Wednesday, 24 March 2010

From the Conflict Zone

Poems of death and re-birth, love and loss, departure and renewal, by the Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali, translated by the Israeli-American Peter Cole, their collaboration shedding a rare ray of light by their example.

The photo depicts a 3rd century Roman mosaic in Saffuriya/Tzippori the town in Galilee where the poet was born and forced to flee in 1948. The hint of a smile and the quality of the artistry has led her to be dubbed the Mona Lisa of Galilee.


The street is empty
as a monk’s memory,
and faces explode in the flames
like acorns–
and the dead crowd the horizon
and doorways.
No vein can bleed
more than it already has,
no scream will rise
higher than it’s already risen.
We will not leave!

Everyone outside is waiting
for the trucks and the cars
loaded with honey and hostages.
We will not leave!
The shields of light are breaking apart
before the rout and the siege;
outside, everyone wants us to leave.
But we will not leave!

Ivory white brides
behind their veils
slowly walk in captivity’s glare, waiting,
and everyone outside wants us to leave,
but we will not leave!

The big guns pound the jujube groves,
destroying the dreams of the violets,
extinguishing bread, killing the salt,
unleashing thirst
and parching lips and souls.
And everyone outside is saying:
“What are we waiting for?
Warmth we’re denied,
the air itself has been seized!
Why aren’t we leaving?”
Masks fill the pulpits and brothels,
the places of ablution.
Masks cross-eyed with utter amazement;
they do not believe what is now so clear,
and fall, astonished,
writhing like worms, or tongues.
We will not leave!

Are we in the inside only to leave?
Leaving is just for the masks,
for pulpits and conventions.
Leaving is just
for the siege-that-comes-from-within,
the siege that comes from the Bedouin’s loins,
the siege of the brethren
tarnished by the taste of the blade
and the stink of crows.
We will not leave!

Outside they’re blocking the exits
and offering their blessings to the impostor,
praying, petitioning
Almighty God for our deaths.


Our traces have all been erased,
our impressions swept away -
and all the remains
have been effaced...
there isn't a single sign
left to guide us
or show us a thing.
The age has grown old,
the days long,
and I, if not for the lock of your hair,
auburn as the nectar of carob,
and soft as the scent of silk
that was here before,
dozing like Arabian jasmine,
shimmering like the gleam of dawn,
pulsing like a star -
I, if not for that lock of camphor,
would feel not a thing
linking me
to this land.

This land is a traitor
and can't be trusted.
This land doesn't remember love.
This land is a whore
holding out a hand to the years,
as it manages a ballroom
on the harbor pier -
it laughs in every language
and bit by bit, with its hip,
feeds all who come to it.

This land denies,
cheats, and betrays us;
its dust can't bear us
and grumbles about us -
resents and detests us.
Its newcomers,
sailors, and usurpers,
uproot the backyard gardens,
burying the trees.

They keep us from looking too long
at the anemone blossom and cyclamen,
and won't allow us to touch the herbs,
the wild artichoke and chicory.

Our land makes love to the sailors
and strips naked before the newcomers;
it rests its head along the usurper's thigh,
is disgraced and defiled in its sundry accents;
there seems to be nothing that would bind it to us,
and I - if not for the lock of your hair,
auburn as the nectar of carob,
and soft as the scent of silk,
if not for the camphor,
if not for the musk and the sweet basil,
if not for the ambergris -
I would not know it,
and would not love it,
and would not go near it...

Your braid
is the only thing
linking me, like a noose, to this whore.


Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life's brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.

My love for you
is what's magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
most likely,
are ordinary people.

My poem
goes beyond poetry
because you
beyond the realm of women.

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.

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

Meeting at An Airport

You asked me once,
on our way back
from the midmorning
trip to the spring:
"What do you hate,
and who do you love?"

And I answered,
from behind the eyelashes
of my surprise,
my blood rushing
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
"I hate departure...
I love the spring
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning."
And you laughed...
and the almond tree blossomed
and the thicket grew loud with nightingales.

...A question
now four decades old:
I salute that question’s answer;
and an answer,
as old as your departure;
I salute that answer’s question...

...And today,
it’s preposterous,
here we are at a friendly airport
by the slimmest of chances,
and we meet.
Ah, Lord!
we meet.
And here you are
it’s absolutely preposterous—
I recognized you
but you didn’t recognize me.
"Is it you?!"
But you wouldn’t believe it.
And suddenly
you burst out and asked:
"If you’re really you,
What do you hate
and who do you love?!"

And I answered—
my blood
fleeing the hall,
rushing in me
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
"I hate departure,
and I love the spring,
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning."

And you wept,
and flowers bowed their heads,
and doves in the silk of their sorrow stumbled.


  1. Truly great, intruiging poems... All perfectly worded I love this "Meeting At An Airport" best of all.
    "I hate departure,
    and I love the spring,
    and the path to the spring,
    and I worship the middle
    hours of morning."

  2. Indeed! It's powerful stuff. And I left the most upbeat, though poignant, poem to last.

  3. The translator Peter Cole has also done some translations from medieval Hebrew poetry written in Muslim and Christian Spain, like the following verses by Samuel HaNagid (993-1056) who was vizier of Granada.

    I ordered a court prepared for a party
    and said: "Let's spend the day sweetly,
    we'll drink in honour of the parting-to-come;
    grief awaits each in his halting;
    friendship and energy are sisters,
    death and departure—twins."
    So they came to the cushions threaded with scarlet
    and splendid embroidery
    and flasks and bowls full of nuts.


    Soar, don't settle for earth
    and sky—soar to Orion;
    and be strong, but not like an ox or mule
    that's driven—strong like a lion.

    And the following by the 14th century Renaissance man al-Ahdab, who was more of a mathematician than a poet. He was born in Spain and emigrated to Sicily, but there is very little reference to him online, only this webpage of someone who is studying him: .

    The elderly asked if the doctors were able
    to straighten their backs, which were all out of line.
    The doctors replied: "The years have bent them,
    and who could ever try to fix Time?"


    The yoke of hunger and plunder
    in war is hard on the will;
    and heart's sorrow is grievous and bitter;
    but being poor is harder still.

    And finally by Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141)

    Though destiny brought us into the world in division,
    love in her household raised us together as twins,
    and we grew up by beds of the sweetest spices,
    at the breast of the vine's daughter drinking our fill.
    I think of you here on hills that now divide us—
    beside you once, there were mountains of herbs—
    and with that memory, my eyelids start to moisten,
    and my eyes redden, flushed with the blood of love.

    Why should I press my clouds to drop their rain
    on seedless land, whose fields have not been plowed?
    My soul's need of Fortune in fact is slight,
    like spirit's need for bodies God designed:
    so long as they contain it, it fills them with life—
    but when they weary, like husks they're left behind.

  4. This thread was getting a bit depressing, so I decided to post something more spiritual, uplifting and inspiring... also from medieval Spain, the Christian mystic Ramon Llull and some of his contemplations on the Beloved.

  5. Wow, awesome! That was quite an effort, dude! So nice of you to have retrieved all these for a good read. Thanks a whole bunch!

    And have a great day out there.

  6. You're welcome! They were all online, but scattered about the place. Good day to you too, and a good weekend!