The OF Blog: Taha Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Taha Muhammad Ali

One of the benefits of seeking out and reading books and poems written from different cultures and languages is the sense of the greater story that emerges inside their writings. I just started reading the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali's So What and the poem "Ambergris" just grabbed my attention. Notice how bitter Ali is here, but also take note of the references to land, age, delay, and betrayal, as each element is interwoven in a different fashion to produce an excellent poem, even in translation:


Our traces have all been erased,
our impressions swept away -
and all the remains
have been effaced...
there isn't a single sign
left to guide us
or show us a thing.
The age has grown old,
the days long,
and I, if not for the lock of your hair,
auburn as the nectar of carob,
and soft as the scent of silk
that was here before,
dozing like Arabian jasmine,
shimmering like the gleam of dawn,
pulsing like a star -
I, if not for that lock of camphor,
would feel not a thing
linking me
to this land.

This land is a traitor
and can't be trusted.
This land doesn't remember love.
This land is a whore
holding out a hand to the years,
as it manages a ballroom
on the harbor pier -
it laughs in every language
and bit by bit, with its hip,
feeds all who come to it.

This land denies,
cheats, and betrays us;
its dust can't bear us
and grumbles about us -
resents and detests us.
Its newcomers,
sailors, and usurpers,
uproot the backyard gardens,
burying the trees.

They keep us from looking too long
at the anemone blossom and cyclamen,
and won't allow us to touch the herbs,
the wild artichoke and chicory.

Our land makes love to the sailors
and strips naked before the newcomers;
it rests its head along the usurper's thigh,
is disgraced and defiled in its sundry accents;
there seems to be nothing that would bind it to us,
and I - if not for the lock of your hair,
auburn as the nectar of carob,
and soft as the scent of silk,
if not for the camphor,
if not for the musk and the sweet basil,
if not for the ambergris -
I would not know it,
and would not love it,
and would not go near it...

Your braid
is the only thing
linking me, like a noose, to this whore.

The rest of this en face bilingual poetry collection is promising to be around that same level of quality. This is some good shit, especially for a day like today, when I often would find myself questioning what keeps people working hard in my own country, when so many around just seem to take it for granted or would rather exploit it and its people more than anything else.


Kubla Khan said...

unlike Darwish, Taha's poetry is written in non-classical Arabic and has an inner seething movement, a restless anger that finds its way in subtle means. Taha is a rare poet, an autodidact, a testimony to land whose olive trees have been stolen.

Lsrry said...

That's what I read in the introduction and it made me wish I could read Arabic to see the differences, since I think the translation, interesting as it is, certainly could not attempt to do justice to that tension between the expectations for classical idioms and Taha's metres.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, being to much of a supporter of israel I can't get into the anger bit but was obviously written very well to be this good even in translation. The translator did an excellent job as well.

As to what keeps people working in America, well that is easy. Here if you don't work you starve and as long at that remains true (aka we don't become like europe) people will keep working.

Lsrry said...

Well, I'd like to note that while Taha has reasons to be bitter, he also has a cordial relationship with quite a few Israelis and has done quite a few poetry readings (and translations back and forth between Hebrew and Arabic) with some of Israel's leading poets.

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