Palestinian Poet and Translator Pack the House
October 5, 2006 9:54 PM
It was standing room only at SF State’s Poetry Center Thursday afternoon when 75-year-old Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali read from his new book, “So What?” with translator and fellow poet Peter Cole.
“I used to sell camels to the tourists, and at night study Arabic,” Ali said, of his double life as a writer and merchant of the small carved wooden animals.
Self-taught in short-story writing, and later poetry, Ali said he was once told to “leave the poetry to the poets,” but today is part of a new movement of free verse poets who stray from the “formal verse that characterizes most Arabic” poetry, Cole said.
Many of Ali’s poems center on his childhood when, according to the Poetry Center’s short biography of the poet, he was forced to leave his small village in Saffuriyya and flee to Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Returning a year later to a place his village had once been, Cole said many of Ali’s poems are a “memory of his village, or echo of destruction,” at the same time, Cole said, they are “highly musical” and “worked out with great artistry.”
Taking turns reading the poems, first in Arabic by Ali and then in English by the American-born Cole, the two played off one another like a superhero and sidekick.
“He was so expressive, you could see it in his eyes,” said creative writing major Rebecca Shaffer, 22, of Ali’s reading. “I felt the translations really captured his poems, I didn’t expect the translations to be so heartfelt.”
Ali was boisterous while he recited his poems, which were both dark and humorous. With equally strong hand gestures he drew out the scenes he described and pointed to the audience with a stiff outstretched finger while he spoke Arabic in the fast, thick voice he may use to convince a friend.
Ali, who Cole said claims to be 750 years old, was silently expressive as Cole read Ali’s poems in English. Ali would nod his head and frown, squeezing the deep grid of wrinkles on his forehead and closing his striking blue eyes, which sometimes appeared to well up.
“I think people were really impressed by his presence, in the sense that he kind of has that authority of a witness,” said poetry center director and workshop teacher Steve Dickison, explaining further that Ali’s work is that of a man who “has had history happen to him.”
"To write, gently first, you must suffer greatly," said Ali.
There were poems with recurring characters, dark poems of long-lost boyhood friends, poems that were indirectly political, and those that were outright funny.
“I think that’s the most we’ve ever had in there,” Dickison said, adding that he counted nearly a hundred people in attendance of the reading, which lasted nearly two hours, with not a yawn to be seen.
Cole has lived in Jerusalem on and off since the 80s. He met Ali at a Jerusalem poetry festival eight years ago, has since helped translate Ali’s work into English. He is accompanying Ali on his two-week United States reading tour. This new book will be Ali's first book published in the United States.
Cole said there’s a difference between the translation he does for Ali on paper, and the kind he does at a reading.
On paper, capturing Ali’s equivalent tone as accurately as possible is the priority, but at a reading, “I don’t consciously try to mirror,” Cole said. Instead, he reads Ali’s poems as he “feels them” in English.
"It seems like they have a real relationship with each other," Shaffer said of what she saw between poet and translator, "He (Cole) really understands the personal aspect of his (Ali’s) poetry."
Ali’s talent for short stories was also evident between poems when he told many anecdotes that were often met with outbursts of laughter from the audience.
“He’s a real character,” Cole said, going on to explain how he and Ali have become close, through travel and the trust that comes from sharing someone’s work and words.
“He trusts me, and I trust him,” Cole said.
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