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My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: an interview and review

Adina Hoffman lives in Jerusalem. She is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood. She has contributed to The Nation, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement and so on. She is one of the founders of Ibis Editions. Recently, Adina spoke about her latest book, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, which tells the story of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, with Jonathan Mok.

Jonathan Mok: Can you tell our readers when and why you first became interested in Taha Muhammad Ali and his work?

Adina Hoffman: Taha Muhammad Ali is a remarkable poet and a remarkable man—someone who is at one and the same time absolutely extraordinary and utterly ordinary, and it was that combination that drew me to him. When I say that Taha is extraordinary, I mean that he has lived through some of the most devastating historical and personal events it’s possible to imagine—he lost his village, his homeland, and many of the people closest to him, and his culture is in serious danger of erasure—and yet he has emerged from that crucible with a love for life that is, in my experience unrivalled. He is neither bitter nor angry, but curious, ebullient, even joyous. More extraordinary still, he has managed to transform those devastating experiences into art of the very first order.

At the same time, Taha is deeply ordinary: many of the ordeals he has suffered are the same ordeals that most Palestinians have had to endure. In this sense, his story is in no way his alone, but stands as a more emblematic tale. And to extend that still further, this story—of exile, loss, and displacement—isn’t just a Palestinian story. Many other people (and peoples) have experienced similar tragedies.

I first met Taha in 1995. A few years later, my husband, the poet Peter Cole, began to translate his work into English; in 2000, Ibis Editions, the small press we run in Jerusalem, published a volume of Taha’s work in English, and since then Taha and Peter have been invited to read together all over the US and Europe. I’ve gone along for the ride, and as we’ve traveled together, all three of us have become very close. My decision to write about Taha was a natural extension of that bond.

Jonathan: What are some of the similarities, as well as differences, between Muhammad Ali and poets such as Mahmoud Darwish?

Adina: It’s important not to generalize, of course, since each of the poets in question has his own distinct style, temperament, and passions, and the work of each has evolved in complicated ways over time. That said, the most famous Palestinian poetry—poetry written in the late 50s and throughout the 60s and 70s by poets like Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Tawfiq Zayyad— tended to fall under the loose rubric of the “literature of resistance,” which is to say that it made a direct political point by means of clear, forceful rhetoric and a pronounced metrical pulse.

Most of Taha’s poetry was written after this period, and it takes up a quieter tack. It’s at once plainspoken and gently sophisticated; it tends to include characters that come from a village setting; it has a distinct, slightly eclectic music that doesn’t involve meter or rhyme; it takes up a strategy of dramatic indirection. He likens his own poetic method to playing billiards. “You shoot over here—” he’ll point a finger to the right, “to reach over there—“ and the finger will bend sharply to the left. His poems are, in other words, political, but in saying that I mean that they pertain to citizens (which is at the etymological root of the word “politics”) and that what is at stake in them is the basic humanity and dignity of a whole array of very specific individuals and the culture from which they come.

Adina Hoffman
Adina Hoffman

Jonathan: What place does Muhammad Ali occupy in Palestinian and Arab poetry?

Adina: Taha has a kind of underground reputation in the Arab world: he’s widely respected by other writers, and deeply appreciated by those readers who know his work. His reputation is definitely growing—and in the US and Europe he has a devoted following, with his American book, So What: New & Selected Poems, achieving what amounts to bestselling status for a book of poetry. There’s also a British edition of that book, and translated collections of his work will be coming out soon in Germany and France.

I should say that getting his poems out into the Arab world hasn’t been easy: being a Palestinian Israeli has made the distribution of his work difficult, especially because Taha has never been affiliated with a political party or movement, which is the single way that the poetry of Palestinians on what’s known as “the inside”—that is, within Israel—has reached the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. But that is slowly changing.

Jonathan: Finally, having lived in Israel for a long time, what status has Arab poetry and literature gained in Israel? I remember that in 2000, when the then Education Minister, Yossi Sarid, suggested teaching Mahmoud Darwish poetry in Israeli high schools, Sarid’s suggestion created a firestorm.

Adina: Unfortunately, Arabic poetry in Israel is still read primarily as a way to “know the enemy.” The controversy that you mention—concerning the teaching of Darwish’s poetry in Israeli Jewish high schools—is emblematic of that: Sarid’s idea was to get beyond such a reductive and demonizing reading, and there was a huge public uproar at the mere suggestion of such a thing.

That said, Taha’s poetry has actually found an interested, open audience among Israeli Jews—a book of Hebrew translations of his work, by the novelist Anton Shammas, came out a few years back—and though that’s not a huge audience, it does seem to me that he has managed to speak to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to Palestinian literature. And because his poetry is so deeply human—and so disarming in its angle of approach—I do believe that certain Israeli Jews may have, in some small way, allowed themselves to think of Palestinians like Taha as being somehow like them and so to begin to feel something like compassion. That’s no small thing.

Book Review

Last year, Palestinians lost poet Mahmoud Darwish. Without Darwish, who can speak for Palestinians, even including those that stayed in Israel after 1948?

In her book, Adina Hoffman suggests that one of the best living poets in Palestinian literature and Arab world is not a figure working for academia. Neither is this person a member of any political parties or a university graduate. The great poet in Hoffman’s book has a souvenir shop in Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus. The poet relied on learning of Arabic, Hebrew and English by himself. His name is Taha Muhammad Ali, and he first became known through the translation of his work by Hoffman’s husband, Peter Cole. Hoffman’s book chronicles the life of Taha Muhammad Ali from his childhood until his emergence on the world poetry stage.

Hoffman’s ability to connect historical events to the life of Taha Muhammad Ali makes this book an excellent read. Muhammad Ali insisted on seeing himself as a normal person having no interest in politics, but he was heavily affected by war and its aftermath. Muhammad Ali’s separation from his first love, Fatima, in the Palestinian exodus of 1948 was a great example of the impact of political events on individual lives. Fatima escaped to Lebanon with her family and has never been allowed to return to Israel.

The book would have benefited from some discussion of Muhammad Ali’s opinion on of Israel as a Jewish state, the failure of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and the radicalization of Arabs. It would have been particularly interesting to read of Muhammad Ali’s thoughts on the exclusion of Arab literature in the Israeli high school curriculum and the little interest it arouses among the public and intellectuals.

On the whole, Muhammad Ali emerges as a subject deserving of the greatest respect. His story is particularly inspiring –  a man of no money, with no education, has become a widely-respected figure in the poetry world, and he didn’t even have to rely on a storm of controversy to get there.

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness
Adina Hoffman
Yale University Press (2009)
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Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.