Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
During the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival, while walking along the dirt path to the Braw Pond Tent on one errand or another, I was stopped in my tracks by a voice that seemed to come from some timeless place. The rhythm was mesmerizing, the deep, almost guttural tone resonated with such force I assumed I was hearing more than one person, perhaps a group of chanters. The audience in the White Barn Tent was silent, motionless. From the photographs I’d seen of that beautiful, rugged face I knew the man on that small stage was Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, reciting one of his own poems in his native language. As has happened so many times over the years at the Dodge Festival, I had the feeling I was taking part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Almost a decade later, I’m certain of it.
Another such occasion happened during Taha’s reading of “Revenge” in 2006. Luckily, that moment was recorded on film.
We learned recently that Taha died on October 1 in Nazareth, where he’d run a souvenir shop for many years. To be in his company for even a short time was to know you were in the presence of a unique talent. He was a man who had found his own way to make art despite great suffering and huge challenges, and who found a path toward compassion and even joy through that art. He will be missed by many for a long time to come.
Thanks to Peter Cole, Taha’s longtime friend and translator, for sending us the poem below from the latest collection of Taha’s poems translated into English: So What: New & Selected Poems. It seems only fitting to give Taha the last word:
Tea and Sleep
If, over this world, there’s a ruler
who holds in his hand bestowal and seizure,
at whose command seeds are sown,
as with his will the harvest ripens,
I turn in prayer, asking him
to decree for the hour of my demise,
when my days draw to an end,
that I’ll be sitting and taking a sip
of weak tea with a little sugar
from my favorite glass
in the gentlest shade of the late afternoon
during the summer.
And if not tea and afternoon,
then let it be the hour
of my sweet sleep just after dawn.
And may my compensation be—
if in fact I see compensation—
I who during my time in this world
didn’t split open an ant’s belly,
and never deprived an orphan of money,
didn’t cheat on measures of oil
or violate a swallow’s veil;
who always lit a lamp
at the shrine of our lord, Shihab a-Din,
on Friday evenings,
and never sought to beat my friends
or neighbors at games,
or even those I simply knew;
I who stole neither wheat nor grain
and did not pilfer tools
that now, for me, it be ordained
that once a month,
or every other,
I be allowed to see
the one my vision has been denied—
since that day I parted
from her when we were young.
But as for the pleasures of the world to come,
all I’ll ask
of them will be—
the bliss of sleep, and tea.