The author of a compelling new portrait of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali discusses issues of fact and the biogrpaher's immersion in her subject.
Not too long ago, in late afternoon, I sat down at a bar in New Haven with Adina Hoffman, with a list of questions. Hoffman is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and, most recently, of My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, a biography of Taha Muhammad Ali. Now nearly 80, Muhammad Ali is a poet better known (where he is known at all) in America than he is known in the Arab world. This is largely due to the work of Adina’s husband, the MacArthur-winning poet and translator Peter Cole, who is his primary English translator, and who (with co-translators Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin) first published Muhammad Ali’s work in English with Ibis Editions, the small press he, Hoffman, and Levin run in Jerusalem. In 2006 another collection appeared, So What: New and Selected Poems with Copper Canyon Press. That book has gone on to become something like a bestseller in poetry terms. When Muhammad Ali and Cole were invited to read around the US and Europe, Adina Hoffman accompanied them on their travels. It was here that an unusual friendship and her deeply compelling book were born.
In spite of the lively atmosphere of the New Haven bar and its thirsty, enthusiastic sports fans, I proceeded to advance through my questions. As is often the case, however, our conversation really only got started after I turned off the tape recorder and we began, as Adina says, “talking shop.” Even after I left New Haven, the conversation continued in my head as I drove back to New York City and then left for India. So we decided to continue that conversation, which turned on both our lives as biographers who have chosen subjects that are not particularly well known, but whose lives and work have captured our imagination for reasons that are sometimes obscure, even to us.
Deborah Baker So Adina, you contemplated but sidestepped the idea of writing a biography of Taha Muhammad Ali for several years, and then one day you woke up from a nap in your Jerusalem apartment and realized that you wanted to do it but that in order to do so, you would have to learn Arabic (as Judith Thurman learned Danish to write her biography of Isak Dinesen). For five years you studied Arabic, and researched and wrote this book without a publishing contract. I was often struck, while reading your book, with the lyric liveliness and stylistic individuality of your voice. This runs counter to the authoritative omniscience that drives many literary biographies. Yet your voice never distracts from our view of this man, his work, and the world he comes from. He often seems to be right in the room. Do you think that not having a publisher, not choosing a well-known subject with a greatly picked over history, liberated you to write the book as you saw fit?
Adina Hoffman You could say that—though since I’d never had a book contract in advance or written about a well-known subject before, this wasn’t something new to me; it was just the way I worked. Maybe it’s selfish, but the idea has always been to interest myself first of all and hope that if I take that job—interesting myself—very seriously, what results will wind up also interesting others. That said, one doesn’t want to romanticize this footloose-ness too much: it can be fairly nerve-wracking to become so obsessively immersed in a project of this sort and really have no idea whatsoever if anyone else will care in the long run. It’s a huge gamble to hand over half a decade of your life to a book that may never see the light of day.
But those thoughts only bobbed up in my darker and more neurotic moments. In general, and in a more meaningful sense: yes, absolutely. It was a blessing that I didn’t need to look over my shoulder constantly and worry about American attitudes toward the Middle East or toward poetry or biography for that matter; I didn’t have to write into some rigidly outlined, pre-approved form. I wrote what I needed to write. And I had the luxury of being able to let the book evolve from the “smaller” one that dawned on me as I roused myself from my inadvertent nap that first day. Rather than a book focused exclusively and probably in more conventional fashion on this one remarkable poet and person, it wound up emerging as something much more expansive. Because it’s not just that Taha himself isn’t especially well known, but that the very culture he comes from, the literature that matters to him, the language he speaks, the history and politics that have shaped him are so basically unknown—or if known, so often misunderstood—in the West. As I entered into Arabic and the multiple human and literary realms that became available to me through the language, the shape of the book opened out and I realized that Taha and his poetry would be the anchor for this more sweeping tale—what I ended up calling in the subtitle A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. Of course, that might also have happened if I’d been writing with a specific publisher and a deadline in mind. Who knows? What I do know is that as I wrote I felt free to follow various breadcrumb trails that led into all kinds of unforeseen valleys and groves.
DB And what about that question of voice? Did you make a conscious choice to try something different from that authoritative omniscience more typical of literary biography?
AH Well, for better or worse, I don’t seem capable of anything else. I admire certain “straight” biographies that adopt that more classically stand-offish narrative tone: Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf is a magisterial example of that, as is Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, to pick two great golden oldies. Thurman’s Isak Dinesen, which you just mentioned, is also a marvelous “life” in that mode. But in general, I’m drawn as both writer and reader to books in which you can feel the pressure of a writer’s own sensibility and language pushing up against—or questioning the very nature of—her subject matter. I suspect you’re the same way. When your tape recorder was off, we were talking about favorite biographies, and it became clear that we share a fascination with biographies that admit to the circumstances of their own creation—I mean biographies that reveal the documentary materials that have gone into reconstructing on the page a seminal scene in the subject’s life, books that don’t just proclaim as God-given fact the details of the protagonist’s doings, but that also shine a light on the many things we can’t possibly know about another’s life.
DB Even when you have your subject living and breathing right in front of you? Feeding you great stories and great food and great poetry? Can you describe some of the limiting circumstances you labored under while exploring Taha’s personal history? Some of the seminal scenes of his life and how you went about writing them?
AH It wasn’t, I think, so much a matter of rendering particular scenes correctly as it was getting the angle of perception (and emotion) and the overarching tone right. If anything, the fact of Taha’s vivid presence in the present tense—his larger than larger-than-life personality—posed something of a problem, because it’s very easy to be simply captivated or entertained by him, and to find yourself laughing uproariously at his stories, while you almost forget that you need, as biographer, to be taking much of this with a grain of serious salt. It was critical to keep in mind, for instance, that for Taha, humor has almost always been a vital means of surviving in exceedingly grim circumstances: it’s not just fun and games. There was always the danger that I’d wind up being “taken in,” as it were, by his levity and make him sound like some charmingly toothless old raconteur instead of the much more sophisticated—and often profoundly melancholy—man and artist he really is. It’s all there in his poetry, of course, and whenever I’d find myself tempted to include some “hilarious” Taha anecdote—and Peter and I have an almost endless store from our time with him on the road—I’d reign it in and return to the poems themselves, which served as the best reality check. The book’s title comes from a poem of Taha’s called “Warning,” which cautions against exactly that mistaking of tragedy for comedy, despair for delight:
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).
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
every which way,
like a partridge,
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.1
So achieving that complicated balance—in the rendering of his character and in my own voice—was essential to telling Taha’s story credibly. I should perhaps also bracket that by saying that I encountered lots of other challenges of a more general nature as well, such as needing to account for huge chunks of Palestinian history in the absence of a reliable written archive. But that leads us into a whole different biographical realm, and one that actually makes me think of your own forthcoming book, The Convert, which treats the libraries and archives you draw on almost as characters. You make it clear that these ostensibly inert boxes of paper are often just as compelling—and as fallible—as walking, talking people. I wonder if you found, as I did, that the device of letting the reader peek behind the writerly scenes and “come with you” to the archives was actually an excellent way to force yourself, as biographer, to confront the limits and possibilities of the form. As much as we love it, it’s actually an incredibly presumptuous genre, isn’t it?
DB To write anything is to presume. Biography attracts me because it provides an escape from the narrow confines of one’s own life and imagination, but while I have always resisted its plodding structure (parentage, birth, youth, vigorous living, dying fall), which seemed to leave no room for narrative surprise, I had a hard time leaving my place offstage for the spotlight. The first person didn’t come naturally to me at all. But in the case of the subject at the center of The Convert—Maryam Jameelah, a militant Islamic ideologue—my struggle with the ambiguities of her archive became part of the unfolding narrative. I originally wrote “my side” of the story, which included the initial discovery of her letters, in third person, as a way to break through my reticence. Your first-person voice, on the other hand, seems perfectly natural. The kinds of personal commentary and asides that shape My Happiness are so often quarantined to “Forewords” in literary biographies. Forewords always seemed to me to beg the question: Do I skip this? Is it part of the book or not? Should I pay no attention to the writer who has stepped out from behind the curtain? Yet it was often here that one learned about the pitched battle with the author’s estate (or heartfelt gratitude to an obliging family), or the chance discovery of received-wisdom-bucking documents. In your book, as in mine, all this material is fuel for the fire.
AH Yes, it is. And it’s also, it seems to me, central to the allure of the form. Because while I agree completely that biography provides an escape from the narrow confines of one’s own life, I wonder if it really does serve as an escape from one’s own imagination. It seems to me that good biography—biography that isn’t merely plodding in its structure!—also relies on a great deal of imagination. And here I obviously don’t mean that the biographer should be making things up out of whole cloth; the opposite is true, and plainly she’s bound by the facts of her subject’s life. But the question is: how does she weigh these facts, weed them, shape them, arrange them, understand them, draw connections between them? And how does she even know which facts are facts and not just old wives’ tales or family legends or historically dubious accounts? How does she animate this material for readers who (like herself) weren’t there as the story was unfolding in real time? All of that requires the connective tissue of imagination.
Biographers of many stripes deal with those dilemmas silently all the time. In this case I felt that I needed to be more upfront about some of the problems inherent in recounting this particular story. For starters, the history of Palestine/Israel is absurdly fraught, since every “fact” is contested by someone. I also felt that as a Jew telling a Palestinian story I needed to be honest about my own role—or my people’s role—in what has happened to Taha and his people. I’m no “objective” bystander. But it was also, let’s face it, a juicy literary challenge to imagine my way into the seemingly dry archival record, and ask myself—to take one tiny example of the hundreds of tiny examples that constitute the making of such a book: what did the nameless yet possibly homesick and maybe very bored British policeman, posted in the big Arab town of Nazareth in 1936, really know about the social structure of Taha’s smaller agricultural village, Saffuriyya, a few miles away, when he carefully recorded in his logbook his terse report of a mid-afternoon fistfight that had taken place between two rival clans there? What do his words tell us about the village? What do they tell us about the policeman? Is this a trustworthy record of what life was really like for the people of Saffuriyya during these years, or is it more suggestive of the vague and often condescending way that the British authorities in Mandatory Palestine viewed the local peasants and their problems? And so on and so forth. The questions kept opening out and out, and the stakes obviously became much higher as I approached the chapters that dealt with 1948—and the utterly contradictory versions I heard and read about what happened to Saffuriyya on the night the Israeli army invaded and the people were forced to flee.
DB Hearing and reading: a recurrent theme in your book is this tension between “memory” and “history books.” This tracks the competition between Arab or Palestinian oral history/folk literatures with European or Israeli written history, written literatures. What are the ways in which the absence of an archive, of manuscript drafts, of childhood family photographs and birth certificates, not to mention the deliberate destruction of Taha’s actual birthplace by the Israeli army after 1948, excited you as a writer rather than discouraged you as a scholar when you began this book?
AH This isn’t your question, but I must say first off that though I relied on a vast amount of scholarship to help me through all this, I’m not systematic in the way that a scholar needs to be. I’m not trained to read these texts. Though I was quite rigorous—some might call it relentless—in my research, I was, to a certain degree, cherry picking in the archives. I’m a writer who takes in, and is incredibly grateful for, a great deal of the work that scholars do. But I’d never confuse those two job descriptions.
That doesn’t, though, answer your bigger question, about the oral record versus the written one. And here I’d say that I didn’t exactly view it as a competition so much as an opportunity for triangulation. I realized early on that since almost no first-person written Palestinian record existed of the peasant life that Taha and his family had lived before 1948 and in the years just after, I’d have to scavenge for information however I could—whether through interviews with Palestinian subjects, or through the British and Israeli archives (which tend to be military in nature), or in the photographs taken by a team of American archaeologists who dug in Taha’s village in the early 1930s, or in period newspapers in Arabic, Hebrew, and English—which were published in the big cities and only included mention of Saffuriyya when a crime was committed or an army curfew imposed there. None of these is an ideal source on its own, but by placing all these foraged scraps side by side—and often forcing them to interact, by, for example, asking Taha, his friends, family, peers, and many other varied people about things I’d found in the archives, or rushing back to the archives to check something they’d said—I was able to coax out and piece together a version of events that was believable to me. I can’t say that this is what drew me to the story in the first place: if anything, when I first set out, the idea of constructing a narrative in this patchwork fashion was daunting. On the other hand, I wound up finding this part of the process—figuring out which materials to use and to trust, which to suspect and toss out—among the most intriguing. I’m curious to hear about your own experience on this front. How do you test what’s accurate—or iffy—in the archival record? Just because something is written down obviously doesn’t mean it’s true.
DB I think about this question all the time. Does everything have to be adjudicated in the court of fact? I am impatient with those biographers who seem to relish brandishing their superior grasp of fact in the face of their subjects’ cunning mythologizing. (I’m thinking of Carole Klein’s biography of Doris Lessing here). It seems, at the very least, ungracious. Whatever the white lies or tall tales (Bob Dylan now), I believe that we are interested in these figures because their work forces us not, then, to “escape” our own imagination, but to enlarge it.
In my last book, A Blue Hand, which was a narrative account of Allen Ginsberg’s travels in India in the company of Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and Joanne Kyger, I had a bounty of material. There were letters, journals, photographs, as well as several living Indian poets with sharp memories whom I could interview (the same could not be said for Peter Orlovsky’s memory, God rest his soul, which wasn’t as much inaccurate as it was entirely absent). I found Allen Ginsberg scrupulous in his account of his own life. Not once did I catch him in the self-aggrandizing or retroactive revising mode most ordinary people indulge in. Though he had other frailties, this just wasn’t in him or, I have to say, in his companions. That was their shared ethic. Their respective journals liberated me to go into their heads, ventriloquize their uncensored thoughts about India and each other as they traveled about, much as a novelist would do with invented characters. Once in a while, because I knew Ginsberg was a fidgety chain smoker, I would have him smoking a cigarette. Technically, this was my invention. There was no document that I could point to proving that he was smoking at the moment I describe him. I know precisely where each of these liberties are in the book. This was my feeble challenge to the hegemony of pure biographical fact. This was me letting myself get a little carried away. At the same time, like you, I have no patience for those biographers who introduce fabricated dialogue and interior monologues. I am righteously indignant at those who can’t resist the suspect gossipy tidbit or indulge in crude speculations on their subject’s sexual proclivities. I don’t know how they live with themselves. So you see I can be a complete hypocrite.
AH And what about The Convert? I wonder how questions of propriety, self-mythologizing, and self-revelation surfaced in that very un-Beatnik-like context, a context in which your “heroine” appears in her favorite author photo in full burqa—veiled from the top of her head to the tips of her toes!
DB I love that photo! A perfect reply to Allen’s stark naked frontispiece! The Convert posed an entirely different challenge to this question of factualness. Maryam Jameelah’s archive included a bibliography and a detailed chronology of her life, the twin backbones of any biography of a writer. Here was not only a precise list of every article and book she had ever written, and where they were published, but also all the summer camps and schools she had ever attended, her every illness, the date of her first period, the date of her last one. Facts, facts, facts. But what first drew me to Maryam Jameelah, who, though a huge presence in the Islamic world, is altogether unknown in the West, were not her books, nor her facts, but her letters to her parents. Maryam Jameelah was born Margaret Marcus. Her parents, Herbert and Myra, were secular Jews and Zionists living in Westchester. Her childhood and troubled youth were spent in a spiritual search that would, to her parents’ dismay and disapproval, eventually lead her to Islam and exile in Pakistan. Her arrival in Lahore, her adoption by a powerful Islamic leader, was a sensation. Margaret’s letters to her parents elaborate her triumphant welcome in great detail. Instead of being treated like a slave, as they had foretold, she is lionized. Her book Islam Versus the West is a huge bestseller. Offers of marriage pour in. For over a year these vivid and engaging letters, filled with precise descriptions of her new family, the seething political milieu in which her adoptive father is playing a central role, tell a compelling tale. And then something dramatic happens that darkens the rosy scenario; a development that cannot be easily accommodated by her fairytale, an inconvenient fact. When I decided to write about Maryam, I wanted to use the narrative brio I found in her letters, to draw the reader in, as I was drawn in on first reading them. I air my doubts here and there, note a few puzzling aspects, fill in the historical background of her father/mentor, the Mawlana Mawdudi, but I basically give Maryam her tale. It was clear to me from the outset that she was writing these letters, not only to her parents, but to posterity. And I am that posterity. I am writing and the reader is reading in the shadow of 9/11, the war on terror, unending American wars in two Muslim countries, and all that that encompasses.
AH But how did you deal with having to confront this world that was so completely strange to you? Or maybe I should ask: why, as a literary biographer, did you feel you wanted to confront such a world at all?
DB I could ask the same of you. Like you, I am largely self-taught. Like you, I am deeply dependent on the work of scholars (particularly since I have no Urdu and, in the Mawlana Mawdudi, I am writing about a much revered figure in Pakistan). Both our imaginations have been formed by long periods spent living in a foreign land. On the one hand, that creates a great deal of anxiety. I am a lapsed Catholic writing about Islam. I am an American writing about a woman who is known for her sharp critique of Western civilization, America in particular, from an Islamic point of view. I have a PIO card (Person of Indian Origin) and I am writing about a naturalized Pakistani. You are an American Jew who has spent most of her adult life in Israel and now carries two passports, and you’re writing about a Palestinian Muslim who is also an Israeli citizen. What will we get wrong? Yet, on the other hand, what might we get right? Nothing in My Happiness feels like a patchwork of cherry-pickings to me. Your portrait of the maybe bored, possibly homesick British policeman noting the afternoon fistfight in Saffuriyya in his logbook summons an entire world. Your book is filled with such nearly novelistic moments, where you let your imagination go a little further than the facts at hand. Are “maybe,” “possibly,” and the essential “perhaps,” the gateway drugs to fictionalizing?
AH Maybe … possibly … perhaps … but seriously, I don’t think so. If anything, it seems to me that as long as one continues to use these qualifiers and to admit when one is merely speculating—then one is still firmly in the somehow sober zone of non-fiction. A book like Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre is packed with carefully placed phrases like “he must have” or “she might have.” She’s an extremely punctilious historian, reckoning with an incomplete historical record, and—using her extensive knowledge of the period and people in question—she lets herself ponder certain elements of the story. But she always tells us when she’s wondering. She doesn’t pass her musings off as fact. In a similar way, I don’t actually feel that in My Happiness I’ve gone further than the facts at hand, so much as tried to pry the shells of those facts open as far as possible, to see what’s lodged inside them—whether a pearl or just a bit of sand.
The imperatives of each project are different, of course, and while I don’t necessarily think it was wrong of you to let Allen Ginsberg have an “invented” smoke every now and then—I imagine he’d be grateful—I would never have done that in a book about Palestinian history. I was incredibly—even rigidly—strict about only including details I could prove for sure. The whole conversation that surrounds this history is so politically charged, and there are already so many accusations of dishonesty, manipulation, or outright lying flying through the rhetorical air, I felt it was my responsibility to dig for and serve up the closest thing possible to the truth. Yes, I do actually still believe in that unfashionable thing, and in many ways writing this book made me respect it even more deeply. Does that make me a stern-faced lawyer in that court of fact you’re so skeptical of? Maybe, though on the other hand, as I said before, I wasn’t exactly objective about this: I admitted to my own hesitations and biases as I offered up my brief.
DB I think we both have this stern-faced lawyer sitting on our shoulder looking over our work, like those avuncular judges Virginia Woolf wrote about in A Room of One’s Own. You are, of course, entirely correct that absolute exactitude was called for. But the beauty of your writing is that it doesn’t have anything like a legalistic air. My Happiness is suffused with emotion. There are moments of thumping excitement, poignancy, absurdity, and quiet outrage.
AH Thank you for saying so. It was, I’ll admit, a bit of a tightrope act sometimes, letting that emotion in without succumbing to out-and-out fury. In retrospect, I can see that writing this book was my attempt to do something constructive—and relatively calm—with all the anger I’ve felt building up inside me at the political and cultural situation in Israel over the last decade or so. I’ve been there for almost 20 years now, and in that time the racism, the xenophobia, the aggression, the endless and often outlandish national self-justification and defensiveness have become almost suffocating. But while I wanted to do something levelheaded and peaceful, shall we say, with what I was feeling, I didn’t want to neuter it. So often in this context a wishy-washy and in fact, rather dangerous kind of relativism takes hold: the Israelis have their narrative and the Palestinians have theirs, and it’s all legitimate … Well, yes and no. There are certainly different “narratives” at work in the telling of this history, but that doesn’t mean that all the versions hold equal water all the time. As the case of my reckoning with the particulars of what happened in Taha’s village in 1948 proved to me once and for all: there is such a thing as fact. There was a received Israeli version and there was a received Palestinian version, and since they were diametrically opposed to each other, someone had to be right and someone wrong. Either the village was bombed or the village wasn’t bombed. Both versions couldn’t possibly be correct.
Though perhaps I should also say that having found the truth is just the beginning; what one does with that truth is in many ways as important as uncovering it. The last thing I wanted to do was write a black-and-white version of this history, in which all the Palestinians were poor, helpless victims and all the Israelis were cruel, heartless invaders. There are lots of other truths at work in the book too and I’d hope that readers get a sense of just how rich and poignant and variable that full range of lived experience is. Not to sound too pat about it all, but it seems to me that the biographer’s primary concern must ultimately be with human beings. Not Palestinians and Israelis or Jews and Muslims or radical Pakistanis and lapsed Catholics. Not with representative figures or a set of ethnically varied cut-out dolls, but with profoundly complex and idiosyncratic individuals. Which isn’t to diminish the often intense political and historical questions that swirl around the depiction of these worlds, or to minimize just how much work the biographer writing about such material must do to get the cultural nuances right. It’s just to say that I think the reason you’re able to write convincingly—the reason you’d want to try to write convincingly—about someone like Maryam Jameelah across what must sometimes have seemed to you like an unbridgeable divide is that, despite your frequently fierce revulsion at her beliefs, you recognized her humanity. That might sound reductive or sappy, but I think it is—you’ll forgive me—true.
1 “Warning,” by Taha Muhammad Ali, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin is from So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, © 2006 Copper Canyon Press.