March 5, 2011

Taha Muhammad Ali and a Kind of Revenge

The past month has been full of revolution and change in the world. I was reading some poetry online and came upon a talk given by Mark Doty titled "Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now" (read or listen to it online).

In one section of his talk he says:

"But I was also thinking about the tide of voices lapping at this country's shores in our moment. The sounds of all the rest of the world speaking. To get a sense of how little we listen to that tide, all it takes is a quick look at the statistics on the publication of translated books, which make up the tiniest fraction of what's published in the states. Lots of American books find their way into other languages, but few indeed come the other way. The message is plainly that while the world beyond our boundaries speaks, giving us the opportunity to see who's out there and how they see things and how they feel, we have not been paying attention. That's the painful, inescapable lesson of 9/11. When suddenly so many Americans found themselves asking, "Why?" "Where'd that hatred of American power come from?" There's no answering this question if we are not listening.

I can't think of a better place to turn, thinking about this need, than to the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali."

Taha Muhammad Ali
at the Dodge Poetry Festival
2006 (photos Lynn Saville)
I was at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2006 when Taha Muhammad Ali and Peter Cole gave a reading of Taha’s then unpublished poem "Revenge". I remember that it shook the audience first in fear and then in another direction.

In 1948, Taha fled from Galilee to Lebanon with his family when their village came under heavy bombardment during the Arab-Israeli war. A year later, still a teenager, he slipped back across the border and settled in Nazareth where he still lives, now as an Israeli citizen.

“Revenge” has all the elements of revenge, and revenge hasn't changed much from ancient times. A father has been killed, a village destroyed. And the speaker in the poem has thought about his revenge. He has even played out outcomes.

But the bomb made of revenge that he is building in his mind gets dismantled before it can go off as he plays out relationships (mother and father, sisters and a brother, neighbors and friends) which transform his enemy.

He uses memories of places and moments (a prison, a hospital room, a father’s hand over the heart when his son is late) and in the end he imagines finding his enemy all alone and, rather than taking his revenge, he leaves him, knowing that the pain of aloneness is punishment enough.

For this month's writing prompt, we are writing about revenge. Of course, this ancient and basic human act takes many forms. It can be small and personal or very large and frighteningly impersonal.

I'm in a frame of mind where (as in the poem) where we can use our imagination to change wrong action into right action and turn over stones instead of throwing them.

Taha Muhammad Ali says that in his poetry “there is no Palestine, no Israel. But, in my poetry, suffering, sadness, longing, fear, and this is, together, make the results: Palestine and Israel. The art is to take from life something real, then to build it anew with your imagination.”

Your own poem should take on an example of revenge and carry it out in whatever direction suits the poem.

I recommend that you listen to the reading of the poem in the video below. Translator Peter Cole reads the poem in English after Taha reads it in Arabic.

One last thought from Mark Doty's talk - from after he read the poem to his audience -
It is revenge, of course, that brought the great corporate monuments of New York City down into the dust. And revenge that fueled the seemingly endless, capricious war-making that has followed. There is no end to revenge in sight but here on the page, within one life, a life which presents some excellent reasons the speaker might want revenge, might be moved to strike back. The chain of reprisal is ended for the duration of the poem and in whatever ways the text goes on reverberating in the minds of its readers and listeners.

Read the printed text of "Revenge" in Arabic and in in English.

The poem was was initially published by TWO LINES: World Writing in Translation, along with a short introduction to the poet and the poem by Peter Cole.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing poem - so moving! Thanks for posting it and the YouTube reading.



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