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Palestinian Poet/Souvenir Seller Taha Muhammad Ali: life told as “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness,” a biography by Adina Hoffman.

Book Reviews from NY Times & The Economist of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, by Adina Hoffman,
about the life & times of Palestinian Poet TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI


BloodAxe Press Author's Bio of Taha Muhammad Ali

Taha Muhammad Ali

TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI was born in 1931 in the village of Saffuriyya, Galilee. At 17 he fled to Lebanon with his family after the village came under heavy bombardment during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. A year later they slipped back across the border and settled in Nazareth, where he has lived ever since. An autodidact, he owns a souvenir shop now run by his sons near Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation. In Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Europe and in America, audiences have been powerfully moved by Taha Muhammad Ali’s poems of political complexity and humanity. He has published several collections of poetry and one volume of short stories. A biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, by Adina Hoffman, is published by Yale University Press in 2009.

Books by Taha Muhammad Ali:
So What: New & Selected Poems 1971-2005

Nina Subin

Taha Muhummad Ali, the subject of “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness,” a biography by Adina Hoffman.

Books of The Times
A Merchant of Trinkets and Memories

Published: May 5, 2009

Here’s a book with a striking title, a handsome cover and genuinely absorbing subject matter: the life and times of Taha Muhammad Ali, a gruff, working-class Palestinian poet who, exiled from his hometown during the creation of Israel in 1948, has owned and operated a souvenir shop near the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth for more than 50 years, playfully calling himself “a Muslim who sells Christian trinkets to Jews.”


A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century

By Adina Hoffman

Illustrated. 454 pages. Yale University Press. $27.50.
Times Topics: Palestinians | Poetry and Poets
Excerpt From ‘My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness’
Flash 90

Adina Hoffman

Here is another thing to recommend Adina Hoffman’s “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century”: It is, its publisher says, the first biography of a Palestinian writer to be issued in English.

Thus Ms. Hoffman essentially had me at hello. She managed to lose me not long after that, however, by waging a sit-down strike against linear storytelling and narrative momentum. (The book takes 300 pages to bring us to where Mr. Ali publishes his first poem.) But this does not mean that Mr. Ali and his poems are unworthy of our close attention. Ms. Hoffman writes about something she calls “the Taha Effect”: that is, Mr. Ali’s ability, once his first book was published when he was 52 (he is now in his late 70s), to charm audiences with his plainspoken demeanor, his “granular baritone” and his catcher’s mitt of a face, which one observer has likened to a George Grosz painting.

The Taha Effect exists on the page as well. Unlike many better-known Palestinian poets (Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim), Mr. Ali has rarely written declamatory political verse and is, as the author puts it, “nobody’s national poet.” His work resonates, instead, because it is small, sly, personal and seemingly artless.

When Mr. Ali does sidle up to politics and the Palestinian experience, it’s from an oblique and quietly biting angle. Here is a bit of “Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower,” a 1973 poem in which the hero is a trusting Arab everyman:

In his life he did not speak
of the New York Times
behind its back,
didn’t raise
his voice to a soul
except in saying
“Come in, please,
by God, you can’t refuse.”
The poem continues:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
about his enemies
my client knows not a thing.
And I can assure you,
were he to encounter
the entire crew
of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,
he’d serve them eggs
sunny-side up,
and labneh
fresh from the bag.

Mr. Ali’s poetry-talk, in this biography, is ingenious and ardent. He compares his poetic method to billiards (“You aim over here ... to strike over there”), and he has this to say about the crossroads of religion and writing: “The more mosques, the less poetry.”

Ms. Hoffman plucks, like olives, lovely stories to tell about him. Mr. Ali would become so engaged when talking to a friend, the poet and editor Michel Haddad, she writes, that they would take turns walking each other home all night long:

“When they reached Taha’s front door they would turn around — and then Taha would walk Michel back home, and when they reached Michel’s front door they’d turn around, and Michel would walk Taha back home.”

Ms. Hoffman is an American-born Jew who has lived for many years in Jerusalem; her husband, Peter Cole, has translated Mr. Ali’s work; together they help operate a nonprofit press in Jerusalem that has published his poems.

She has written this biography in part, she says, to figure out why Mr. Ali’s work means so much to her: “I wanted to know how it was that an elderly Palestinian Muslim with four years of formal education, few teeth and a literary obsession with a place where I myself have never been — and could never go — could ‘speak,’ as the idiom has it, so powerfully to my experience and to that of so many.”

Mr. Ali’s obsession, the place the author cannot go, is the Galilee village Saffuriyya, where he was born in 1931. It was occupied by Israeli troops and largely razed after the State of Israel was established in 1948. Mr. Ali was a teenager at the time; his family became refugees, eventually settling in Nazareth in northern Israel.

Even before they were forced to flee, Mr. Ali’s family was poor. His father, who had polio as a child and had trouble walking, worked only sporadically. But he had a formidable talent for two things: brewing intense coffee and gathering men around him to talk and tell stories. Mr. Ali grew up wanting most of all, he said, “to speak like my father.”

What Mr. Ali developed first, Ms. Hoffman writes, was “a serious gift for business.” To help his family financially, he opened a small kiosk that sold things like cigarettes and chocolate. He would operate shops throughout his life, each a literary and artistic salon of a sort.

Mr. Ali taught himself to read and write. When he’d saved money from his shop, he knew how he wanted to spend it: “In the 50s, with 30 liras you could buy a dunam of land. I decided to buy a dictionary.”

In the 1960s Mr. Ali began writing the poems that would make him famous — they are filled with longing for his hometown and for the girl he was supposed to wed in an arranged marriage before they were separated in the turmoil of 1948 — but his first book was not published until 1983.

Ms. Hoffman is eloquent about many things in this biography, including her own conflicted feelings about the treatment of Arabs in places like Saffuriyya, and about the difficulty of doing research about what is largely an oral society, one in which many of the written records that did exist have been destroyed.

Yet for all its strong moments, and its important subject matter, this book gets away from her. Her digressions — about the history and fall of Saffuriyya, the birth of Israel, the careers of Arab poets and histories of literary magazines — are often murky, overly long and not blended well into the stream of Mr. Ali’s story. Her prose is often subdued, monochromatic. While this book is clearly a labor of love, the reader is forced to labor along with her.

Still, “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness” is a book I’m glad to have. It communicates Ms. Hoffman’s enthusiasm for this unusual poet, and sends us running to read the work of the talented man she describes, accurately enough, as “equal parts clown and king.”

Palestinian poetry
On the waste land

Mar 26th 2009
From The Economist print edition

MOST writing by Palestinians for the foreign reader depicts them either as hapless residents of the territories that Israel occupied in 1967 or as scattered refugees. This, along with the never-ending stream of news from the West Bank and Gaza, no doubt contributes to the popular notion of a Palestinian as someone who lives anywhere but Israel.

This is ironic, because all the grandees of Palestinian literature in Arabic, such as Emile Habiby, a novelist, and Mahmoud Darwish, a poet who died last year, are among those Palestinians who have made up one-fifth of Israel’s population since the state’s birth in 1948. In fact, notes Adina Hoffman, it was not until after the 1967 war reconnected them with their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza that they fully understood that, despite 19 years as citizens of a country that still prefers to call them “Israeli Arabs”, they were still just as Palestinian as those “outside”. Until then, they had been (and, to some extent, still are) viewed as collaborators with the Jewish state.

Thanks to an obsession with schooling that Israel inherited from the British Mandate governors, Arab literacy in Palestine had shot up since the start of the 20th century. At the same time Israel’s birth had left the isolated “inside” Palestinians searching for a means of expression. The 1967 reunification unleashed a vibrant, hitherto hidden Palestinian literature on the rest of the Arab world. The young Darwish and his contemporaries, writers of populist, nationalist verse, were lionised abroad as the voices of a “literature of resistance”, which suddenly became a legitimate alternative to the armed resistance often preferred by Palestinians in exile. The “1948 Palestinians”, as those in Israel now often call themselves, went from being reviled as quislings to being hailed for their sumud, or steadfastness in refusing to leave their native land.

Taha Muhammad Ali was also wrestling with poetry when Darwish, ten years his junior, dropped his sumud and fled the country in 1970 after constant harassment from the Israeli security services. An industrious Nazareth souvenir-shop proprietor, Mr Muhammad Ali had spent much of his life in his ancestral village of Saffuriyya and then, after 1948, as a refugee in Lebanon, before stealing back into Israel and settling in Nazareth. (Saffuriyya, like hundreds of other Palestinian villages, was razed and replaced by a Jewish one.)

A voracious and largely self-taught reader, he had long been friendly with the top writers and had penned some literary criticism. But it was not until 1971, when he was 40, that he finally felt ready to write down the verses that had been brewing for years within him. He was in his 50s when he published his first book, and over 70 before Ibis Editions, a small Jerusalem press run by Ms Hoffman and her husband, Peter Cole, a noted translator of Hebrew as well as Arabic poetry, brought out his first collection in English.

Mr Muhammad Ali shied away from the overtly activist writing of the younger poets. Instead he used deceptively simple language and quirky tales as a way, as he liked to say, to “aim over here to strike over there”. The title of Ms Hoffman’s book is a line from a poem, “Fooling the Killers”, that gently admonishes unnamed hunters not to take aim at what they perceive as the writer’s happiness, because “my happiness bears/no relation to happiness.”

The pointed yet forgiving honesty of Mr Muhammad Ali’s writing and his bumbling, endearing presence onstage seem to have captured the hearts of both local and foreign audiences, bringing him a measure of global fame in his twilight years. And although Ms Hoffman admits that he is an odd choice of subject when there are still no biographies of his more famous contemporaries, his unassuming life makes him in many ways the ideal mirror for the “Palestinian century” of the book’s subtitle. Veering between biography, history, journalism and memoir, this painstakingly researched work is a human-scale picture of the generally under-reported history of the Palestinians in Israel as well as an accessible introduction to their poetry. Rather like the poet himself seems to be, Ms Hoffman’s book is unpretentious, principled and utterly charming.
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