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Lions Roar : May 2010
cut off like a branch from a tree— without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless, without a child, and without kin or neighbors or friends, colleagues or companions, then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness— not the torment of death, and not the sorrow of passing away. Instead I’d be content to ignore him when I passed him by on the street—as I convinced myself that paying him no attention in itself was a kind of revenge. Nazareth April 15, 2006 L AST YEAR, on a trip to Israel and Palestine, I got a glimpse, for the first time, of the ancient complexity of the Holy Land. Every rock and stone has stories in it, and to overturn a stone and peer underneath is to fall into a well of nar- rative that is bottomless. Here, point of view is everything, and every stone has many facets. Taha Muhammad Ali turns over stones. He is a Palestinian poet, born in 1931 in a small village in the Galilee that was first bombed then bull- dozed during the 1948 War to make room for an Israeli settlement. Now he lives in Nazareth and operates a souvenir stand at the entrance to the Church of the Annunciation, selling post cards and menorahs and busts of the Virgin Mary to busloads of tourists. He never made it past the fourth grade, but he knew he wanted to write poetry. He read Steinbeck and Shakespeare, the English Romantics and classical Arabic verse. He wrote his first poem when he was forty, and over the years, his little shop—the Prominent Souve- nir Center of Nazareth—has become a kind of informal literary salon. What moves me about Taha Muhammad Ali’s poetry is the way he picks up old stones and turns them over to reveal new stories underneath. The grief he evokes in “Revenge” is both ancient and familiar. A father has been killed, a village razed. REVENGE At times... I wish I could meet in a duel the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me into a narrow country. And if he killed me, I’d rest at last, and if I were ready— I would take my revenge! * But if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him, or a father who’d put his right hand over the heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set— then I would not kill him, even if I could. * Likewise... I would not murder him if it were soon made clear that he had a brother or sisters who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Orifhehadawifetogreethim and children who couldn’t bear his absence and whom his gifts would thrill. Orifhehad friends or companions, neighbors he knew or allies from prison or a hospital room, or classmates from his school ... asking about him and sending him regards. * But if he turned out to be on his own— Looking for ways to assuage this habit of grief, the speaker has envisioned remedies—a duel, perhaps? He has rehearsed outcomes: in one, he loses and finds himself willing to rest at last in death, but in another...maybe not! Explosive and heady, the thought arises. But even before his enemy appears, he begins to dismantle his lust, imagining into being a web of kinship—a mother and father, sisters and a brother, the neighbors and friends—which will transform his enemy. He seems to go to great lengths to do this, conjuring up ever more dis- tant allies and acquaintances. He cites details not just of place (a prison, a hospital room), but of incident as well (a father’s right hand over the heart’s place when his son is just a quarter-hour late), the specificity of which suggest that these may be his own memories, which he is tapping. In effect, he is sharing with his enemy his own most precious and intimate relationships. The last verse contains a seeming reversal. “But,” the speaker declares, if his enemy “turned out to be on his own—” Here we expect him to deliver the killing blow, but no. Instead, he says, he will refrain, and rest content in the knowl- edge that the pain of aloneness is punishment enough. At this point, the poem is an affirma- tion of the connection with others that makes us all, friends and enemies, so intimately hu- man. But the last four lines go further. The poet will not only ignore his enemy; he will convince himself that the act of ignoring is a kind of re- venge. There is real heroic effort in that word, “convince,” and in this light, the poem itself becomes a kind of playing out of the effort of will and imagination required of us to convince ourselves that refraining from wrong action brings satisfaction enough. The poem is the poet’s practice of convincing himself to turn over stones instead of hurling them. “In my poetry,” Taha Muhammad Ali says, “there is no Palestine, no Israel. But in my poetry [there is] suffering, sadness, longing, fear, and these together make the results: Palestine and Israel. The art is to take from life something real, then to build it anew with your imagination.” ♦ Poem © 2006 by Taha Muhammad Ali. English translation © 2006 by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin. 104 SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2010 About a Poem Ruth Ozeki on Taha Muhammad Ali’s “Revenge”