Author Adina Hoffman's "My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness" is the biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Hoffman discusses her book next Thursday at the University of Washington and next Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
The I Ching says “perseverance furthers” and Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali certainly embodies that hopeful message. Born in 1931, Ali has been a shopkeeper in the city of Nazareth for more than 50 years. He received only four years of formal schooling. His first book was published when he was 52 years old. Until recently, he was virtually unknown in the West, and hardly a household name in Israel where he lives.
Ali comes from a small village called Saffuriyya in Galilee. It is a lost village. In 1948, the Israeli military destroyed his birthplace — his family fled on foot.
Ali has lived through the British occupation, the violent creation of the Israeli state, the Six-Day War, the siege of Beirut, and the hellish time in the late 1980s and early 1990s known as the First Intifada (uprising). A Second Intifada began in 2000.
And yet, in the darkest of days, he continues to live with a joyful sense of purpose.
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In “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: a Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century” (Yale University Press, 464 pp., $27.50), Jewish-American writer Adina Hoffman calls Ali’s “unlikely exuberance” one of the questions that most intrigued her as she began work on chronicling his life.
Hoffman begins her biography with Ali’s childhood — which as a physical place has been obliterated. Reconstructing its history proved to be a tough task. Quoting Hoffman: “Saffuriyya was an almost entirely oral place, and written documentation of the village — of the sort biographers tend to take for granted when constructing timelines and portraits of their subjects — simply does not exist.” Hoffman spends almost a third of her book on the life, death and exodus from this vibrant village, a narrative that can sometimes try the patience of a diligent reader. Much later, when Ali begins to write his poetry, Hoffman’s design makes sense — this place, erased by history, is the wellspring for Ali’s imagery.
“We did not weep /when we were leaving — for we had neither / time nor tears, / and there was no farewell. / We did not know / at the moment of parting / that it was a parting, / so where would our weeping / have come from?” (In 2006, Port Townsend publishing house Copper Canyon Press came out with a bilingual edition of Ali’s work titled “So What: New & Selected Poems 1971-2005,” introducing him to an international audience.)
One of the pleasures of Hoffman’s biography is watching this smart, savvy kid turn adversity into opportunity and profit. With a father who could not work because of a lame leg, Ali, from an early age, became the breadwinner in his family. He seems to always know what people needed to buy.
When the family finally settles in Nazareth, Ali sets up a family business making and selling falafels from a tiny rented shop across the street from a popular movie theater.
Soon he becomes part owner in a small grocery store. Here is where he begins to meet some of the emerging Arab literary artists of the 1950s — figures such as Michel Haddad, Emile Habiby and Rashid Hussein.
At this point in her story, Hoffman expands her biography of one remarkable man to include a community of writers and a wider theme: how major events in Israel’s political history influence and affect a writer’s voice and purpose.
Each writer Hoffman examines reacts differently to questions of their identity. Some, like Hussein, are tortured by it. Perhaps because he was a late bloomer, Ali’s art is not an overt reaction against injustice and oppression but a carefully crafted poetry of humanity.