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A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century: Don’t Look Away

By Forrest Gander

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Adina Hoffman, author of the biography of Taha Muhammad Ali:
My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century
As Adina Hoffman notes in the Prelude to My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, “no one has ever written a biography of a Palestinian writer before, in any language (including Arabic), and that—together with the fact that most Western readers have little if any experience of that culture and literature—brings with it extra responsibility.”
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Forthcoming from Yale University Press


She guides us from the image of an industrious little boy selling odds and ends from a makeshift stand in front of his parents’ house in a little Palestinian village called Suffuriyya to the image of an elderly charismatic poet, with the enormous hands and toothless head of a Claymation figure, reciting his poetry to a tent of 3,000 people (who give him a prolonged standing ovation) at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey.
“To be a writer,” Taha (as he has become known familiarly to Americans in the last several years) explains to Hoffman at one point, “you have to know about painting, about music.” But to be a biographer of a contemporary Palestinian writer, you have to understand the ways of the village where the writer grew up, although the village no longer exists. You have to know the history of the entire region and the history of Israel. You have to sift through accounts of the war of 1948 and its aftermath even though, as Hoffman sighs, “Accounts of what took place . . . vary widely and typically, depending on who is describing what happened.” You have to understand the traditions of Arabic literature and the stories of poets like Michel Haddad, Rashid Hussein, and Zayyad.
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Taha Muhammed Ali at The Cuban Revolution in Providence, 2006
All that research comes first. Hundreds of hours of interviews, years of sifting through records at libraries and military warehouses. Years of establishing an intimacy with the subject and his family. Only then comes the hard part. “To tell this story—any story—one must pick and choose what matters and what doesn’t,” Hoffman writes just after imagining what Taha’s life might have been if the war of 1948 had not happened and Taha, betrothed since childhood, had married and gone on living in the village of Suffuriyya as a street vendor.
The genius of this book is in transitions like that one where Hoffman imagines what has not come to be, where she tacks between oral interviews, government files, websites, and novels, where she stages impromptu authorial commentaries, or where she segues from the exacting details of a moment in time to consider the nature of time, and then slips right back into biography: “… and the men kept sitting and waiting under the fig tree… Time collapses. Time expands. When asked about the period of charged stasis after that famous fifteenth of May, Taha naturally jumps ahead to relate the details of Suffuriyya’s final hours…”
Hoffman picks and chooses well. And to borrow a metaphor from the Palestinian poet Emile Habiby, she somehow gracefully carries three watermelons (politics, literature, and the vivid personality of a wonderful poet) under one arm.
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So What, New & Selected Poems of Taha Muhammad Ali, Translated by Peter Cole
Available from Copper Canyon Press
As a postscript to this entry, one of the lovely little moments in this biography is the one that reveals Michael Wiegers, the editor of Copper Canyon Press, from his first enthusiasm for Taha Muhammed Ali– in a reference he reads in someone else’s poem– through his tenacious investigation of the poems, to Peter Cole the translator, and finally to Copper Canyon’s publication of the New and Selected Poems. Who knew that living editors still did things like that?!


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, November 28th, 2008 by Forrest Gander.