Radically Human: Taha Mohammad Ali (1931-2011)

In his poem ‘The Fourth Qasida’ Taha Mohammad Ali tells us

When our loved ones leave
as you left,
an endless migration in us begins
and a certain sense takes hold in us
that all of what is finest
in and around us,
except for the sadness,
is going away —

Mohammad Ali, one of Palestine’s most celebrated contemporary poets, knew all about migrations, both of the body and the soul. At the time of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, aged 17, he fled with his family to Lebanon after their home and village was destroyed. They returned a year later and settled in Nazareth, where Mohammad Ali remained until his death on 2 October, 2011.

His only book in Britain, So What: New & Selected Poems 1971-2005 (Bloodaxe, 2007) was widely reviewed. Edward Hirsch made a comparison to the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet for his ‘emotional forthrightness and unflinching honesty.’ He could be subtle and unsentimental about his own personal history, and at the same time his ‘certain sense’ of shared loss and survival – the need to survive – compelled some of his best known verse:

I’ll linger on — a piece of shrapnel
the size of a penknife
lodged in the neck;
I’ll remain —
a blood stain
the size of a cloud
on the shirt of this world!
(from ‘Thrombosis in the Veins of Petroleum’)

Mohammad Ali’s poems showed many of the concerns of his fellow Arabs, Mahmoud Darwish, Jamal Qa’war and Samih Al Qasim – dispossession, exile, and cultural marginalization. In Gabriel Levin’s valuable introduction to So What… we’re told that Mohammad Ali’s poetry nevertheless ‘eschews the heroic mode’ associated with much contemporary Palestinian poetry ‘and is set in the context of everyday experience… This doesn’t mean that political and historical events are glossed over, but rather that feelings of collective humiliation, shame, rage, and disillusionment are modified by a highly individualized voice…’

It was Mohammad Ali’s particularizing of life under occupation that made his verse so intimate, so movingly direct and accessible. His poems foreground human action and feeling, disarmingly simple and lucid:

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,
so where would our weeping
have come from?
(from ‘There Was No Farewell’)

We could guess at the life behind the words. Mohammad Ali made that complex political reality vivid and credible. The poetry, in Levin’s words, was ‘at once lyrical and blunt, graceful and harsh in its veracities.’ His translators, Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin, created a memorable and important voice for him in English. We have their translations still, and the poet’s voice continues to speak through them, even after Taha Mohammad Ali has gone.

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Filed under Poetry of the Middle East

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