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Taha Muhammad Ali was born in 1931 in a village in Galilee [then Saffuriya in Mandatory Palestine, located on the site of what had once been the ancient town of Sepphoris, now Tsippori in northern Israel.] At seventeen he fled to Lebanon with his family after the village came under heavy bombardment during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. A year later he slipped back across the border with his family and settled in Nazareth, where he has lived ever since.
In the fifties and sixties, he sold souvenirs during the day and studied poetry (everything from classical Arabic to contemporary American free-verse) at night. Owner of a small souvenir/antiques shop he operated with his sons, he wrote vividly of his childhood in Saffuriya and of the political upheavals he has survived. The Saffuriya of his youth served as the nexus of his poetry and fiction, which are grounded in everyday experience and driven by a storyteller’s vivid imagination. He was self-taught and began his poetry career late. Taha Muhammad Ali wrote in a forceful and direct style, with disarming humor and an unflinching, at times painfully honest approach; his poetry’s apparent simplicity and homespun truths conceal the subtle grafting of classical Arabic onto colloquial forms of expression. In Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Europe and in America, audiences have been powerfully moved by Taha Muhammad Ali’s poems of political complexity and humanity. He published several collections of poetry and also wrote short stories. His books of poetry in Arabic include Fourth Qasida, Fooling the Killers and Fire in the Convent Garden. Never Mind, his first collection in English, was published in 2000 by Ibis Editions, Jerusalem. Taha Muhammad Ali died in Nazareth, Israel, on October 2, 2011.
As all readers who encountered his work know, Tha's imagination was expansive yet attentive, and several years back he had, as it happens, already conjured a poem of his final hours as he'd liked them to have been. Taha will be sorely missed. (Copper Canyon Reader, Spring 2012).
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.
At times ... I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
into a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I'd rest at last
and if I were ready -
I would take my revenge!
But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who'd put
his right hand over
the heart's place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they'd set -
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.
Likewise ... I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn't bear his absence
and who his presents thrilled.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school...
asking about him
and sending him regards.
But if he turned
out to be on his own -
cut off like a branch from a tree -
without mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I'd add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness -
nor the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I'd be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street - as I
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.
Taha Muhammad Ali Reads Revenge
Taha Muhammad Ali and Peter Cole read the poem "Revenge" at the 11th Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, 2006.