‘Not my Mother Tongue’

Hannan Hever

Not my Mother Tongue

"In Place", written by Salman Masalha, obliges its readers to listen acutely to the penetrating poems within, for they demand a rethinking of Hebrew poetry, its possibilities and its borders.

As an Arab poet writing in Hebrew, Masalha reconfigures the ethnic boundaries of Hebrew literature, which appear to be uniform; this literature has set an implicit condition with respect to who may included in it and who may not, a condition marking it as Jewish literature. But when an Arab writer writes in Hebrew, and the Hebrew language does not necessarily signify a Jewish writer, a trail is blazed toward the representation of a wide-open Israeli national identity.

Due to the fact that Arab writers are active in Hebrew literature, and especially since the dramatic appearance of Anton Shammas’ novel Arabesques in 1986, the definition that restricts “Hebrew literature” to “Jewish literature” has been shaken at its very foundations. Readers of Hebrew are obliged to acknowledge one of the direct influences of Israeliness on the definitions and boundaries of Hebrew literature.

Masalha writes with extraordinarily precise sensitivity from the standpoint of a national minority which exists, with reservations, within the canon of Hebrew literature. This stance poses a challenge to the Hebrew canon, through the voice of “the other” which the writer inserts into Hebrew poetry. Masalha’s language is impressive, mature and melodious; he maintains, to a large extent, a consistent voice and ‘correct’ poetics. At the same time, Masalha demonstratively answers Hebrew readers’ expectations that they will find in his work a variety of ‘typical’ Arab writing. In a characteristic move of what [French theorists] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “minor literature”, he subverts the foundations of “major literature” in Hebrew, doing so from the inside and in the language of the ruling literature. Masalha creates a language of his own within Hebrew poetry by means of a parody of the poetic Arab stereotype; he creates a sharp tension between what his poetry is supposed to be and what it is.

An outstanding example of this is the poem ‘Anemones: PalestinianSong’, which is “dedicated to [Israeli poet] Zali Gurevitch’s grandmother”:

The lake has long climbed
to the branches of the trees.
The peasant plows the field
with bare feet.
In the dawn hour he does not see
the approach of spring.
The anemones all around
have already bloomed forth
red tile roofs.

The words “have already bloomed forth” have a double significance. They continue “the anemones all around” and they begin a predicate-subject-or-object sequence that ends with “red tile roofs”. Thus the poem, which has a structure that is blunt in its (expected, stereotypical) simplicity, acquires at its end an unexpected complexity that subverts a simple and stereotypical reception of it.

Here, too, humor is Masalha’s weapon as a writer of “minor literature” that subverts the language and the canon within which it operates. A particularly mischievous atmosphere prevails in the poem ‘On the Belief in Amulets as a Means of Making Peace in the Middle East’ which notes in its subtitle that it is “about Jewish-Arab coexistence”. It contains a rhyming pattern which flings down the gauntlet to readers’ perceptions of the boundaries of Hebrew literature as ethnically Jewish, a pattern which is developed in other poems in this book as well: the systematic adoption of a combination of internal rhyme and end rhyme, giving the poem an ostensibly naive melodic regularity. But this melody, for example in the poem ‘Arab Ballad’ presents an orientalist, stereotypical text – turned upside down: that is, a text that is written about the East, but from the direction of the East and not, as usual, from West looking at the East with an orientalist perspective. The subversive poetic stance has its source in the recognition that the poems were written in an atmosphere of violence and death. In the poem ‘Sign of Scorpio’, a self-portrait, poetic diction grows like a bifurcated tongue in the presence of this profound awareness of disaster:

And over the years I also learned
to shed my skin.
Like a snake caught
between scissors and paper.
Thus was my fate sealed
in words cut from the roots of pain.
With a tongue forked
in two. One, Arabic
to keep mother’s memory alive.
The other, Hebrew – on a winter’s night
to love.

The writing of poetry is like the snake’s reaction to the danger it encounters. The scissors press the snake to the paper, a metaphoric act of cutting which results in words that are ‘cut out’, [meaning removed and lost, and meaning also] ‘derivative’, [that is, inauthentic]. The snake sheds its skin – and the response is a tongue which is bifurcated like a snake’s. Masalha splits the language of his poetry, which enables him to address the Hebrew audience [albeit] through a mask. The writing of poetry, then, is a survival mechanism in a violent and impossible situation. The act of poetry enables the poet to survive nonetheless between two split organs while adopting a post-colonialist perspective, an intermediate stage of oppression that operates in indirect ways. And therefore, when he declares a split he does this through the (Hebrew) rhyme of the words meaning ‘guarantee’ and ‘love’ – which in their sound also hark back to the word for ‘pain’. The location of the poet is represented as a violent one from which there is no exit:

It changes so fast,
the world. And for me it’s
now absurd. Things have got
to the point that I’ve stopped
thinking about the fall.
Because, after all, from here,
there’s nowhere to go.
And anyway, even in the park
the trees are uprooted and gone.
And at times like these, it’s dangerous
to go out in the streets.
The road is so wet.
Blood flows in the main artery.

By means of homage to [Israeli poet] David Avidan (“Because, after all, from here,/ there’s nowhere to go”), Masalha interprets the everyday phrase “wet road” as the violence of another kind of liquidity: “Blood flows in the main artery.” Again, this melodious poem ends with the recognition that this location is violent and exitless. In the same way ‘Homeland Hymn’ ends with the line “A land of milk, a homeland flows with curses”, and the poem ‘Caesarian Section’ with “In a back room, the evening undergoes/ a Caesarian section, a homeland . . . raped.” Thus death and its symbols end a number of the poems in the book, also the case in ‘Spots of Color’, (“the pit that is mined”) as well as ‘Self-Portrait’ which ends with the subject of the portrait hanging himself on the wall.

The recognition that Masalha’s poetry is written in a place battered by violence repeatedly elicits bifurcation as the only way to survive in it. In the poem ‘I Write Hebrew’, Masalha writes:

I write in the Hebrew language
which is not my mother tongue,
to lose myself in the world. He who does not
get lost, will never find the whole.

The loss of orientation – linguistic and therefore of identity – is depicted in the poem as the only orientation possible in a world that is replete with violence, and just a step away from the fortuitous recognition, in the same poem, of partners along the way who are relevant for not having defined identities:

I shall
meet many
people. And make them all my friends.
Who is foreign? Who far, who near?
There is no strangeness in the ways of the world.
Because strangeness, mostly,
lies in man’s heart.

The people around him, and especially he himself, do not have defined and particular identities:

As I have no government, with
or without a head, and there is no
chairman sitting on my head, I can
under such extenuating circumstances
sometimes allow myself to be human,
a bit free.

The identity with which the poet chooses to define himself is linked to place by virtue of the fact of his presence as a native there and not by virtue of any national connection: “And I was a Jew, before Jesus walked/ on the Sea of Galilee . . . / And I was a Muslim in the land/ of Jesus, and a Catholic in the desert.” The homeland is no more than an apartment house. This is the case in the poem in memory of Emile Habibi:

In a row of trees immersed in stone,
they planted men, women, a youth. Tenants
in an apartment house called homeland.
Jews whose voices I never heard,
Arabs whom I never understood.
And other such tunes I never knew
how to recognize in the moment that went silent

(‘In Haifa, Facing the Sea’)

Masalha challenges the connection to place that exists by virtue of national identity, as well as the claim that national identity is the one which grants freedom. In the poem ‘Father Too’ he poses an option of autonomous existence with respect to the symbols of the Israeli government – the freedom of someone who exists in the presence of the rulers over the land and despite them:

My father,
who was born on the slope of the mountain
and gazed down on the lake,
never had a passport.
Or even a laissez-passer.
He crossed the mountains
when the borders did not flow
in the river.
My father
never had a passport.
Not because he didn’t have
a land and a seal.
Just because the land
always dwelt calmly
in the palms of his hands.
And just as the land
never slipped from his hands to travel
Father – too.


First published in Haaretz, March 5, 2004.