Saturday, August 23, 2008

Taha Muhammad Ali

Voices of Conflict

Posted: February 21, 2007
Shopkeeper and Poet

We leave Jerusalem early in the morning, heading north through the dry hills and Biblical landscape of the Jordan River Valley. After about an hour, the world becomes green, then green and yellow – the wildflowers are coming out in the Galilee. About two-and-half hours after we start, we climb the twisting road up the hill into Nazareth. We’re here to talk with Taha Muhammad Ali, a self-described "half shopkeeper, half poet." I’ve been aware of the "poet" Muhammad Ali for about a year, through a translation of his work titled, “So What.” First, we meet the "shopkeeper."
For several decades, Muhammad Ali has owned a souvenir shop (the sign outside reads “The Prominent Souvenir Center of Nazareth”) just steps down the hill from the Basilica of the Annunciation, selling religious items, trinkets, plates and more to pilgrims from around the world. Apparently, business has been good, allowing him to buy a house and some other local property.
Taha (as he tells us to call him) is 76 and has one of the most remarkable faces I have ever seen – a large nose, very deep eyes and even deeper lines in his forehead. He has an oversized, imposing appearance, but is a very gentle man. And a born storyteller. Within five minutes of meeting, after I ask him about running the store, he tells me: “I’ve been successful in everything – except marriage.” His eyes are laughing – this is obviously a joke. “Every day my wife and I wake up and start arguing. We wake up very early and argue for several hours. I say, ‘I want a divorce.’ I go to the shop for four hours to escape. I go home for lunch. And my wife has prepared the most wonderful meal. I stay married. We do the same thing the next day.” The man is clearly in love, after 47 years of marriage. Later, when I have a chance to ask his wife, Yusra, what it’s like being married to a poet, she says, "Very good. But a little tiring."
Muhammad Ali was born in the village of Saffuriyya, a short drive from here. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he and his family fled to Lebanon amid bombing from the air and artillery. When they returned about a year later, he says, the village had been destroyed. Many villagers, including Muhammad Ali’s family, moved to Nazareth, where he has lived ever since.
He is a self-taught man, having made it only to the fourth grade. He tells me he made himself a reader first, because he wanted to write. As a boy he loved Steinbeck, and in our interview he frequently refers to “Cannery Row,” and later came to Shakespeare and much else. Even today, at age 76, he wakes at 4 in the morning and reads for several hours before going to his shop. (He calls his reading glasses "my dreaming glasses.") He wrote short stories first and didn’t really begin writing poetry until he was middle-aged. "When did you know you were a poet?" I ask. "When my first poem was published," he says. Since then, he’s published many poems – a very personal and even private voice, but one that finds a way to speak to a very public conflict.

Here is Taha Muhammad Ali as he appeared at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. He reads his poem "Revenge" in Arabic, and then Peter Cole reads it in English.

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