Saturday, July 19, 2008

So What : Taha Muhammad Ali

Khalid, a young boy in an unnamed Palestinian village has great dreams......his dream is to have and own and wear a pair of shoes, for all his life, he, Khalid, has walked barefoot, subject to ridicule, an internal torture, an external liquidation, bereft, solitude his essential companion, for he has no shoes, he fears his peers, their ridicule, their derision, for his feet are the only feet that bear the atrocity of the land, land that is hot and cold, land that burns, that burns him. Then one day, a Moroccan travelling merchant decamps in his village, selling among many goods, some shoes too. This is more than he can bear, this is more than he can see, this shoe he must have, otherwise his heart will explode. And then soon, this Moroccan man has only one pair of brown shoes left to sell.

Khalid enquires and understands that they are worth 20 piastres. He implores his parents that unless he has these shoes, he won't be able to live for he cannot walk barefoot, he will jump into a well. His parents beg and borrow and soon Khalid runs to buy his shoe. But he discovers that the shoes are both meant for the right foot only. So the merchant tells him. So what?, Khalid says. So what. He buys the shoes against the merchants advice, buying two rights. And on reaching home, when he tries to walk in these new shoes, he falls down and hurts himself. And he hurts himself and bleeds. Khalid is asked to return the shoes and that night Khalid can't sleep, and sometimes when he does sleep fitfully, he wakes up, crying and screaming, just asking So what?!, So what?!, so what ?!

This story from a collection of poems called So What by the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali might be a metaphor for the larger Palestinian experience, but I wonder what it is a metaphor for. This story can be found at the end of this collection of poems, from a poet who is basically an autodidact, a man to whom poetry has come with open lips, without much toil, Compared to Barghouti or Darwish, Taha is a different experience altogether for in him the dual nature of the poet alternates rapidly, swinging from one extreme to the other, in an unforgiving language, in a language that is so subtle it makes your solid indifferent heart palpitate, so tense and so sad that you, the remote reader wishes the end of poetry itself. Taha's Arabic is not the classical one that is generally taught but the one he speaks, the one he learnt in a Palestinian village called Saffuriya, now renamed Tzippori by the Israelis.

Taha sells touristic mementos in Nazareth, the place where his family fled to and where he has lived for the last few decades, selling totems and when not, then writing his great verses or the odd story, in a small shop now managed by his sons. In classical Arabic and later on in Persian, Turkish or further on in Urdu, the concept of saying something, conveying something difficult in a simple and eloquent manner is called sahl il mumtanaa. This requires genius and is not easily done. To Taha Muhammad Ali, this seems to come quite naturally. The rhythms of his poems, the rich images, the simplicity of style, short lines, sometimes longer, the relative simplicity of the ideas themselves and their usual surprises, all these heighten the sense of hypnotic charm that one encounters whilst reading these poems.

It is easy to dismiss all poetry from Palestine by saying that one knows what to expect. But for the undiscerning reader, that might be a fatal error, for now that Palestine is lost in a swamp of road maps and post post colonial barbarism, subject to the whims of republican and democratic masters, subject to the harsh reality of their own impotence and the servile impotence of their neighbours, those casual charlatans, in a mix of blood and sweat and loss of hope, this very man can only write poetry, for it is only in poetry that the Palestinian land can live, for future generations of the Palestinian diaspora to know and to remember that there was once a place called Palestine.

And it is here that Taha steps in, has already left a mark, even if it is only poetry, because Palestine, as the walls rise higher and longer, will seemingly never ever be an independent land, even as part of a two state solution for even that would be to ask too much. Writes Taha....

"Our traces have all been erased, our impressions swept away..... and all remains have been effaced...... there isn't a single sign left to guide us or show us a thing.
This land is a traitor
and can't be trusted.
This land doesn't remember love.
This land is a whore
holding out a hand to the years,
it laughs in every language
and bit by bit, with its hip,
feeds all who come to it.
its newcomers
sailors, and usurpers,
uproot the backyard gardens,
burying the trees".

But here in Taha's poems, anything is possible, the entire land with its harsh realities, its olives and its seas, its men and proud mothers, even revenge. For though Taha is ready to forgive, he will never forget, he remembers, he versifies, he passes on to another generation of his people the scent and the wind of a plundered stolen country. He remembers how his people were forced to flee as he says......

"We did not weep when we were leaving..... for we had neither time nor tears, and there was no farewell.
We did not know
at the moment of parting that it was a parting............. "

In this collection there are great and beautiful poems translated with such verve, such magic and so much care and love that the translation dignifies the original Arabic ( I have a bilingual edition) the translators, Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin have done an excellent job.

Some of the poems deal with general and personal issues, with a wedding, a failed love, the destruction of a village, meeting at an airport, on the interval between sleep and waking and a most delicately beautiful poem on tea and sleep. There is one called Thrombosis in the veins of petroleum, one called The fourth Qasida and so on. His poetry has received recognition, translations intoHebrew among other languages. He has travelled with Peter Cole reading his poems worldwide, gained a bittersweet recognition for a land that reminds one of Atlantis. The introduction to this volume is extremely helpful and tells us a lot about his passion and his language and his essential anxieties as a poet. I have in the recent past copied two of his poems in this blog. At this link here, you can find him reading his wonderful poem called Intiqaam or Revenge, translated immediately after by Cole. Though almost all of his poems are worth posting here, for now I am copying one called Twigs, which is a good example of the melancholy bitterness of Taha Muhammad Ali and his land, his people and the remotest memory of that memory.

Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life's brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.

My love for you
is what's magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
most likely,
are ordinary people.

My poem
goes beyond poetry
because you
beyond the realm of women.

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.

After we die,
and the weary hear
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we' ve done,
and on all that we've longed for,
and on all that we've dreamt of,
all we've desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first thing
to putrefy
within us.


Roxana said...

such a powerful and beautiful poem. thank you for introducing taha to us. I think I understand what you mean by sahl il mumtanaa and yes, it is very hard to achieve this. maybe it is not only a matter of style, but of wisdom as well.

Kubla Khan said...

Taha is not only a powerful poet but one who is deceptively simple. you are right about the sahl il ultimately requires more than guile, it needs wisdom.