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Arab Poetry for Jews: Sasson Somekh

"If we had soldiers read the poetry their enemies write, we could prevent war," declared Haim Gouri, an old poet and an old soldier, at Jerusalem’s literary café Tmol Shilshom last night. Sasson Somekh, whose new memoir was the subject of the evening, smiled. While he was polite enough not to contradict his friend, his career as a mediator between Arabic and Hebrew poetry and literature, and their mutually estranged readers, indicates that he believes fiercely in the power of poetry. But that his faith is a lot more complicated than Gouri’s.

Somekh’s earlier memoir, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, recounted his boyhood in Baghdad. As a teenage intellectual from an assimilated Jewish family, the budding writer identified first with the Arab poets who gathered at the café next to his Jewish school. Stimulated by contact with the West and Arab nationalism, these poets were, Somekh relates, redefining Arabic poetry, making it less formal, more supple, more down-to-earth. By the age of 15 he was writing Arabic poetry himself, and dreaming of a future as part of an Arabic literary revival.

But Jewish life in Bahdad was becoming ever more untenable for Jews, even assimilated ones who identified themselves as Jewish Arabs. When he was 17, his family moved to Israel.

The first Israeli Somekh met when he arrived in Haifa was Emile Habibi, the leading Arab literary figure remaining in Israel after the 1948 war, and leader of Israel’s Communist Party. Somekh tried, for a short time, to carry on as a poet in Arabic, but soon realized that a Jewish poet writing in Arabic in Israel would not easily find an audience.

"With the passion that only an 18-year old can muster, I set about learning Hebrew," he related last night. "I bought a dictionary and the complete works of Shalom Aleichem in Berdichevsky’s Hebrew translation, and carried them with me night and day."

In his second volume of memoirs, just published in Hebrew as Yamim Hazu’im (Call it Dreaming is the official English title, although it lacks the Hebrew’s connotation of hallucination or imagination rather than dream), Somekh relates how he became Israel’s leading translator of Arabic poetry into Hebrew and one of its leading scholars of Arabic literature. Somekh’s translations have been the channel through which Israeli readers have been able to read and gain an appreciation of some of the Arab world’s most important voices, including Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish. He also wrote his PhD thesis on and developed a close friendship with the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

With a biography that spans the Jewish-Arab divide, it is not surprising that Somekh is able to appreciate the Arab point of view. Unlike more simplistic readers, his hackles don’t get raised automatically when a poet like Darwish or Samih al-Qasim writes about the Nakba or criticizes the Israeli government. Neither does he accept the Arab point of view uncritically or sacrifice his own Jewish and Israeli identity on the altar of empathy. Last night he read us his Hebrew translation of Darwish’s final poem, and called the audience’s attention both to Darwish’s accusatory tone against Israel and of the modulations in that tone that show how the poet’s profound and instinctive sorrow and resentment at his people’s suffering is accompanied by a deeper understanding and acceptance of the point of view of his Israeli adversaries.

In the same vein, Somekh last night lauded Egyptian literature while reminding us that the Egyptian intelligentsia is one of the major anti-Israeli forces in the country. He noted how, some years ago, Egypt’s opposition newspapers, where many of the country’s intellectuals write, blamed a local earthquake on Israel. Israel, the newspapers claimed, had exploded a nuclear bomb in the Sinai Peninsula, thus causing the earthquake. Even though Egypt’s leading seismologist asserted that such an explosion could not cause an earthquake, the country’s foreign minister, Amr-Musa, refused to counter the investigation and in fact gave it credence by saying at a press conference that the possible link between the earthquake and an Israeli nuclear explosion was "under investigation."

Reading each other’s poetry will not in and of itself prevent future Israeli-Arab wars. But reading poetry the way Somekh does can perhaps help bring us closer to a day when such wars will fade into history. That means understanding the pain of our enemies and accepting their right and need to express it even in ways that are painful to us. But it also means not taking compassion to the extreme of obviating our own right to our own pain and its expression. The way to peace between the two peoples is not self-negation in the face of the justice of the other side. It lies rather in respectful but critical appreciation of those innermost feelings that receive their most salient expression in poetry and literature.


Read more by Haim at South Jerusalem.

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