Important Poetry

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Thanks to Jewschool for highlighting this amazing video of poet Taha Muhammad Ali at the Dodge Poetry Festival earlier this fall. The video includes Taha’s poem “Revenge,” read in Arabic, followed by Peter Cole’s remarkable translation.

I recommend watching the version without subtitles, since you’ll hear Peter read the English version anyway, and there’s something magical about Taha’s voice even though (for most of us) the words are indecipherable.

A little background: Taha is a Palestinian poet who fled his village in 1948 for Lebanon, eventually returning to Israel and settling in Nazareth. He spent his life running a small shop, selling trinkets to tourists. Over the years, he educated himself, teaching himself English, reading the Arabic classics, and writing stories and poetry. He was never one of the more well-known Palestinian poets as he’s not a “protest poet,” and his poetry is not explicitly political.

I discovered Taha last May when I was spending a few weeks in Jerusalem and discovered that I lived across the street from Peter Cole. Peter is a well-known poet in his own right, as well as an award-winning translator of medieval Hebrew poetry. Peter and his wife, the writer Adina Hoffman, run a small non-profit book press called Ibis Editions, which publishes “Literature of the Levant,” (mostly) works of Hebrew and Arabic translated into English (and packaged beautifully). Ibis has also published obscure works by important Jewish scholars, including the poetry of Gershom Scholem and the essays of Haim Nahman Bialik.

Peter and Adina do amazing work, but nothing seems to excite them — or move them — more than speaking about Taha. When I saw Taha and Peter read together in September I understood why. Taha is one of those people who you just know is living life on a frequency that most of us can’t touch. Despite the difficulties of his childhood and adulthood, despite the fact that he’s an old man already, there’s an incredible life-force that bursts through him (watch in the video how he can’t keep still as Peter reads his translations).

For me, one of the interesting subtexts here is Peter’s role in disseminating Taha’s work. Before Ibis put out Never Mind: Twenty Poems and A Story, there had never been an English-language book of Taha’s poetry. Now Taha is reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and last month, Copper Canyon published a new edition of the Ibis book. Taha’s work is haunted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but reading (and listening to) his profoundly humane work and knowing that it has been eased into the world through the poetic midwifery of Peter Cole — an American Jew who lives in Jerusalem — makes me think that good art really can help save the world.

Posted on November 27, 2006

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