A Review of “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness” By Adina Hoffman, Yale University Press, New Haven &London, 454 pages.
Adina Hoffman writes in a gripping rich language and with a charming poetic flare. Her avid documentary precision makes her obvious love for the subject of her biographical account and for his family, his surroundings and his people almost suspect, were such evil thoughts not rendered meaningless by her fidelity to the deeper nuances of Taha Muhammad Ali’s deceptively simple and un-classical poetry. Her penchant for linking his every word to the traumatic events of his life and the lives of his fellow internally displaced Saffuriyyans, stay-put Nazarenes and ethnically-cleansed Galileans gives special meaning to the book’s subtitle: “A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century.” Her insistent delving into his private thoughts, and more significantly into his private life, makes his poetry almost as delectably meaningful read on the book’s English language page as it is when heard in Arabic from Taha’s own mouth and with his special delivery style and intonation in his now hesitant raspy voice.
The cover of “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness” gives the essence of the story inside: A dozen mug shots of Taha’s strong-featured post-mature face, two of which presumably overshadowed by the book’s title, all of which in various contemplative and silent pensive poses, the deeply furrowed face cupped and framed by his massive hand except for the very last in which the poet finally opens his mouth and speaks with an accusatory pointing of the finger. The autodidact Taha had spent a lifetime silently absorbing what went on around him and peacefully resisting by earning a living for his family, resisting by educating himself, resisting by occasionally expressing himself in the less enthusiastically popular local literary media, and resisting, above all, by honing his uniquely original poetic skill as the voice of the Palestinian Fellah from Saffuriyya whom we, his Palestinian contemporaries, all know and identify with as our next-door neighbor expelled from his home for no guilt of his own, and who the world at large can appreciate for his lack of frills and pretentions: a struggling refugee with a large heart and a measure of guile and universality.
All of that and more I learned from Hoffman’s book, though I have known Taha from as long ago as my teenage years. In the mid-1950s, the years I attended high school, Taha was a permanent fixture of the Nazareth landscape as one walked up from Sahit El-Karajat –Square of the Garages- to the Church of the Annunciation and the adjacent White Mosque or to the ancient souk. Later when I returned to Nazareth as Deputy District Physician for the Galilee I would always notice and greet him on my way to chat with a friend, no other than his brother Faisal across the way. Instead of being out hawking his souvenirs to the tourists, he sat in the shade of the corrugated-iron canopy in front of his small store or just inside it behind the glass vetrina. His impressive Abe Lincoln-minus-the-beard facial features and his total absorption in the books he constantly pored over added to the impression that one was looking at a part of the shop’s display for the benefit of the tourists. Until one asked about the price of an item and Taha’s thick lips parted with a broad smile and his deep raspy voice issued from his throat like a doomsday warning from a prophet let loose in the hills of Palestine of old.
My own close relationship then was with his younger brother, Faisal Essaffuri, the name we, his friends, called him, combining his proper first name meaning ‘sword of justice’ and a reference to Saffuryya, the formerly prosperous town north-west of Nazareth from which his family was violently driven out during the Nakba, in place of a family name. (The irony of this combination in light of the powerlessness of my friend and his fellow uprooted Saffuriyyans to remedy by force the injustice that befell them never dawned on me before.) Faisal always looked rather pensive, quoted often from the old masters of romantic Arabic poetry, and convoluted whatever topic any of us brought up into an issue of existential philosophical significance revolving around his Saffuriyya childhood. Faisal had dropped out of school because of the family’s limited means and opened another souvenir shop right across from his older brother, Taha.
I allow myself the luxury of this piece of reminiscence to make a point: There is little in it that is not covered in full by Adina Hoffman’s account with the added advantage of a selection of dated photographs. The Nazareth scene around Taha is further fleshed out with a full accoutrement of family, friends, literary contemporaries, those who frequented his literary salon of a souvenir shop and others who did not, and the social and political milieu of Nazareth, and that further afield encompassing people and events all the way to his refugee childhood fiancé, Amira of Saffuriyya and Ein el-Hiloui refugee camp. Yet Hoffman never loses sight of her focus on her protagonist, Taha, obsessively arranging all else around him in concentric and ever-widening circles of love and understanding that shine through the pages of her book.
And yet it is all documented through orally recounted history buttressed by ample archival references starting with Taha’s childhood in Saffuriyya, through his community’s forced expulsion to Lebanon, his families adventuresome return to Galilee, first to Reineh at the edge of their former fields and within sight of their destroyed village and then to Nazareth, his lifelong entrepreneurial spirit and acceptance of responsibility as the breadwinner of his family as the first surviving son and considering his father’s physical disability, his lifelong love of literature and striving to learn through self instruction bordering on self flagellation, his marriage to another loving Saffuriyya refugee, building a home and raising a family and suffering the death of a teenage grandchild, all the way to crystallizing a private and unique poetic style and being discovered, translated and celebrated at the far end of his rainbow of a life.
I feel particularly enriched by the author’s forays into the literary lives of not only Taha Muhammad Ali but also his fellow Palestinian contemporary poets. Those were also my contemporaries, give or take a decade or two, and I knew several among them on a first-name basis. In a manner of speaking, this book gave me, an outsider to the field of literature, a welcome reintroduction to those friends as literary luminaries, from Michel Haddad, a close friend of my late teacher and writer brother, to Samih el-Qasim, a fellow member of the Boy Scout troop that received Danny Kaye in Nazareth, to Nazareth’s forceful mayor and splendid poet, Tawfiq Zayyad. Of course, I had read some of their works with varying degrees of comprehension, appreciation and enthusiasm. But I never really knew any of them closely as literary figures. Now I feel I know all of them better, thanks to Adina Hoffman.
For example, I could never imagine anyone who didn't live in Nazareth in the 1950s being able to grasp the intricacies of the personality and mental anguish of such a character as Michel Haddad till I read Hoffman’s account of his literary dabbling (for he dabbled in many things as she mentions and more people probably remember him for his radio program for amateur singers than for his poetry.) I find it simply astounding that a person who didn't see or hear him daily could grasp his character so precisely.
Taha, as expected, is covered even more thoroughly and sensitively. What is more he emerges not only as a Palestinian poet but also as ‘another Palestinian’ from an era and a place that the author manages to un-camouflage for the uninformed, and, more importantly, for the misinformed reader. And for that we all, Palestinians, Israelis, Palestinian Israelis, and all uninvolved others, owe her a tremendous debt.
Hoffman’s recounting and acceptance of Taha’s remembered version of events and her insistence on aligning such accounts with recorded documents is far from an easy task given the highly oral Palestinian narrative and the most incessant documentarian yet no less skewed Israeli parallel narrative. Taha’s account of the events of Saffuriyya’s Nakba, for example, supported by other Saffuriyyan who lived through the horrific events brings her up against the contrary version accepted in the Israeli narrative. The contradiction is finally, and for the first time ever, resolved in favor of Taha’s truth by Hoffman delving in the Israeli military archives and discovering the previously unknown records of the air raid that actually did take place despite the denial of no less a trusted source than Dov Yarimya, the Hagana commander who entered the abandoned village and who has since converted to pacifism and renounced Zionism altogether. He himself had never known of the air attack.
Hoffman’s tome is written as a contribution to the study of Palestinian poetry and addresses the life of the poet as it shapes his art. Her account is rich with bits and pieces of Taha’s poems as illustrations, though at the end one is left with the feeling that the account of the poet’s life is no more than an explanatory note about the connived ‘simplicity’, directness, authenticity , splendor and infectious magic of his village-based universal poetry. That much becomes clear as she signs off with his last poem entitled ‘Revenge’ (translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin) in which he imagines rising above taking revenge in a dual with his enemy,
the man who killed my father,
and razed our home,
a narrow country
because Taha discovers that his enemy is another human being with family and friends. But even if this vile enemy were
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…
he would choose as his revenge only
to ignore him as I passed him by
on the street—as I
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.
That done Adina and Taha go on a car ride to the fertile fields of Saffuriyya to buy fruits and vegetables for a feast celebrating the publication of his translated poems in the volume “So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005.”