Talya Halkin | A Tongue forked in two

A Tongue forked in two

Poet Salman Masalha walks a bilingual tightrope between Hebrew and Arabic
By Talya Halkin

With his serious, penetrating black eyes and a pair of thin lips that appear to be guarding a suppressed smile, Salman Masalha labors to mask his sensitivity with a carefully crafted air of probing skepticism.

Following the publication of five books of poetry written in Arabic, In Place -- his latest book of poetry – is the first one Masalha has written in Hebrew. The poems it contains are accomplished, mature, and pervaded by an unsettling mixture of humor and cynicism. If they are pained, they also seem to have been written by a person who has come to understand the importance of love, and who has arrived at a sense of self-acceptance even though he continues to be riddled with doubt.

“The beauty of language,” he began when we sat down together in the sparsely furnished living room of his apartment in Jerusalem’s Old Katamon neighborhood, “is that it has no particular allegiance. Even though it evolves within a given culture, the moment you master a language it becomes your own. The question is not one of ownership – the only relationship a poet can entertain with a language is one of love. It’s like being in love with a woman – if you study her and express yourself with her, then in a way you master her – in the same way that she masters you.”

Bi-lingual writers often find themselves in danger of entering an endless process of alchemy between languages, which robs them of the ability to fully dedicate themselves to either one. Masalha, however, is the lucky kind of writer who has managed to find a model of poetic co-existence between the two languages he writes in – as complicated as this may sometimes be.

“Arabic,” he told me, “is like a reserved woman who hides more than she reveals. As a language, it’s less liberated than Hebrew because it’s imprisoned in cultural conceptions and taboos. You have to transgress them in secret in order to discover the wild soul within the language. By contrast, Hebrew is self-possessed and confident. It is free – sometimes even too free, teetering on the verge of self-abandon.“
Masalha was born in 1953 in the predominantly Druze village of Al Maghar in the Galilee.

“I was born under the sign of Scorpio,” he begins one of the poems in his new book. “Or so the village elders said. / And their faces were like autumn leaves that brushed past my face. / And they said that when I was born in November no/ star fell from the sky. I was a stranger/ who passed through a bottomless dream.

“And over the years,” he concludes in the poem’s last stanza, “I also learned / to shed my skin like / a snake caught between scissors and paper. / Thus my fate was 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 / to love on a winter’s night.”

Although he identifies writing in Arabic with the memory of his mother, Masalha argues that the literary Arabic in which he composes his poems cannot be described as a “mother-tongue.”

“In distinction from spoken Arabic,” he explained, “Literary Arabic is a formally acquired language, studied in the same way that an Arab poet living in Israel studies Hebrew. When you write in Arabic, you are always already caught up in an act of translation. Since it’s not an everyday language, composing poetry in it means hovering over the experience rather than being immersed in it. You are writing out of a certain sense of estrangement and distance even though it is your own language.”

In 1972, after declining to serve in the Israeli army, Masalha moved to Jerusalem and enrolled at Hebrew University, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on pre-Islamic Arab poetry. Yet even though he identifies poetry as the founding heritage of Arab culture, and writing in Arab with expanding his world backwards in time and space, Masalha argues that writing in Arabic today restricts his readership even more than writing in Hebrew.

In a recent interview in the Jerusalem newspaper Kol Hair, Masalha told the journalist Sayed Kashua that in his opinion, illiteracy in the Arab world – if defined not as the technical ability to read but as the actual reading of books -- today nears eighty percent.

“I think there is a direct link between the level of literacy and the degree of pathology in Arab culture today,” Masalha told me. “Violent children are children whose expressive abilities are very limited. The same goes for politicians -- those who cannot express themselves eloquently end up expressing themselves violently. A healthy society goes hand in hand with rich, developed linguistic capabilities. The creation of an artistic avant-guard requires a free, democratic society, which is why there is no Arab avant-guard today. Liberated writing in Arabic exists today only in Europe, among Arabs in exile.”
The sound of steam spurting out of the espresso machine died down in the rear of the Yaffa Café in Jaffa as a small audience gathered there last week to meet Masalha read. Sitting beside his partner, the translator Vivian Eden, Masalha read several poems in Hebrew from In Place, as well as other poems in Arabic from his previous books.

“Strange people sit in/ cafés of an evening,” he began, in Hebrew. “The day/ has already flown from their memories, / slipped through their fingers without knowing/ what remained at its end…
“There, at the end, between sip and sip,” he concluded, “you will yet discover / in the murky depths of a cup/ that oblivion/ is the beginning of memory. (Translated by Vivian Eden).
“Why,” I had asked Masalha when we met, “do you conceive of oblivion as the beginning of memory?”

“I think,” he answered, “that the part of the world we live in suffers from an excess of memory and history. The past is so multi-layered, that it’s difficult for us to envision a future. People here need to learn to forgive and forget. That, in my eyes, will be the beginning of real memory and of the salvation of this region.

“We need,” he continued, “to keep shedding layers not in order to return to the past, because we will never return to what once was. Instead, you can compare this process to a tree shedding leaves – a process that is accompanied by a hope for a new life. The problem is that both Arabs and Jews try to go forward while their eyes are stuck in the backs of their heads. That is why they keep falling down, and getting up only to fall down yet again. You need to spin their heads one-hundred-and-eighty degree in order for them to stop falling.”

In the poem “Father Too,” Masalha writes of his father, who never owned neither a passport nor a transit document, and for whom territorial boundaries were set by rivers and mountains rather than by political frontiers. His sense of belonging, as Masalha describes it, was based not on official documents but on a sensual, visceral connection between body and earth – “because the country always resided there peacefully in his hands.”

“My own sense of belonging,” Masalha told me, “is similarly not contained within a set of delineated political borders. It’s an emotional sense of allegiance to certain landscapes and sensations, and to both the Hebrew and Arabic languages. My heart is full of chambers -- not just four or five like those described in anatomy books, but an entire palace in which each open door leads to a new discovery.

In the poem “A Final Answer To The Question: How Do You Define Yourself?” Masalha writes, “I am an Arab poet from before Islam spread its wings towards the desert. /And I was a Jew, before Jesus went to float upon the Sea of Galilee….and I was a Muslim in the land of Jesus, and a catholic in the desert…”

“Emotionally,” Masalha said, “I feel like I am part of the entire cultural heritage of this area – no matter whether it is Pagan, Jewish or Muslim. In my opinion, however, monotheism is the greatest disaster that happened to human kind, because it implies a lack of pluralism. Ideally, I imagine a total separation of church and state which would allow Palestinians and Israelis to live in one state, but it’s clear to me that we are not at that stage.

“Deep down,” he continued, “neither of these two peoples has come to terms with the existence of the other. I don’t know what needs to happen – perhaps it will take even worse tragedies before this becomes possible. What is clear to me, though, is that this country would be a disaster without the presence of either one of these two components. The whole beauty of this place is this multiplicity, but the problem is how to bring it all to a plain of construction rather than destruction. At this point, just like a married couple with complex problems, Palestinians and Israelis have two choices – you either continue to nag each other, or you separate so that each spouse can live in their own house.”

Masalha begins the last poem in his new book, “Hope” (In Hebrew, Hatikva also refers to Israel’s national anthem), with the image of a one-way street leading into a field where a body lies surrounded by scraps of metal. It is a place where the spirit of God “Hovers not upon water,” but upon blood. The poem ends with a vision of the coming of autumn and the falling of leaves – of hope as a season of transition.

“In the process of creation,” Masalha told me, “every artist undergoes something of a schizophrenic process, because while you are working you leave yourself and step into another world, you become a different person. Getting lost is part of the quest for an existential and poetic truth. Poetry is written out of a personal or collective sense of void – a lack of love, of experience, of peace. It tries to block this void like a finger filling a hole in a damn, so that the water doesn’t overflow and drown everything.”

Published in: Jerusalem Post, May 14, 2004