The life and incendiary times of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, a secular Muslim and autodidact who lives in Israel, runs a souvenir shop in Nazareth and has somehow achieved and maintained an ecumenical, humane philosophy.
Ibis Editions founder and editor Hoffman (Houses of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood, 2000) met Ali in 1995 with her husband Peter Cole, the poet’s principal English translator. Since then she has pursued his story—not an easy task for an American-born Jew living in Jerusalem who initially knew no Arabic. During the past 13 years, she has learned the language, prowled civilian and military archives, walked the ground and interviewed countless individuals, probing their memories of cataclysmic events occurring more than a half-century ago. The result is not just a biography of a remarkable man, but a focused history of a region. Hoffman realizes the vast importance of displacement in Ali’s story, most significantly during the 1948 war following the United Nations partition. That war resulted in the destruction of the poet’s home village, Saffuriyya, and sent the 17-year-old and his family into temporary exile in Lebanon. There they suffered unspeakably with thousands of other refugees; Ali was separated from his betrothed and did not see her until decades later, when both had married others. His family returned to the land now called Israel in 1949; they were not allowed to go back to the ruins of their village and endured other severe restrictions. Possessing little formal schooling, Ali had an insatiable hunger for books; among his first purchases was a multivolume Arabic dictionary. He was in his 50s when he published his first collection of poems. Charting her subject’s slow rise into a literary career, Hoffman pauses often, occasionally at great length, to expatiate upon the political, military and literary scene.
A lovingly researched, well-rendered portrait that sometimes substitutes praise for analysis of the man and his work.