Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): If you need to pry yourself away from the depressing and debilitating habit of obsessively following news and, worse, social media, but can’t quite bring yourself to escape entirely, I recommend poetry—specifically, the work of the late Palestinian citizen of Israel Taha Muhammad Ali. And along with Ali’s searing, deceptively straightforward poems, you might also read Adina Hoffman’s gorgeously layered biography of the poet, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.
Ali was born in 1931 in Saffuriyya, in an area that had long been the Palestinian cultural center in the Galilee. When his village was razed during the Nakba, he fled with his family. He later wrote, in a voice speaking to a departing lover (or perhaps to the land): “We did not weep / when we were leaving — for we had neither / time nor tears, / and there was no farewell. / We did not know / at the moment of parting / that it was a parting, / so where would our weeping / have come from?” The family eventually settled in Nazareth, where Ali became proprietor of a souvenir shop—“a Muslim who sells Christian trinkets to Jews,” according to Hoffman—as well as a lover of reading. He taught himself to be a writer, and published his first book of poems at the age of 52.
Hoffman—an American-born Jew who has lived in Jerusalem, where she co-founded the (now shuttered) press that first published Ali in translation—set out to write the poet’s biography with a profound question. “I wanted to know how it was that an elderly Palestinian Muslim with four years of formal education, few teeth and a literary obsession . . . could ‘speak,’ as the idiom has it, so powerfully to my experience and to that of so many.” Hoffman’s book answers this question by telling Ali’s personal story with deep compassion and extensive context, mining the centuries-long history of Saffuriyya, the traditions and modern evolution of Palestinian poetry, and the squeezed experience of Palestinians in Israel after 1948.
Hoffman writes with unflinching honesty about her own position with respect to the material she is covering. She began working on the book during the Second Intifada, mourning the loss of a friend in a suicide bus bombing and simultaneously aghast that many she knew “had converted their own fear of such a violent demise into the most unapologetic racism.” And throughout these reflections, Ali remains at the center of the story as a model for turning degradation and anger into an art, and expressing, in Hoffman’s words, “a generosity of feeling that seems almost to defy history.”
Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): At a moment when events in Israel/Palestine are outpacing even the keenest observer, I have found myself thinking about the slowest Palestinian film I’ve ever seen: Kamal Aljafari’s Recollection (2015). The movie repurposes footage of the port city of Jaffa taken from Israeli and American cinema from the ’60s to the ’90s to produce a haunting collage of Palestinian life from the decades after the Nakba. Aljafari draws from source material ranging from the popular Israeli musical Kazablan (1976) to the American blockbuster The Delta Force (1986), digitally disappearing professional actors from the scenes and leaving behind only the unwitting extras—Jaffa’s Palestinian community—thus turning them and the remains of their disappearing city into the protagonists. By excavating deeply personal images from an Israeli and American cinematic oeuvre (including a picture of the home that once belonged to his grandmother, who was expelled from Jaffa, and a repeated, blurry image of his uncle), Aljafari defiantly ruptures the colonial fictions and reasserts instead the Palestinian reality, reclaiming permission to narrate his family’s history.
At 70 minutes long, without plot or character, Recollection quickly becomes excruciating to watch. Aljafari refuses the viewer any stable narrative mooring; even the anecdotes about his family that frame his project are relegated to the end credits. The film’s difficult, disorienting aesthetics force us to consider what it means to pay attention to a project of slow erasure. After all, many of Israel’s violent policies toward Palestinians have long been marked by slowness, which has characterized the infamous “calorie count” to limit food in Gaza, the gradual destruction of infrastructure in the West Bank, and the racialized gentrification in Jaffa that has transformed Aljafari’s spectral city beyond recognition. Given the competition for attention in a globalized world and the algorithmic bias for extremity, the measured strangulation of Palestinians is, frankly, too boring to capture Western attention for long. Only when violence speeds up is the Palestinian cause briefly remembered—and even then, scarcely understood. Recollection takes on the hard work of capturing the violence of the everyday, and Aljafari’s toil trawling through archival footage demands a corresponding labor from viewers as we try to bear witness.
Raphael Magarik (contributing writer): At the recommendation of my friend Stephanie Kraver, a scholar of Israeli and Palestinian poetry, I’ve been reading and rereading Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s bracing poem “The ‘Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man” (translated by Fady Joudah). The poem itself is gently skeptical of my desire to take refuge in poetry, rhetorically asking its addressee: “Will you not memorize a bit of poetry to halt the slaughter?” And yet, Darwish’s poetry is not the kind that, to use W.H. Auden’s despairing phrase, “makes nothing happen.” Its very ventriloquism is scandalous to a white Jewish reader like me, accustomed to think of Native American voices as ethically unavailable for appropriation. Darwish riskily asserts the possibility of translation between experiences of Indigenous dispossession in radically different contexts—even as the poem’s dramatic conceit implies that it is also possible for the settler to hear from the native.
Although steeped in irony and melancholy, the poem’s core structure remains strikingly optimistic—as suggested by its epigraph, a Duwamish Chief’s self-qualification, “Did I say, The Dead? There is no Death / here, there is only a change of worlds.” There are numerous changes of world here—Indigenous people forced to migrate westward from the Mississippi; Native traditions about a next life; Columbus arriving in a “New World,” with the self-given “right to name our ghosts as pepper or Indian”; and then finally the change of worlds from Palestine to the Mississippi and Seattle, from the lovingly evoked natural world of North America to a world of “the dead and settlements, dead and bulldozers.” I can’t help but wonder whether we are supposed to imagine another sense of the phrase, too: the idea that we might be able, somehow, to change the world and put an end to—or at least somewhat mitigate—this ongoing catastrophe.