So What

By Taha Muhammad Ali

New & Selected Poems, © 1971-2005
Copper Canyon Press, ISBN 1-55659-245-0

A Review by Avideh Shashaani

It is not everyday that one confronts “wisdom”.  Writing a review on So What is reviewing a life lived to its fullest under the most constraining of circumstances.  How does one come out shining with innocence when one’s life is a symbol of a conflict that has endured for over fifty years?

When I read So What, I realized that this was a voice that we wish belonged to us.  But most of us are far from knowing how to live sweetly with the bitterness of life.  I knew that I wanted to meet the man whose written word was a mere reflection of a deep spirit that had understood the fragility of life from an early age and had transformed hardship into a vitality for the beauty of life that is infectious.

Watching and listening to Taha Muhammad Ali at Chapters Bookstore in Washington, D.C. was an affirmation of what I had come away with while reading So What.  One could easily see the deep lines of life on the face of this towering man who read his poems in Arabic with a sweetness that put the nectar of the morning glory to shame.

Peter Cole has applied his literary and translation skills in capturing the heart of what Ali has so eloquently said in Arabic.  Translating Arabic poetry into English is a daunting task, but this is a translation that is genuinely impressive.  One does not see a boundary between the author and the translator.

This bilingual book of verse is the voice of a Palestinian, Muhammad Taha Ali, and Peter Cole his Israeli friend, poet, and translator.  The merging of these two voices into one can teach us that no matter how deep-rooted conflicts may be, friendships and individual lives can emerge unscathed from a single root that transcends boundaries.

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,
life a fawn,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn’t happiness.
Trust me:
my happiness bears
no relationship to happiness.

Avideh Shashaani is the author of two books, Promised Paradise (poetic prose) and Remember Me (poetry). She has translated ten Persian mystical texts into English. She holds a Ph.D. in Sufi Studies.