The robust world of the great Druze poet

Front cover of All Faces But Mine book

All Faces but Mine: the Poetry of Samih al-Qasim, translated by ‘Abdulwahid Lu’lu’a, Syracuse University Press (2015)

The great Druze writer Samih al-Qasim, who died in 2014, is often named, alongside Mahmoud Darwish, as one of two major Palestinian poetic voices of the second half of the 20th century. It is therefore both strange and sad that there were few ways in which English-language readers could access al-Qasim’s work during his lifetime.

The only two significant bodies of al-Qasim’s poetry available in translation were, until now, Sadder than Water, a fine bilingual edition from Jerusalem-based Ibis Editions translated by Nazih Kassis, and a selection in the Saqi Books collection Victims of a Map, which places al-Qasim’s work alongside Darwish and the great Syrian poet Adonis.

Concrete existence

In theory, at least, ‘Abdulwahid Lu’lu’a’s anthology, All Faces but Mine, should correct this situation. It contains a generous 250 pages of poems translated into English, drawn from 12 of al-Qasim’s collections of work originally published between 1991 and 2014.

Lu’lu’a also contributes a brief but illuminating introduction which not only places al-Qasim within a fuller literary context, but also highlights aspects for which the poet is less known outside of the Arabic-speaking world. Primarily, this refers to his “flock-poem” form, in which a theme or motif suddenly emerges from the body of verses, bursting like a bird from a flying mob before returning to the main pattern of the poem.

The chosen poems themselves are representative of the robust, often agonized political sensibility which characterizes al-Qasim’s work. From his home in the Galilee, al-Qasim felt with excruciating depth every attack on the Palestinian people and typically responded in literary form, laden with rage and tears.

Titles such as “Cluster Poem,” “The Last Target” and “Treachery Hillock” — all to be found within a page or two of one another — emphasize that for al-Qasim, poetry was not an abstract, aesthetic world detached from political struggle, but should exist right at the heart of the Palestinian cause.

While the State of Israel is his primary focus, al-Qasim’s work also criticizes the United States and Britain for their imperial roles in Palestine, as well as aiming barbed shots at the Arab nations for only offering empty words in support of the Palestinian people.

Artistic guidance

Although they remain defiantly political, al-Qasim’s poems are not solely a catalogue of war directed at Palestinians outside Israel and — keeping with the poet’s personal experience — the interrogations and house arrests aimed at those within. In a sequence entitled “A Very Personal Conversation with Darwish,” he explores more internal, reflective aspects of the Palestinian issue.

In this series of poems laden with longing, al-Qasim as an old man gazes back at a life in which contemporaries such as Darwish lived in exile, the promise of the national struggle of the 1970s and 1980s seemed to have been lost, and the Oslo peace agreements had been revealed as failures.

Al-Qasim evokes a sense of the literary companionship his fellow poets offered him and Darwish when he wrote:

“We read Umru’l Qais under the fear of death
We read together Lorca’s sorrow

Neruda’s rancor and Aragon’s magic,
Al-Mutanabbi’s miracle…”

In referencing classical Arabic writers such as al-Mutanabbi and al-Qais alongside Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and French poet Louis Aragon — all heroes of 20th century left-wing literature — the poem gives a sense of the immense spread of literary time, space and imagination in which al-Qasim and his companions ranged, finding inspiration, guidance and support in their artistic and political developments.

Diminished significance

Unfortunately, much of the significance of this English-language anthology of al-Qasim’s work is diminished by the awkwardness of the translations themselves.

While literally correct, the phrasing is often clunky and unidiomatic in English, with none of the lightness of touch to be found in Kassis’ translation of Sadder than Water or the punchy concision that translator Abdullah al-Udhari brings to the Saqi collection.

The overall effect renders many of the poems leaden and makes those particularly political examples which need to carry a bold punch seem instead merely heavy and blunt.

As Lu’lu’a’s biography shows — with study in Baghdad and at Harvard and professorial roles at universities across the Arabic-speaking world — he is undoubtedly an outstanding scholar of Arabic literature and a major translator into Arabic. But this collection is not the work of someone with the necessary poetic ability in English.

It’s a major opportunity wasted, as the presence of such a large collection will likely deter most publishers from considering an al-Qasim anthology for some time to come. In the meantime, readers wanting to experience the power of this bold, outspoken poet in English will have to stick with the smaller, older volumes already on the market.

Sarah Irving is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.

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