Monday, December 5, 2011

Monday Muse Profile of Taha Muhammad Ali

Write anything. But everyday.
The art is to take from life something real,
then to build it anew with your imagination.
~ Taha Muhammad Ali

Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali, born in a village in Galilee in 1931 and a resident of Nazareth from age 17 until his death at age 80 on October 2, 2011, was the author of several poetry collections, including two published in English, Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story* (Ibis Editions, 2000; available through resellers) and So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005 (Copper Canyon Press, 2006); the latter includes the Arabic en face. Muhammad Ali ran a souvenir shop, studied classical Arabic poetry, and quoted Shakespeare. His formal education ended at grade 4 but that did not stop him from pursuing his decision to become a writer (in addition to poetry, he wrote short stories and novels).

I found online a number of poems by this remarkable poet, including his lovely, widely quoted "Where":


Poetry hides
behind the night of words
behind the clouds of hearing,
across the dark of sight,
and beyond the dusk of music
that's hidden and revealed.
But where is it concealed?
And how could I
possibly know
when I am
barely able
by the light of day,
to find my pencil?
~ from So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005

I note below a number of other poems accessible online. Many are, at least in their translations, spare but vivid, direct and matter-of-fact, sometimes humorous, frequently political (understandably so, given the context of his life), imbued with sadness and a sense of loss but also understanding.

[. . .] That night we had
neither night nor light,
and no moon rose.
That night we lost our star,
our lamp misled us; [. . .]
~ from "There Was No Farewell" in So What

In the following 2007 video from which the quotes above are taken, Art Beat correspondent Jeffrey Brown of PBS NewsHour talked with Taha Muhammad Ali, giving us a glimpse of the man behind the wise words I've quoted:

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

In 2006, Muhammad Ali appeared at the 11th Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. In this video from the festival, the poet and his Arabic translator Peter Cole of Ibis Editions read "Revenge":

The text of "Revenge", as translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin, is here. The poem was first published in Two Lines XIV, World Writing in Translation by the Center for the Art of Translation, with an introduction to the poem by Cole.

Since learning about Taha Muhammad Ali's poetry, I have purchased and read his collection So What and the Adina Hoffman biography I note below. I highly recommend both.

* An excerpt is found here.

Announcement of Muhammad Ali's Death by Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, Reprinted at Send Down the Basket!

Taha Muhammad Ali Profile at Poetry International Web

Taha Muhammad Ali Profile at Poetry Foundation

"There Was No Farewell", Poem by Muhammad Ali, Translated by Peter Cole (from So What), at NavaEtShalom, October 2, 2011

2 Poems, "Warning" and "Thrombosis in the Veins of Petroleum", by Muhammad Ali (translations by Gabriel Levin) at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center Online

3 Poems by Muhammad Ali at Poetry Foundation: "Abd ed-Hadi Fights a Superpower", "Exodus", and "Meeting at an Airport" Note: A video of the poet and translator Peter Cole reading this poem, one after the other, can be found here.

"Taha Muhammad Ali and a Kind of Revenge", Poets Online Blog, March 5, 2011

Taha Muhammad Ali at Narrative Magazine (Included are three of Muhammad Ali's poems, including the oft-quoted "Twigs".)

"Adina Hoffman on Taha Muhammad Ali", The New Yorker, April 9, 2009 (This brief includes a link to this reading, in Arabic by Muhammad Ali and in English by Peter Cole.) Note: Adina Hoffman wrote a biography of the poet, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century (Yale University Press, 2009), which won the 2010 Wingate Prize. An excerpt is here. Hoffman's interview with Jeffrey Brown on the PBS NewsHour is here. Her interview with Deborah Baker at BOMB Magazine, November 2010, is here. Another of her interviews, this one with The Jewish Chronicle, appears here.

Adina Hoffman, Taha Muhammad Ali Biographer

Victoria Chang, "A  Measure of Splendor: Taha Muhammad Ali's So What", Boston Review, March/April 2007

Kim Jensen, Review of Never Mind, Rain Taxi, Summer 2003

Dodge Poetry Festival


Louise Gallagher said...

Thank you Maureen for introducing me to this remarkable man and his work.

Joyce Wycoff said...

This is such an incredible gift ... especially his words:

It has taken me all of 60 years to understand
that water is the finest drink
and bread the most delicious food
and art is worthless
unless it plants a measure of splendor in people's hearts.

-- Taha Muhammad Ali

Anonymous said...

A wonderful tribute to an incredible man and gifted poet, thank you for all those amazing links as well.

I bought Adina Hoffman's book for my husband for Christmas last year and he loved it and recommended it to many. He will enjoying reading your post and reaquainting himself with his work.

Anonymous said...


Peggy said...

Maureen, I'm so grateful for the new poets I "meet" through your Monday Muse, and always astounded by the amount of work you put into introducing these poets to us. Of course, like many American readers, the Palestinian poet I've known best is Darwish--who also expressed the sense of sadness and loss that you note in at least some of Ali's poetry.

Maureen said...

Peggy, I am a huge fan of Darwish's work. Have read of lot of it. His books I keep on my reading table.

Taha Muhammad knew Darwish, and there is some interesting info about him and other contemporaries in Adina Hoffman's wonderful book.