Boston Sunday Globe Ideas section, November 10, 2002
By Adina Hoffman

med_TahaandShabtaiatMiddlebONE WEDNESDAY morning in late September, a yellow cab pulled up in front of New York’s Penn Station and, clown-car-style, disgorged a peculiarly ragtag crew and their several bulging suitcases. Passersby might have wondered at the identity of this rumpled group, whose members communicated in a confusing blend of Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Then again, the evasion of expectation was an essential part of our reason for traveling together. For a week and a half, my husband Peter Cole and I would accompany two Israeli poets whom Peter translates — the Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali, the Jewish Aharon Shabtai — on a trip up and down the East Coast. At a series of universities, they would read in turn: Taha in Arabic, Shabtai in Hebrew, and (after each) Peter in English.

Besides Peter’s desire to introduce to Americans the poetry of two vital foreign writers, the idea behind the tour was to bring this Arab and this Jew together as a kind of prejudice-capsizing dream team, and so complicate, however slightly, the current conversation about the Middle East. Though none of us deluded ourselves into thinking that our little voyage could change the bloody course of world events, we imagined these joint appearances might offer a small shard of hope — to ourselves as much as to the audiences we encountered on our travels.

By the time we boarded the train for Providence that morning, bound for Taha and Shabtai’s first reading, we had already experienced several adventures, and the four of us collapsed into our seats with giddy exhaustion.

To begin with, Taha – a complete autodidact who has worked for the last 50 years selling trinkets to Christian pilgrims from his souvenir shop in Nazareth – had just made a splash at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo Village, New Jersey. With two years of formal schooling and a single English-language book to his name Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story, published by the small press Peter and I run in Jerusalem where we live), he found himself performing for tremendous crowds and often alongside a whole roster of high-profile poetic personalities, including Grace Paley, Robert Bly, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Billy Collins, and the rant-prone Amiri Baraka.

Baraka’s provocations are all that most Americans have heard of the festival. As it happens, the vast majority of people at Dodge were sane enough to see the New Jersey Poet Laureate’s blasts for the unhinged absurdities they were and to focus instead on what moved them.

Taha Muhammad Ali moved them. The festival audiences seemed entranced by his unselfconscious ability to undermine, with his bittersweet poems, a whole world of mistaken assumptions. Here was a Palestinian Muslim whose own village, Saffuriya, was obliterated by Israel in 1948 (he has lived in cruelly proximate exile — just five minutes away by car — in Nazareth ever since), and who had managed to distill from that devastating experience not slogans, not hatred, but art of the highest order.

Shabtai, for his part, had experienced an American thrill of his own, when we took him to visit the elegant old-world offices of New Directions, the legendary New York publishing house which will bring out J’accuse, a volume of his recent political poems, this spring. Despite the attention he has received in Israel over the years — Shabtai is considered by many to be the most important Hebrew poet of his generation — at the New Directions office he was like a shy little boy at his own birthday party.

Taha and Shabtai had met several times before and liked one another, but they were not close. It might, we realized, take a while for the two to grow used to performing as a duo. The initial dynamic between them was respectful but a touch awkward: What language should they speak to one another? What should they talk about?

Shabtai was also anxious at the prospect of being attacked for his most recent poems, which are outspoken in their criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This was not paranoia but a learned wariness, since back home, when this new work appeared on the pages of the weekend newspapers (as much of his poetry has for the last several decades), it was savaged by those who viewed it as “anti-Israel”. The irony of this critique is painful, since Shabtai takes his rhetorical and ethical cues from the Hebrew prophets, and his concern is precisely for the future of the State and for the Hebrew language. (“The pure words I suckled from my mother’s breasts: Man, Child, Justice, Mercy, and so on, / are dispossessed before our eyes, imprisoned in ghettoes, murdered at checkpoints,” he writes in “The Reason to Live Here.”)

With the first reading, though, Shabtai began to relax. He saw that the audience at Brown was fascinated by the sheer fact of these two men together, by the sound of the Hebrew and the Arabic, and by Shabtai’s ability to turn the full power of the Hebrew literary tradition back on the leaders of his country. They seemed captivated as well by Taha’s intimate portraits of Saffuriya, which are the lifeblood of his work.

Taha started unflamboyantly and in Arabic that night, reciting his poem “Warning”, which begins: “Lovers of hunting, / and beginners seeking your prey: / Don’t aim your rifles / at my happiness, / which isn’t worth / the price of the bullet / (you’d waste on it). . . .” Then, as Peter read the English translation, Taha stepped to the side, cocked his elaborately wrinkled brow, thrust his jaw forward as if to taste the poem, beamed and nodded seriously by turns, looking like the world’s most melancholy ventriloquist.

As he listened to Taha intone his poems, quote the pre-Islamic poets and Walt Whitman, then offer in English the comic arabesques he calls his “Mickey Mouses” — for those slapstick shorts that win over the crowd before the often darker main feature begins — Shabtai’s expression softened. He appeared surprised and charmed to discover that this self-declared fallah (a Palestinian peasant) was also a literary sophisticate of rather startling range, something for which his reputation among Hebrew-speaking Israelis as an “entertaining storyteller” does not begin to account.

Early the next morning — after being subjected to a particularly grueling airport security check — we headed for Asheville, North Carolina. Beside me, Taha wore a weathered New York Giants ski cap, drank milk, and studied the napkin that the flight attendant had placed under his plastic cup. The airline’s slogan — “Work hard. Fly right.” — seemed to him endlessly amusing. Chuckling to himself, he folded this found poem and tucked it into his peacoat’s pocket. Suddenly he grew serious, and announced in a stage whisper that he considered Shabtai a brave man.

Shabtai’s political poems in particular, Taha said, were “very important” — an opinion that was not at all a foregone conclusion, since he almost never speaks so bluntly about politics. When pressed by American audiences to articulate his views, Taha would say that Israel must withdraw from all the occupied territories, and that international (especially US) pressure must be brought to bear on all the parties. But speaking in the abstract terminology of policy seems alien to his being; he prefers to offer a rueful, joker’s commentary on the situation. He’s described, for example, the thick steak — “from a big, be-au-ti-ful American cow” — which the United States should put on the negotiating table, in order to lure the two sides to sit down together again.

In his poems, Taha takes a similarly indirect approach to politics. Contemporary Arabic poetry, he has said in other forums, has been crippled by its reliance on the soapbox; his own much more private registration of his people’s joys and sorrows is, in this way, a quietly revolutionary break from custom. (He often likens his poetic method to billiard-playing: “You hit the ball here” — an oversized finger points to the right — “to strike over there.” The finger bends sharply to the left.)

At UNC-Asheville, Shabtai spoke with feeling before the rapt crowd about his connection to Taha — about their shared affection for English poetry, and about the fact that they were both born in Palestine under the British Mandate.

Then he read the title poem of his most recent Hebrew collection, “Our Land,” which begins with a vision from his pre-state childhood, recalled now as a kind of potential-paradise, lost: “I remember how,/ in 1946, hand in hand/we went out into the field/at the edge of Frishman Street/to learn about Autumn./Under the rays of the sun/slanting through the October clouds/a fallah was cutting a furrow/with a wooden plough.” The Jewish school- kids, the Arab peasants, “soon we will all/meet in the Tel-Aviv below.” Building with a tremulous kind of longing, the lines consist of an incantation of the names of the now-dead people he remembers from his youth. “Weinstein the milkman,/and Haim the iceman, /Solganik/and the staff of the dry-goods co-op …/Dr. Lvova/and Nurse Krasnova;/ the gentle/Dr. Gottlieb …/ For those fallahin as well,/ and also for the children of the village of Sumel,/who herded goats/on Froog Street/the heart will make room/like a table/opening its wings…”

As anyone could see from watching them together, Taha and Shabtai were discovering in the most concrete terms the extent to which they share a common fate. But this vaguely macabre understanding didn’t sink them in sorrow during our trip. If anything, it buoyed them up. Our odyssey seemed to fill them with a deep trust — and pleasure — in one another. Sometimes Peter and I would find them absorbed in talk – about poetry, their families, Shabtai’s sweet tooth, Taha’s herbal teas. During a long van ride toward Albany, Taha announced plaintively that he’d gone 12 days without music. Shabtai gravely offered up his precious headphones, and Bach.

In Middlebury, Vermont, the two of them entered the pre-reading dinner hand-in-hand. The next day, on a drive up the mountain to Robert Frost’s cabin, Taha surveyed the isolated expanse and grinned in his lopsided, yet somehow centered way. “What do you think, Aharon? `Good fences make good neighbors’? But there are no fences here, and Frost had no neighbors!” We all laughed, though for an instant that great green view darkened slightly. In a few days, we knew, we’d have to go home — back to the land of the fences.