Salman Masalha: I Am An Arab Poet (From Hebrew)

How to be an Arab poet while writing in Hebrew? Salman Maṣalḥa has several poems which offer answers. This is one of them.

I Am An Arab Poet
By Salmān Maṣālḥa
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I am he: an Arab poet 
who has colored all in black. 
I will open the latch on my heart
for a world that is whirling back.

A poet strings rhyme on rhyme
of brother united with brother.
His scheme so crossed the line.
His father be damned and his mother. 

The sun will dawn from the east
on a land where the dirt holds sway. 
Let the blisters bloom on my hand,
and the village girls in their day. 

To hold to his dreams was all
the boy's hope — before his betrayal. 
The day he was born he found
in his hand a spoon of Sheol.

I am he: an Arab poet.
The word abides all with its beat.
Letters formed roots in my heart.
Hear me dance on prosthetic feet.

Audio of me reading this poem in Hebrew


These notes pertain to the Hebrew text as much as, or more than, to my English translation.

Stanza 1
L1- There's an indirect hint of what is called in traditional Arabic poetic terminology جِناس القَلبْ or metathetic paronomasia. (Or, to coin it in a way that isn't all Greek to you: rootplay.) The difference between the words for "Hebrew" and for "Arab" in written consonantal Hebrew is of consonant ordering. עברי and ערבי ˁ-r-b-i and ˁ-b-r-i. It would take only a metathesis of r-b to b-r to shift one to the other. In fact I imagine the Hebrew reader might well mistake one for the other at first reading if they're not careful, as they may be unused to Hebrew poets who call themselves Arab poets in this fashion. Note that in Hebrew as in Arabic, there is no lexical distinction between (ethnically) Arab and (linguistically) Arabic. To write these words in a Hebrew poem has an effect rather like Kerouac writing in English "I am a French poet" or Nabokov writing "I am a Russian poet." The fact that he doesn't actually use the word עברי "Hebrew" makes it all the more conspicuous by its absence.
Further note: the normal pronunciation of ערבי "Arab(ic)" in Hebrew is aravi. Here, though, it is rhymed as if it were ˁarabi, calling to mind a distinctively Arab pronunciation of the word.

Stanza 2
L1 — The term for "rhymes" חרוזים ḥaruzim is literally "beads" — a metaphor which, like much of the technical terminology surrounding Hebrew poetic composition, finds parallel with medieval Arabic.

L2 - A play on Psalm 133:1: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (hinne ma ṭoḇ uma-naˁīm - šeḇet aḥīm gam-yaḥad.) This Psalm verse is also the opening of a popular Hebrew folksong, making the words sound paradoxically trite and lofty at the same time. The implication here is of an Arab poet singing not of conflict but of (the possibility of) Israeli-Arab coexistence. The subsequent line implies that this doesn't reflect reality, or acceptability, that the notion is more pretty than true, more ideal than real. The rhyme אחיו/אביו aḥiv/aviv in Hebrew is incredibly dumb. But purposefully so.

L3- Literally "in falsification/form he rather overdid it, went overboard, inflated." One might read this as modifying the following line. But that seems a stretch.
The word kazav refers to not only falsity, but is a medieval Hebrew technical term for poetic form (i.e. as opposed to content.) This technical use of it is, by the by, a loan-translation from medieval Arabic (kaðib in the sense "poetic artifice" born of discussions of aesthetic value vs. truth value.) C.f. the many senses, literary and colloquial, of English conceit for a vaguely similar development in English. It is worth noting here that this poem is written in trimeter quatrains with a ternary meter that mostly weaves between anapests and amphibrachs. i.e. one of the most common rhymed stanzaic forms of mid 20th century modernist Hebrew verse (where it was introduced ultimately based on Russian models.) The meter has a distinctly Israeli, and ironically un-Arabic, feel to it.

Stanza 3
L2 - עפר ˁafar corresponds to what readers of the English Bible know as "dust" (as in "formed man from the dust of the ground" or "dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.") It is something one may be said to wallow in, or put on one's head, or be like, as a sign of how lowly one is. It also has undertones of mourning, and of the lowly human condition. To be בשבי העפר bišvi heˁafar "in captivity to dust/dirt" implies the utmost lowliness. ˁafar really means not dust in the normal sense, of course, but "dirt, earth." Beyond this though, the phrase "land (erets) in captivity to dirt/dust (ˁafar)" has an ironic twist to the biblically attuned ear, as it cannot but call to mind the phrase "dust of the earth" ˁafar ha'arets, ˁafar-erets which is banally frequent in the Bible, often symbolically associated with lowness or baseness, but just as often meaning "ground, soil." Captivity (שבי) is a term with a good deal of resonance as well. But in having the land in captivity to dust and dirt, the implication is of pointlessness, and oxymoronicity. It's almost a parody of meaningfulness. In the face of the sun high overhead, the dirt-formed humans obsessing idolatrously over patches of earth, are small indeed.

Stanza 4
L4- Sheol (pronounced variously in English, but can be pronounced so as to rhyme with "betrayal") is the Jewish netherworld. To go to Sheol is what one means by "going to the grave" in English. It is not what English speakers normally mean by Hell. Hell, in the sense of a place where the wicked go after death, corresponds more to גיהנום gehinom. Sheol is where all go — regardless of virtue or wickedness — when they die.

Stanza 5
L3- Seeing אותיות בלבי made me think immediately of Kabbalistic concepts, of the divinity inscribing holy letters on the heart, diacriticizing the heart as it were.

L4- Literally "my leg (is) prosthetic to dance." The Hebrew phrasing encourages the reader to treat the word תותבת as if it were a participle. Giving the sense "my leg gets all prosthetic for dancing" or "my leg prostheticizes for dance." I have gone with "feet" in translation. Mostly because I couldn't resist the double meaning in a poem that comments on its own form. (Hey, you know what foot-fetishists really get off on? Prosody!...Ok I'm awful. I'm sorry.) The word מחול specifically means a theatrical or performance dance.

The Original:

סלמאן מצאלחה
אני משורר ערבי
אֲנִי הוּא מְשׁוֹרֵר עֲרָבִי
שֶׁצּוֹבֵעַ הַכֹּל בְּשָׁחֹר.
אֶפְתַּח אֶת סְגוֹר לִבִּי
לָעוֹלָם שֶׁסּוֹבֵב לְאָחוֹר.
מְשׁוֹרֵר יִכְתֹּב חֲרוּזִים
עַל שֶׁבֶת אָח וְאָחִיו.
בַּכָּזָב הוּא מְעַט הִגְזִים
אִמּוֹ תְּקֻלַּל וְאָבִיו.
וְהַשֶּׁמֶשֶׁ בַּמִּזְרָח תִּזְרַח
עַל אֶרֶץ בִּשְׁבִי הֶעָפָר
בַּיָּדַיִם יַבָּלוֹת תִּפְרַחְ־
נָה. וְגַם נַעֲרוֹת הַכְּפָר.
לִנְצֹר חֲלוֹמוֹת רָצָה
הַיֶּלֶד עוֹד טֶרֶם נִבְגַּד.
כַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא נוֹלַד מָצָא
כַּפִּית שֶׁל שְׁאוֹל בַּיָּד.
אֲנִי הוּא מְשׁוֹרֵר עֲרָבִי
הַמִּלָּה תִּסְבֹּל אֶת הַכֹּל.
אוֹתִיּוֹת צִמְּחוּ בְּלִבִּי
רַגְלִי תוֹתֶבֶת לְמָחוֹל.

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