When I first became interested in Arabic literature I was forced to access it mostly in French translation (one of my most treasured possessions is Mahmoud Darwish’s La terre nous est étroite signed by the author). Since then, the situation has improved immeasurably, and a new beautifully produced book A Bird is Not a Stone (Freight Books) adds another colorful piece to the jigsaw.
A Bird is Not a Stone is published in Scotland and endorsed by, among others, the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy (who is Scottish). The second of its forewords is written by Liz Lochhead, the Scottish makar (poet laureate), who unhesitatingly uses the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s “denial of human rights to Palestinians.”
Such unstinting militancy is characteristic of a country that boasts one of Europe’s most forceful Palestine solidarity campaigns. One could hardly imagine Charles Wright, the US poet laureate, lending his name and prestige to such a venture.
The anthology, edited by Sarah Irving and Henry Bell, is the outcome of a collaborative project between Scottish poets and the House of Poetry in al-Bireh, in the occupied West Bank. Twenty-five Palestinian poets (only four of them women, alas) have been translated by twenty-four Scottish poets on the basis of “bridge translations” provided by fourteen linguists.
Interestingly, some of the versions are in Gaelic, Scots and Shetlandic.
One of the poets/translators involved in the project, Harry Giles, in an interview, has some very interesting things to say about the political dimension of choosing to write in, and translate into, Scots. (Hint: think of the imperial/colonial role of England in both Scotland and Palestine.) This adds a further layer of significance to A Bird is Not a Stone, as does the information that its title comes from a sculpture by the late George Wyllie that was created in 1988 to look over the Berlin Wall.
Purists who believe that poetry should only be translated directly from the originals may not be mollified by the presence of the Arabic originals opposite their translations. Some reassurance is provided by co-editor Sarah Irving’s description of the “bridge translations” which didn’t just provide a rough, literal version of the text, but also included lists of alternative words when necessary, and notes on things like rhythm, rhyme, culturally specific references and so on.
To varying degrees, some of the Palestinian poets also collaborated during the process, so in some cases there was a two or three-way exchange involving the Scots poets, the Palestinian poets and the bridge translators.
In two cases we have alternative English versions of the same poem, which in the absence of the “bridge” gives some idea of the varying degrees of latitude the Scottish poets allow themselves.
The first of Bisan Abu Khaled’s poems is translated in 92 words by Magi Gibson as “What Pushkin’s poems never said,” and in 63 words by the legendary novelist Alasdair Gray as “Not Considered in Poems of Pushkin.” Even without access to the original Arabic, it’s clear that Gray’s version is more of an appropriation.
A poem by Abdel Nasser Saleh is called “Woman in a Landscape” by translator Ellen McAteer, and “Woman in a Garden” by Henry King who, unlike McAteer, retains the original’s three-stanza structure, and attempts rhyme — a risky venture that works rather well here.
In the case of Maya Abu al-Hayyat’s ”Children,” the English versions by Liz Lochhead and Graham Fulton are so similar that one wonders why both were included, particularly since there’s also a version in Shetlandic by that language’s best-known poet, Christine de Luca:
Ta hadd mi haert
at Qalandia checkpoint
I oppen mi mouth an stuff mi face,
glunsh da maet o mi feelins smored in saat
ta hold aa da stingin een dat gowl.
In the first of the anthology’s two forewords, Al-Hayyat outlines how “Palestinian poetry has reflected the political, geographic, and human changes that Palestine and the Arab world have been through since the First World War.” Querying rhetorically whether there is “any room for metaphors now?” (i.e in the wake of the second intifada, or uprising) she concludes “that no metaphoric language is capable of capturing the face of a child covered with ash, raided by his own government’s planes in Syria, or another’s in Lebanon or Gaza.”
Sieve of the unsayable
Such a view falls into an austere tradition of reflection on the relationship between poetry and atrocity typified by Theodor Adorno’s claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” and the poet Paul Celan’s attempt to prove that it can, after all, be done — but only if we pass language through the sieve of the unsayable, a project that can make poetry almost unreadable and life (as Celan found it) unlivable.
While Al-Hayyat’s own impressive poems certainly focus on the personal and specific — her children, her TV set — they do not escape the lure of metaphor:
There are also gloomy smiles
collected in a tissue
and thrown into the nearest basket.
Most of the other poets here would seem convinced that there is indeed “room for metaphors now” and theirs often suggest the influence of European surrealism as filtered through Federico García Lorca, the great Andalusian poet who was so aware of his Arab literary heritage.
“Too much crying”
For Tareq al-Karmy, “Roads die when peoples’ hopes, fears,/ wishes, traffic, no longer flow through them,/ unlike rivers which are not made by fishes.” Sami Muhanna tells us that “At night, we wait for dreams, dressed up/ as priestesses of fog.” Majid Abu Ghoush evokes “a moon weary of night/ of too much crying/ drunken song and poetry.”
But of course there are more explicit poems. Bisan Abu Khaled refers to “a Jewish woman Zionized into a blade” in a poem, concluding: “A country will choose this madness/ unless we say we are returning.” In a poem unambiguously entitled “Occupation,” Majid Abu Ghoush evokes “Death squads. Detention camps.// …The invaders smile; tap their feet.”
Even when dispossession and occupation are not mentioned, they are ubiquitous. When Abdel Rahim al-Sheikh writes that “It’s hard for the post to make it to paradise./ There is no address/ neither here nor there,” we know why the address is unavailable. When Taher Riyadh writes: “In memory of me/ I happen upon myself/ floating above a forgotten pavement/ in a forgotten city” he doesn’t need to spell out the causes of such dislocation of identity.
Nonetheless, to demand that a poet under siege should write of nothing but that siege is to impose another kind of siege — one of the many themes of Darwish’s great poem “Under Siege.” Towards the end of this book Salim al-Nafar affirms that “The skies crush our land:/ our song sings on” to which Zakaria Mohammed (perhaps the best-known of these poets outside Palestine) adds: “Poetry flips things upside-down. It grants failure a wing and throws it into the sky.”
Thanks to publications like A Bird is Not a Stone, the Palestinian song will sing on, and will be heard wherever people care enough to listen.
Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist. His memoir In My Own Light was published in May 2014 by Liffey Press.