Sunday, December 07, 2003

The Poetry of Taha Muhammad Ali

More than a year ago, at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I heard Mr. Taha Muhammad Ali read his poetry. Mr. Ali is a Palestinian and citizen of Israel who writes, unlike most Middle Eastern poets, in vernacular Arabic. His poetry is captivating, his presence and presentation enchanting. I tried to buy his only book in English but could not get a copy. Then, in September, he came to Brandeis University. This entry I wrote after I had the good fortune of hearing and seeing him again. First one of his poems: (Please note labneh is a fresh soft cheese and Abd El-Hadi is a wise fool, not unlike Langston Hughes’ Simple character)


In his life
he neither wrote nor read.
In his life he
didn’t cut down a single tree,
didn’t slit the throat
of a single calf.
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 his saying:
“Come in please,
by God, you can’t refuse.”


Nevertheless --
his case is hopeless,
his situation
His God-given rights are a grain of salt
tossed into the sea.

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.

Taha Muhammad Ali

On Hearing Mr. Taha Muhammad Ali Read His Poems Again

Sweetness he said is there a word for not the kind meaning sugar
but he said like cool water on your warm body
I did not understand the Arabic and do not know how many different ways Taha could describe that taste that emotion that feeling but I did understand the pleasure he took as Peter his friend and interpreter read transforming his own words to English and Peter’s pleasure in following Taha’s formal verse in Palestinian slang the comfort leaning in toward each other Taha stooped white haired and Peter young but burdened with his own grumbling bones.
There aren’t enough words for sweetness
A small child’s generous unconscious act
the relief of sitting after a long day preparing a field for its seed
the aroma of earth after a warm dry spell as it is sprinkled with rain drops
Or the taste in your mouth after eating dark full chocolate that first pleasant wave and then the bite of its true nature on your tongue.

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