By Adina Hoffman
The Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, praised by Eliot Weinberger as “the most accessible and delightful poet alive today”, was born in 1931 in the village of Saffuriyya in the Galilee (it is now the Jewish town of Tzippori). He spent only four years at school before leaving, against the wishes of his crippled, penurious father Abu Taha, to set up a kiosk next to the family home.
In 1948, Saffuriyya was attacked by Israeli forces. Muhammad Ali and his family escaped to Lebanon, where he ingeniously supported them with his trading. But Abu Taha decided to return the family to Israel and Muhammad Ali was forced to leave behind the cousin to whom he was betrothed — he refers to her in his poetry as “Amria” — thinking they would soon be reunited. It was over 30 years before he saw her again.
Muhammad Ali ended up in Nazareth, married someone else and set up a souvenir shop that he still runs. The shop became a salon for the local Arab intelligentsia, an oasis in the parched Palestinian cultural scene.
Eventually, after furious reading and encouragement from his friends, Muhammad Ali started publishing poetry. A superb selection is available in So What: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe), translated by, among others, Adina Hoffman’s husband, Peter Cole. Muhammad Ali’s poetry is wry and fabular. It has a political edge that is never demagogic but quietly evokes the particular sensations of his lost life: a lock of hair “auburn as the nectar of carob,/and soft as the scent of silk”.
Hoffman claims that this is the first biography ever of a Palestinian writer — and Muhammad Ali is not the easiest subject. Unlike writers such as Mahmoud Darwish and Emile Habibi, he has not been much involved in organised politics, and received literary acclaim only recently.
Hoffman seems uncertain as to whether she wants her subject’s life to be seen as representative of the Palestinian condition, or to celebrate the unique qualities of the poet.
Muhammad Ali himself deals with these questions in a remarkable poem, The Falcon (which Hoffman barely touches on). He begins by imagining the delight in being freed from sadness, only to realise that it is a necessary element of his poetry: “Without my sadness/the songbirds are only/a forest of beaks,/a thicket of claws!” He also realises that he contains “a secret sadness the flock/has hidden with me” and that, as a vessel of national sadness, it is not his to renounce.
Hoffman’s own closeness to Muhammad Ali — the biography grew out of their friendship — means she is unwilling to do what all good biographers must: betray their subject.
When Muhammad Ali speaks directly about his father’s death, we get a real insight into a personality so expressively photographed on the book’s cover. Unfortunately, more often than not, Hoffman paraphrases the poet in her saggy prose, so that he comes across as a fairly anaemic figure. This is a shame because a slimmer, more candid volume would be a worthy monument to Muhammad Ali’s distinctive voice.