MY HAPPINESS BEARS NO RELATION TO HAPPINESS
A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century
By Adina Hoffman
Yale University Press
454pp. | $27.50
Adina Hoffman's new biography of acclaimed Palestinian poet and writer Taha Muhammad Ali reads like a novel. She tells us about a man with a lame leg who marries a tranquil woman and during 10 years has one son after another, all three named Taha and all buried as infants, followed by another baby, Milad, who also dies. The couple moves and has a fifth child, another Taha, born in 1931 in the small village of Saffuriyya in Galilee. He lives, and is followed by two brothers, Feisel and Amin.
As Hoffman describes the place the family is from, its splendor unfurls--a village "of some 12 neighborhoods, 35 shops, three mosques, five graveyards, a town council building... of epic tales and colored Damascene or Cairene prints of their heroes ... a Crusader church, a Roman amphitheater, a citadel ... of mulberries, quinces, black plums, apples, figs, lemons, grapefruits, tangerines, apricots, and the most sought-after pomegranates in the whole Galilee." Then she tells us of Taha's recollection of the birth of his cousin Amira (a pseudonym), how she was rocked in the same cradle he had been rocked in a few years earlier, how he was told she was to be his bride one day.
As Hoffman's story unfolds-the--closer she gets to the 1948 war, to the events known in Arabic as al-Nakba (the Catastrophe)--a feeling of dread fills the pages of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness. This is all too real. Hoffman, an Israeli Jew, explains that she herself was filled with dread years later as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated. And when her friend Anna was killed by a suicide bomber, she "stopped taking public transportation" and "stopped talking politics with many Jewish friends, who had converted their own fear of such a violent demise into the most unapologetic racism." But instead of letting her fear paralyze her, Hoffman searched for understanding. When she and her husband, Peter Cole, one of the translators of Ali's So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005, traveled with Ali on a reading tour around the United States, they formed a friendship, one where "the trust among the three of us ran deep." She was aware of the difficult reality of Palestinians before and after 1948 but never "attempted to get too close or to ask the hardest questions about my connection, as a Jew, to that...