taha muhammad ali | three poems

20 03 2008
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Taha Muhammad Ali | Photo: Nina Subin
Poetry Dispatch No. 220 | March 20, 2008

Three Poems by Taha Muhammad Ali

Taha Muhammad Ali was born in 1931 in a village in Galilee–then Saffuriya in Mandatory Palestine. At seventeen he fled to Lebanon with his family after the village came under heavy bombardment during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. A year later he slipped back across the border with his family and settled in Nazareth, where he has lived ever since.

In the fifties and sixties, he sold souvenirs during the day and studied poetry (everything from classical Arabic to contemporary American free-verse) at night. Still owner of a small souvenir/antiques shop he operates with his sons, he writes vividly of his childhood in Saffuriya and of the political upheavals he has survived.

The Saffuriya of his youth has served as the nexus of his poetry and fiction, which are grounded in everyday experience and driven by a storyteller’s vivid imagination. He is self-taught and began his poetry career late.

Taha Muhammad Ali writes in a forceful and direct style, with disarming humor and an unflinching, at times painfully honest approach; his poetry’s apparent simplicity and homespun truths conceal the subtle grafting of classical Arabic onto colloquial forms of expression. In Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Europe and in America, audiences have been powerfully moved his poems of political complexity and humanity. He has published several collections of poetry and is also a short story writer.

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Where by Taha Muhammad Ali

Poetry hides
somewhere
behind the night of words
behind the clouds of hearing,
across the dark of sight,
and beyond the dusk of music
that’s hidden and revealed.
But where is it concealed?
And how could I
possibly know
when I am
barely able,
by the light of day,
to find my pencil?

from SO WHAT New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, Copper Canyon Press, 2006, $18

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Empty Words

Ah, little notebook,
yellow as a spike of wheat
and still as a face,
I’ve protected you
from dampness and rodents
and entrusted you with
my sadness and fear,
and my dreams—
though in exchange I’ve gotten from you
only disobedience and betrayal…
For otherwise where are the words
that would have me saying:
If only I were a rock on a hill…
unable to see or hear,
be sad or suffer!
And where is the passage
whose tenor is this:
I wish I could be
a rock on a hill
which the young men
from Hebron explode
and offer as a gift to Jerusalem’s children,
ammunition for their palms and slings!

And where is the passage
in which I wanted
to be a rock on a hill
gazing. out from on high
hundreds of years from now
over hordes ,.
of masked liberators!

And where is what belongs
to my dream of being
a rock on a hill
along the Carmel—
where I call on the source of my sadness,
gazing out over the waves
and thinking of her
to whom I bade
farewell at the harbor pier
in Haifa forty years ago
and still…
I await her return
one evening
with the doves of the sea.

Is it fair, little notebook,
yellow as a spike of wheat
and still as a face,
that you conceal
what you cancel and erase,
simply because it consists of empty words—
which frighten no enemy
and offer no hope to a friend?

from NEVER MIND, Twenty Poems and a Story, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, Gabriel Levin, IBIS Editions, POB 8074, German Colony, Jerusalem, Israel, $11.95

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Meeting at an Airport

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 the 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.

from SO WHAT New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, Copper Canyon Press, 2006, $18]








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