August 2009

Mya Guarnieri


An Interview with Adina Hoffman

In the opening pages of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness author Adina Hoffman journeys from her home in Jerusalem to the north of Israel. The landscape there is dismal -- blocks of rundown apartment buildings show signs of life but remain eerily quiet. If it serves as any indication of the story to follow, it seems the reader, too, is headed into dark territory.

But the scenery shifts when she arrives at the house of Taha Muhammad Ali, the Palestinian poet at the center of her book. Grey gives way to a riotous orchard -- tightly planted citrus, olive, and pomegranate trees laced with roses, oleander, daisies, and chattering birds. We are, writes Hoffman, "now in the proximity of serious imagination."

The contradiction between Muhammad Ali's bright home and the dreary surrounding world echoes his life. Taha, as Hoffman affectionately calls him, was born in 1931 in Saffuriyya, a village emblematic of rural Palestine. His childhood there was difficult -- his father was lame and Muhammad Ali worked to support the family -- but the hard edges were softened by idyllic Saffuriyya and the promise of a future with Amira, his betrothed.

In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War and the destruction of Palestine, both Saffuriyya and Amira were lost. Years later, Muhammad Ali's poetry mourns and resurrects people and places long gone; his words struggle with his past and the nation that, today, he could consider enemy. But, as his poetry (translated to English in So What: New and Selected Poems 1971-2005 by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin) shows, Muhammad Ali finds an uneasy peace through his imagination.

Hoffman's moving and finely crafted work, which Booklist ranked as one of the top ten biographies of 2009, is the culmination of more than five years of research and writing and is the first biography of a Palestinian writer. My Happiness Bears no Relation to Happiness also offers a biography of place, as well as, in Hoffman's words, "a kind of group portrait" of other notable men of Arabic and Palestinian letters. Hoffman, a Mississippi-born and New Hampshire-raised American Jew who moved to Jerusalem almost 20 years ago, might seem like an unlikely candidate to write this story. But that is, perhaps, why the story belongs in her hands. As a perpetual outsider within Israel's borders -- she is similar to Muhammad Ali, in that respect -- Hoffman scrutinizes regional narratives through the narrative of a life.

Your first book, the nonfiction House of Windows, depicts an area full of people who are at once outsiders and insiders -- your working-class, North African Jewish neighbors in Jerusalem. This seems to be a theme in My Happiness, as well: Muhammad Ali is an insider who is thrust to the outside, only to sneak back into Israel to remain forever outside of society. Is this something that resonates with you personally?

I think what you're describing is actually very Jewish -- and certainly not specific to me. It's also a role that most, or many, writers play -- being slightly outside their surroundings (silence, exile, and cunning and all that). I'm sure a psychologist could have a field day on me and my upbringing in an almost totally non-Jewish environment and then as someone who, as an adult, is neither completely at home in her adopted country nor her country of birth, but the truth is, it doesn't bother me: I almost need that slight distance in order to register my surroundings in the detailed, hyperconscious way that my writing demands. If anything, it seems natural to me. I think it might actually make me anxious to feel too much of an insider. That's not good for a writer -- and, I might argue, I don't really think it's so good for the Jews.

How does My Happiness comment on or contribute to Israeli and Palestinian narratives?

I would hope that the book complicates -- and humanizes, or makes tangible -- a whole range of experiences that most Western readers have no clue about, or know about in the roughest terms but only perceive through the lens of their own tribal grievances, or fears. It's important, though, to realize that Palestinians don't only exist in relation to Israelis, or to Jews and Jewish suffering: they are their own people, with a history, culture, and literature that's incredibly rich and varied. And it's not all about tragedy. There's also a huge amount of humor and joy and irreverence that's also a part of this story.

In My Happiness, Muhammad Ali says that his poetry is like billiards, "You aim over here to strike over there." By writing about the human rather than the political, in both My Happiness and House of Windows, are you, like Muhammad Ali, playing a kind of billiards?

You could say that. My Happiness certainly isn't a polemic, but -- given all that's happening throughout the Middle East, and in fact the world, these days -- the very act of writing about Palestinians in this human way is quietly political. Or at least I'd like to think so.

Do you feel that Palestinians are not usually written about in a human way? Are Palestinians dehumanized in literary and academic work?

Most Westerners see Palestinians through the lens of the newspaper and TV set -- where they're almost always depicted as either terrorists or faceless victims. At this point, it's a little hackneyed to say that Palestinians are stereotyped, but it's true. The idea of writing about a whole range of very varied and specific individuals almost never enters into the conversation. In academic terms, too, the emphasis is most often on Palestinians as a group -- a political entity, or a generation, or a social class. Again, the individual doesn't have much of a role to play there.

Why point the lens on Muhammad Ali, a lesser-known Palestinian poet, rather than a better-known Palestinian poet?

I didn't set out to find a Representative Palestinian Poet to write about: I was drawn to Taha as Taha at first, and the rest of it -- the whole history of his village, the region, Palestinian literature -- followed. There are, clearly, others who are much more famous and "central." But this was in its way also a kind of billiards: by writing about Taha, a poet who both does and doesn't represent the major strands in Palestinian literature, I was able to write about many others as well. Because Taha has, over the years, known almost everyone who was anyone in Palestinian literature -- in part because of his souvenir shop in Nazareth, where they'd all come sit and talk -- it was quite natural to extend his story out to include all these others. Most importantly, though, while Taha isn't a "famous" poet, he is a marvelous poet and an extraordinary person. That fact was much more important to me than the question of whether I was writing about someone well-known.

Do you feel that Muhammad Ali's life and writing -- and by extension, your biography -- function as a biography of Israel/Palestine?

Yes and no. Taha never planned to have his poetry "represent" anything beyond himself -- though of course in many ways it does. And in writing his story I didn't set out with such a highfalutin scheme in mind -- though inevitably the book is in many ways, as you say, a biography of a place, or in fact several places, some present, some absent.

The first half of My Happiness seems rooted in place and historical circumstances, while the second half seems rooted in the literary figures surrounding Muhammad Ali. Why the shift in emphasis?

In the most obvious sense, Taha's literary life only began as an adult, so it wouldn't have made any sense to talk about that earlier. At the same time, his poetry is so rooted in the experience of his village -- and, eventually, its awful fate -- that I felt the later literary material wouldn't make any sense without giving the reader that early historical crash-course, or total immersion. But to talk in more general terms, I don't really think you can separate the historical from the literary in the Palestinian context. All the poets and novelists I write about in the later parts of the book were formed by the history of the first part, and their own literary lives are part and parcel of the modern history of the region: you can't make these neat divisions. And as a very over-quoted medieval Arabic maxim has it: "poetry is the archive of the Arabs." You can't, in other words, understand the history of this part of the world without understanding its poetry.

As a writer rooted in Israel is your literary life part and parcel of the modern history of the region, as well?

My subject is often this place, however you define it: I live there, vote there, pay taxes there, drink the water -- which makes me, like any other citizen, part of the modern history of the region. At the same time, I'm an American writer -- always was, always will be, no matter where I live. My language is English, my sensibility has been shaped by my American background, my audience is mostly abroad, and I have no illusions about my place in the local literary landscape. It's strange to say, but the longer I live in Israel, the more American I feel.

So you're an American writer? Not a Jewish writer?

I should probably just say that I'm a writer, no adjectives attached, but I suppose I used the term "American writer" because it's both more neutral and expansive than any of these others; it doesn't necessarily imply anything specific, beyond one's place of birth and the use of an American idiom. And perhaps I also meant to say that no matter how long I live in the Middle East, I'll never be an Israeli writer. To call yourself a "Jewish writer," meanwhile, is to put yourself in a kind of ghetto, as if your concerns are only Jewish. The same is true of the term "woman writer," which I also don't use. Of course I am Jewish and I am a woman, and both of these things matter to me, but I'd like to think my imagination extends beyond such categories.

You're a writer, albeit Jewish American Israeli, and your topic is a Muslim Palestinian Israeli. Is My Happiness intended as an act of reconciliation? Does it represent a shift towards a more pluralistic society?

Although I understood from the outset that the fact that I'm Jewish and Taha's Arab would inevitably wind up "representing" something, for better or worse, in the minds of my readers, I wasn't on any kind of ideological mission. Naturally, I wanted to learn more about his background, which is very much grounded in the Palestinian experience, but that followed from my interest in his poetry and in him and the people closest to him.

It would be heartening to think the book represents a "shift toward a more pluralistic society," but when I look around Israel these days, it seems we're going in precisely the opposite direction.

Did your work on My Happiness alter your point of view on the conflict and the history of this region?

I learned a huge amount from writing this book. Before I set out to do it, I knew the history well, but in an abstract sense -- and having to work my way through it, sentence by sentence, brought it all to life in a very different, and much more immediate way. I suppose if I had to sum up what I learned in a single sentence it would be: never accept a historical account simply as it's handed to you. As the American poet Charles Olson put it, "history" means "to find out for oneself."