The book in question is a life and times of Taha Muhammad Ali, a marvelous Palestinian poet who was born and grew up in Saffuriyya, a Galilean village that Israel bombed during the 1948 war and demolished in its wake. After a difficult year spent in Lebanon as refugees, Taha and his family snuck back across the border and into a place that had been Palestine and was now officially, if not emotionally, Israel. Like the other Palestinian citizens of the new Jewish state, they were subject to the harsh restrictions imposed on them by the military government, which controlled much of their lives until 1966. An autodidact (he had just four years of perfunctory village schooling), Taha has spent nearly sixty years operating a souvenir shop near the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. At the same time, he has taught himself much of classical and contemporary Arabic literature, absorbed copious quantities of English and American poetry and prose, and evolved, slowly but with a stubbornly single-minded kind of determination, into a writer of formidable power. Most of his poems well up from the hard ground of his Saffuriyya childhood, at once mourning the loss of the village and celebrating it as a living, breathing, crowded place. In a sense, Taha has managed to preserve by way of his expansive imagination what has been obliterated in physical fact.
I, for my part, am an American-born Jew who has lived in Jerusalem for much of her adult life – assuming a sort of bifocal national identity in the process. I carry two passports, American and Israeli, and I first came to know Taha when my husband, the poet Peter Cole, began, together with Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin, to translate his work into English. Within months of the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, Ibis Editions, the small, non-profit press that Peter, Gabriel, and I run together in Jerusalem, published a book of these translations. We must have known in some inchoate way then that bringing out such a volume – of Arabic poems inspired by a bulldozed Palestinian village, translated by a trio of two Jews and a Muslim, all three of them like the author himself, technically Israeli citizens – was, in its small way, an act of protest. (“Us [the Jews] here and them [the Arabs] there” had by then become the separatist slogan of many liberal Jewish Israelis.) But it was only later, as the situation around us worsened considerably and we grew to know Taha much better, that I began to grasp the political, personal, and artistic implications of this alliance, this friendship.
Intrigued as I was by Taha’s person and his poetry, the thought of writing a book about him was, as I say, daunting. The idea of setting out across the narrative minefield of Palestinian-Israeli history seemed at best masochistic, since – before I’d put a single word on paper – I could already hear a whole chorus of readerly complaints: I’d be damned by some indignant partisan no matter what I wrote.
Yet the closer Peter and I became to Taha and, ironically enough, the darker the political skies over all our heads grew – one survey from around this time showed that forty one percent of Israeli Jews supported the separation of Arabs and Jews in places of entertainment, forty six percent were unwilling to have an Arab visit their home, and sixty eight percent objected to an Arab living in their apartment building – the more such hesitations fell away and the more I came to appreciate Taha’s undogmatic and ebulliently independent example. (Those numbers would, I’m certain, be still more disturbing today, as the ominously strong showing of now-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s xenophobic party, Yisrael Beitenu, in the most recent Israeli elections shows.) “Taking sides” is not the point here, because I do not consider myself and Taha – or Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, for that matter – to be, at heart, on different “sides” at all; as I see it, and as the book tries to make clear, more joins than separates us, and the failure to focus on that shared realm of experience has had, and continues to have, a catastrophic effect on both peoples.
The notion of “taking sides,” though, is so central to the way the Middle East is thought, written, and yelled about that serious work is required to cut through it. One commentator is dubbed “pro-Palestinian,” another “anti.” Professor X gets blackballed as an “Israel hater,” while columnist Y is smeared as an “Islamophobe.” There are, amazingly, people who choose to spend good hours every day scouring newspapers, monitoring radio programs, dowsing the internet for any sign of perceived bias, keeping in hand at all times what amounts to an Us vs. Them scorecard – just waiting, that is, to take offense and to pounce. Such thinking is based on the highly dubious (but rarely questioned) zero-sum premise that what is good for the Arabs is bad for the Jews, and vice versa.
Alas, despite its best intentions, the media also falls prey to the trap that “balance” has become, as if every Arab who opens her mouth before a TV camera must be followed immediately by a Jew – preferably of the same height, weight, and hair color – who will counter her opinions word for word and in precisely the same allotted number of milliseconds. I am exaggerating, of course – but only slightly. Granted, most journalists are simply trying to be responsible, professional, and fair. But there are other forces at work here, and all too often it seems that fear is stoking this obsession with balance. (Who knows when those watchdog packs might attack?) For an American reporter to have his or her “objectivity” seriously questioned is tantamount to a charge of professional treason – or so the thinking goes. The inadvertent effect of such wholesale equalizing is, however, a different sort of skewing. Every actor in this terrible drama is reduced to playing either a representative Palestinian or a representative Israeli, and to reciting his well-rehearsed lines right on cue.
Meanwhile, lost in all this is what Henry James called “the spreading field, the human scene” – that is, the dynamic interplay of a whole host of very specific individuals, each with his or her own complex temperament and tastes, fears and longings. Lest we forget, this lies at the core of the conflict, and it is also the very essence of what drove me to want to write about Taha Muhammad Ali in the first place: a deep desire to understand how, despite everything that Taha has endured, he has managed to remain so alert and joyful. If Taha has been angry – and his poetry acknowledges that, at times, he has – he has not let this anger flare into hatred but has turned it into an art and a generosity of feeling that seem almost to defy history. And maybe geography as well, since his poetry reaches far beyond national borders to speak both to those who know the land intimately and to those on the opposite ends of the earth. It is profoundly local – and utterly universal.
But the book is not just about Taha Muhammad Ali. In setting to work on what turns out to be the first full-fledged biography of a Palestinian writer to be published in any language, I quickly discovered how this one life ripples outward and eddies into the lives of many others as well. And as I wrote, I wanted to account for the whole panoply of thought, feeling, and experience that I encountered when I came to know Taha and all that surrounds him. In order to do so, I steeped myself in his rich (and, to the West, little-known) culture – absorbing the Arabic language, Palestinian literature, history, food, folklore, politics, music, and so on and on. At the same time, I came to know what felt like a galaxy of remarkable people whose lives have somehow intersected with his own: Arabs and Jews, peasants and poets, soldiers and shopkeepers, Saffuriyyans and Tel Avivans, Baghdadis and Philadelphians. It is this intersection of lived lives and, at their core, endangered dignities that this book is really about and that drew me past my dread.