My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century
by Adina Hoffman
Reviewed by Spencer Dew
At one point in this masterful book, Adina Hoffman interviews a former Israel Defense Forces commander who after the war became a farmer on a kibbutz -- a "fallah" as he calls himself, using the Arabic term. He describes his agricultural work, which began by riding "a tractor to dig up the olive trees so that there would be land there for us to plant." He was participating, on several levels, in the act of erasure on which much of Israel's creation was predicated. The land itself is a palimpsest, whole villages plowed and planted over, emptied of inhabitants and literally removed from the earth, replaced with new communities, a new social reality. What troubles this former fighter and pioneer is that the national experiment in which he had such faith has failed. Linking his contemporary understanding of the history of Israel with his insistence on the righteousness of the original Zionist mission, he tells Hoffman that it comes down to "the question about the Holocaust," the question of whether "we would come out of that more human or less human. And we didn't come out of it more human. That's the problem." He looks upon his own country's flag with sadness now, seeing, rather than a legacy of righteousness, a chronicle of terror, expulsions, massacres, and ongoing dehumanization through legal and military means.
The irony of Israel/Palestine -- to give the place a schizophrenic and already ironic name -- is bitter, and one of the many things easy to lose in this land is a sense of humor. Absurdity seems to be everywhere, and it is often cruel. Participating in a meeting between Hebrew and Arabic writers, Taha Muhammad Ali captures some of this absurdity, this bitter irony, when he tells how, when asked where he was from, he responded, in English, with "Nazareth." The Hebrew writer who had asked him the question quickly "corrected him, saying 'Natzrat' (Nazareth in Hebrew)." It is a perfect vignette for Hoffman, revealing of so much about the nature of the place, the situation, and the character of this remarkable man: "'To sum up tonight's meeting,' Taha clears his throat in a mock-official manner, 'We have traveled from Nazareth, and now we'll return to Natzrat.'"
My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is a biography of Ali, a Palestinian poet and short story writer who operates a souvenir shop near the Church of the Annunciation, and whose story is necessarily that of the state of Israel and the wider Palestinian literary community. To understand his work one must understand something of the village Saffuriyya, where he was raised: it was razed, and its inhabitants were sent into exile, driven from their homes by bombs and trapped in that peculiar Palestinian situation of having, after, no homes to which to return. As Hoffman shows -- in a work that gracefully melds political history, investigative journalism, intellectual biography, and literary criticism -- Taha Muhammad Ali's work is rooted in place not only in "the sense that careful attention paid to the customs and culture of one locale might illuminate the wider human condition," but also in the more urgent "need to keep the village alive in his work."
Hoffman's driving argument is that in order to understand this work -- available in the bilingual English/Arabic volume So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) -- one must know something of the Orwellian oppressions of the Israeli legal apparatus (the Koenig Report, for instance, encouraging "the channeling of [Arab] students into technical professions, to physical and natural sciences. These studies leave less time for dabbling in nationalism and the dropout rate is higher") and of the chronicle of military machinations and humans rights catastrophes in the wider Middle East (the slaughter and mutilations of pregnant women and children at the Lebanese camps of Sabra and Shatila, for instance, by Phalangists allied with the IDF) that frame the Palestinian experience. Hoffman rightly holds that "the West remains, in large part, oblivious to the particulars of the Palestinian saga." Moreover, Palestinian writers are too often "judged not as individual artists but as spokesmen for a cause." For Hoffman, who with Peter Cole edits and runs the Ibis Editions publishing house out of Jerusalem, Ali's work offers an avenue of entrance into the larger Palestinian milieu in part because his work resists such reductionist, dismissive readings. He is no didactic writer, no manifesto-maker, with no militant ideology or concise political platform. Which is certainly not to say that his poems and stories are not political -- merely that their politics embraces and esteems the complexity of the human, the sensual memory of a place distilled into a description of a woman's braid, for instance, or the notion of revenge painstakingly disassembled, defused. In poems that seek to capture "all that was lost when Saffuriyya was lost," this self-proclaimed "peasant, the son of a peasant" writes with a particular quality of heart, "cunningly combining a plainspoken register with an idiosyncratic (sometimes biting, sometimes mournful) storytelling sense."
One of the fascinating aspects of this engaging and informative book is Hoffman's attempt to parse out Ali's diverse influences, from John Steinbeck and Guy de Maupassant to his peers in the Palestinian literary scene such as Rashid Hussein and Mahmoud Darwish, from Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani's Kitab al-aghani to Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's An Approach to Literature. We catch glimpses of a young man teaching himself English so that world literature will be available to him in translation; receiving, in a stroke of luck, hundreds of back issues of the Egyptian literary weekly al-Risala from a neighbor; steeping himself in classical Arabic; and finally innovating stylistically in shi'r manthur, "verse with neither meter nor rhyme."
As Ali's poems examine particulars of people, place, and moment to illuminate something broader, universal, so Hoffman's book succeeds by balancing the work of clearly narrating a tangled history, with all its contestation, trauma, and sprawl, and offering an intimate portrait of one individual, with all his idiosyncrasies, charm, humor, and verve. At points, Hoffman digs through archives to sort out disputed claims, but even more striking as evidence of the ever-marginalized position of Palestinians in the wider world is that this book is the first biography ever to be written of a Palestinian poet. Yet even as it will lead readers to reexamine the bleeding wound of Israel/Palestine, so too, of course, it will propel readers, editors, translators, and writers into the oeuvre of Taha Muhammad Ali and into the work of the broader community of Palestinian poets and writers who people its pages. The next biography of a Palestinian poet should not be too many years in the future, and with every new translated edition or critical study, an urgent lacuna will be addressed and voices will sound instead of silence -- voices testifying to the memory of erased places and the vitality of life in even the most absurd and nightmarish of situations.