinians have never given up agitation to return to those lands, that village. “The most important thing was that there were no leaders, no intellectual leaders to explain what was happening and what we had to do.” This has ever been, to my mind, the “problem of Palestine” but also Israel’s problem. Lack of enlightened leadership is the region’s greatest failing.
Saffuriyya has become a symbol. Hoffman traces the movement of Taha’s family (first to a refugee camp in Lebanon and then back to Nazareth) along with the intellectual development of the boy he was, then the teen, then the adult. Taha’s interest in words that could explain and express his sense of dislocation, dignity, and love of life were what propelled him. “His obscurity won him the freedom to write whatever he pleased.” Hoffman herself is an outsider, something she argues is what makes writers able to see the environment they write about. “I think it might actually make me anxious to feel too much of an insider. That's not good for a writer -- and, I might argue, I don't really think it's so good for the Jews.” (interview with Mya Guarnieri @ Bookslut)
When we finally see Taha's poetry reprinted, the effect of it is amplified by the quiet industriousness and skill with which Hoffman prepared us. Hoffman’s work is so hushed and intimate we have the sense that we are sharing a conversation with a deeply humane independent thinker of enormous gifts and fine discrimination. The exquisite care Adina Hoffman and her husband, the poet and translator Peter Cole, took in both translating and publishing the work of Palestinian peasant and poet Taha Muhammad Ali, and then in picking apart the knotty strands of his life to show the creation of Taha’s particular genius, is everywhere evident in this unique work of biography.
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,
every which way,
like a partridge,
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.
--Taha Muhammed Ali, from Fooling the Killers, (1989)
Taha Muhammad Ali reads "Revenge":
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