Poetry Friday: Taha Muhammad Ali

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.

To learn more about Taha’s amazing life and personality, read Adina Hoffman’s beautifully written biography My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.

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

would ask—

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.

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6 Responses to Poetry Friday: Taha Muhammad Ali

  1. Janis says:

    Thank you.

  2. Luisa Athanasakos says:

    A profound and amazing poet!!!

  3. Thanks for this, Martin. He was mesmerizing, and a profound voice in the wilderness of our world.

  4. Wendy Liscow says:

    Revenge. I am not very good at remembering poems, but that poem rattles around my brain a lot ever since I first heard it at the festival. Thank you Martin for helping us honor Taha Muhammad Ali.

  5. Thank you for both the video post of Revenge and for Tea and Sleep. I only had the pleasure of hearing his voice once. But the memory and the message linger.

  6. And a post-script as the thought only now occurred to me. As I listen to Revenge… I am reminded of the closing lines of Wm Henry Auden’s poem (September 1, 1939) written on the eve of WWII:

    Defenseless under the night
    Our world in stupor lies;
    Yet, dotted everywhere,
    Ironic points of light
    Flash out wherever the Just
    Exchange their messages:
    May I, composed like them
    Of Eros and of dust,
    Beleaguered by the same
    Negation and despair,
    Show an affirming flame.

    Taha Muhammad Ali was/is one of those affirming flames

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