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Home > Life & Culture > Literature
So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971 - 2005, by Taha Muhammad Ali
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, IMEU, Nov 17, 2006

Poet Taha Muhammad Ali signing books after a reading in Seattle.
Seated in an oversized chair on stage at a recent poetry reading in Seattle, Taha Muhammad Ali's appearance is that of a slight and elderly man. He shares the stage with his translator Peter Cole. Cole reads in English and Ali mouths the Arabic words to his poems, alternately tapping his foot or softly waving his hand to beat of the music that his poems create. When he takes the microphone and begins to read, he seems larger than life, a host warmly welcoming his guests and offering them his poems.

"After we die,
and the weary hear
has lowered its final eyelid
on all the we've done,
and on all that we've longed for,
on all the we've dreamt of,
all we've desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first thing
to putrefy
within us."
-- from Twigs

Ali is a self-educated poet. He earns his living selling souvenirs in his shop in Nazareth. In his youth, he spent nights studying classical Arabic poetry, as well as the works of American and European poets.

He was born in the Palestinian village of Saffuriya, in rural Galilee. Like 417 other Palestinian villages, Saffuriya was attacked and destroyed by the Israeli army in the war of 1948, and Ali, aged 17, and his family became refugees. The Ali family returned from exile in Lebanon a year later, and resettled in Nazareth.

The cover of Taha Muhammad Ali "So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971 - 2005."
It is this formative experience, the traumatic loss of home, homeland, and security that informs all of Ali's moving and beguilingly simple verse. Ali's poetry is rich in imagery inspired by Palestinian village life, and its language is direct and accessible. Each of his poems is a rich amalgam of sorrow, desolation, and hope, and even the most personal reflection on age or love are lined with allusions to the communal tragedy of Palestinian exile.

Saffuriya, the world that is lost, serves as the unnamed source of images, and experiences for Ali's poems. His translator, Gabriel Levin, notes: "Saffuriya may have been razed to the ground, but its mores, language, and landscape remain paradigms of durable hope in the poet's imagination."

Far from being a collection of poems exclusively about conflict, the poems in "So What" cover a full range of themes including love, friendship, aging, and memory. The lyrical quality of even the most sorrowful observations and the richness of the language - combining a sparse classical Arabic with the occasional colloquial phrase - are complemented by a truly exquisite translation. The translators have sacrificed none of the cadence or charm of Ali's voice, and they have rendered both the vivid images and the spirit of the poems as authentically and artfully as ever.

Taha Muhammad Ali's poetry opens a window onto the Palestinian experience, allowing us to see the lives of people just like ourselves, navigating through ongoing suffering with dignity and perseverance. What emerges is a poetry that translator Peter Cole describes as "radically human." Poetry lovers everywhere will be enriched by this collection.

So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971 - 2005 is available online at

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