My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, by Adina Hoffman, Yale University Press, 454 pp., $27.50
Adina Hoffman’s new biography of acclaimed Palestinian poet and writer Taha Muhammad Ali reads like a novel. She tells us about a man with a lame leg who marries a tranquil woman and during 10 years has one son after another, all three named Taha and all buried as infants, followed by another baby, Milad, who also dies. The couple moves and has a fifth child, another Taha, born in 1931 in the small village of Saffuriyya in Galilee. He lives, and is followed by two brothers, Feisel and Amin.
As Hoffman describes the place the family is from, its splendor unfurls—a village “of some 12 neighborhoods, 35 shops, three mosques, five graveyards, a town council building . . . of epic tales and colored Damascene or Cairene prints of their heroes . . . a Crusader church, a Roman amphitheater, a citadel . . . of mulberries, quinces, black plums, apples, figs, lemons, grapefruits, tangerines, apricots, and the most sought-after pomegranates in the whole Galilee.” Then she tells us of Taha’s recollection of the birth of his cousin Amira (a pseudonym), how she was rocked in the same cradle he had been rocked in a few years earlier, how he was told she was to be his bride one day.
As Hoffman’s story unfolds—the closer she gets to the 1948 war, to the events known in Arabic as al-Nakba (the Catastrophe)—a feeling of dread fills the pages of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness. This is all too real. Hoffman, an Israeli Jew, explains that she herself was filled with dread years later as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated. And when her friend Anna was killed by a suicide bomber, she “stopped taking public transportation” and “stopped talking politics with many Jewish friends, who had converted their own fear of such a violent demise into the most unapologetic racism.” But instead of letting her fear paralyze her, Hoffman searched for understanding. When she and her husband, Peter Cole, one of the translators of Ali’s So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971–2005, traveled with Ali on a reading tour around the United States, they formed a friendship, one where “the trust among the three of us ran deep.” She was aware of the difficult reality of Palestinians before and after 1948 but never “attempted to get too close or to ask the hardest questions about my connection, as a Jew, to that history.” That is what makes this book so important: Hoffman’s aim is “not just to account for what [Ali] had seen but how he had seen it. . . . It was [also] inspired . . . by the far less absolute realm of art.”
The result is a biography of a Palestinian writer and the sociopolitical events that informed and shaped him as well as a look at Palestinian cultural and literary history. But it is poetry that beats at the book’s heart—the way it moves inside of Ali, around him, the way it surprises him and questions him as he questions it. Although Ali’s story embodies the Palestinian experience of exile and dispossession, it is mostly a deeply human account of a man who is passionate about words and was so from an early age. Ali started to support his family as a boy when his father became disabled. He discovered that he was a skilled merchant, but his heart remained in books, in the stories he heard in his father’s madafeh (guest room). It was there that Ali first heard men speak about politics and where he “first heard poetry and pre-Islamic legends.”
Following the United Nations partition, the Israeli army captured Saffuriyya, and on the night of July 15, 1948, the 17-year-old Ali, with his family, friends, and Amira, took refuge in Lebanon. They snuck back into their homeland a year later to find that their village, along with many others, had been destroyed. They also had to learn to call their new home Israel instead of Palestine, and Ali’s ID card now indicated that he “left the country and returned.” Sixty years later, Ali explains how his brief time in Lebanon “follows him like a shadow.” The family settled in nearby Nazareth, and Ali eventually opened a store and worked there for more than 50 years. During the 1950s he started meeting some of the emerging Arab literary artists of the time—figures like Michel Haddad and Emile Habiby. His shop became a place where poets and intellectuals as well as ordinary people would gather.
An autodidact (he only had four years of formal schooling), he was a dedicated reader and student, teaching himself Arabic grammar and world literature. He used An Approach to Literature, the 1936 textbook by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, as one of his guides. He read voraciously: from the British Romantics to Soviet writers such as Vladimir Mayakovsky; Arabic literature from the pre-Islamic to the work of his peers Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Tawfiq Zayyad, and Rashid Hussein.
Ali’s first published poem, “Crack in the Skull,” is dated August 1, 1971, a few days after his 40th birthday. The subtleness and simplicity of his poems makes them personal and poignant, and a major theme in his work is the contemplation of sadness and sorrow. For example, 40 years after having to leave his village, he describes the loss of a life and a reality. His haunting poem “There Was No Farewell” shows his bafflement over what occurred:
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?
He published his first book at age 52 but he did not publish anything else until a decade later, during the invasion of Lebanon, when he wrote much of his second book in four months. (He has now published five books of poems and one of short stories.) In these poems, Saffuriyya becomes eternal and so does Amira, whom he never did marry because she remained in the camps in Lebanon. Neither was able to get to the other.
Years later, Ali finally saw Amira again in Lebanon with the help of an Israeli friend. His lost love becomes symbolic of his lost homeland. Both Ali and Amira went on to have their own lives and families, having suffered their own tragedies and their own versions of displacement, both literal and metaphorical. In a profoundly moving poem about this encounter, called “Meeting at an Airport,” Ali recalls a time from their youth when Amira asked him, as they were walking back from a spring one morning, “What do you hate, / and who do you love?” His answer then was “I hate departure . . . / I love the spring / and the path to the spring, / and I worship the middle / hours of morning.” When they meet years later in the airport, she doesn’t recognize him and finally asks, “If you’re really you . . . ” and repeats the question from decades before. He answers exactly as he had then.
And you wept,
and flowers bowed their heads,
and doves in the silk of their sorrow
Taha Muhammad Ali lived through the British occupation, the creation of the Israeli state, the Six-Day War, the siege of Beirut, the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, and everything in between. He lost Palestine, Saffuriyya, siblings, a cousin, his promised bride, and later, his only grandson, Basel, just 15 years old. He became a refugee, was subjected to a lifetime of curfews, travel limitations, censorship, and daily humiliations. Yet his courage, deeply rooted in his simple poems, insists that we listen. It is not surprising that he loved the verses of the 11th-century North African poet Ibn Rashiq: “Poetry is something noble, / and in it there is no sin. / It’s a cure for the soul—” Poetry seems to have been Ali’s cure, allowing him to enter the dark corridors within. So when he writes: “Trust me / my happiness bears / no relation to happiness,” it’s clear he’s aware there is more to be unearthed. Adina Hoffman enlightens us about this search in her exquisitely written biography.