Love of verse unites Arabs and Jews

In studying one another's works, Jewish and Arab poets each discover a new respect for the literature - and humanity - of the other.

Imagine a Middle East in which Arab and Jew make poetry together rather than battle one another. Utopian? Naive? Away from the headlines about bombings and army incursions, promising Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli poets have been coming together to study their art, learning about verse but also using the creative process as a bridge across a national and linguistic divide.

"The framework of a poetry class cannot solve a political conflict between nations but it can contribute to gaining familiarity, understanding, and mutual respect between Arabs and Jews and even to help establish ongoing cooperation between poets," says Amir Or, founder of the program and director of Helicon, the Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel. It has just published an anthology in Arabic and Hebrew of the poems that emerged from this year's joint class.

The topics of the poems range from the drudgery of manning an army watchtower (Jewish poet Eyal Rechter) to continuing despair and emptiness over the loss of homeland (Arab poet Muslim Mahamid). But regardless of the differences in perspective and experience, there are many common themes including love, loneliness, and battling fear.

Over a period of six months, the 11 Jewish and five Arab poets joined together in the northern Israeli town of Zichron Yaacov for workshops taught by leading Jewish and Arab literary figures and scholars. Among the topics were Hebrew and Arabic poetic traditions, reading aloud at recitals, editing of texts, principles of translation, and writing exercises.

The class was motivated in part by the widening gap between the worlds of Israeli Arabs and Jews after the eruption of the intifada uprising in the fall of 2000, says Mr. Or.

As fighting raged in the occupied territories, Israeli Arabs demonstrated in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Thirteen Arabs were shot dead by police in protests that marked a major crisis in relations, with many Arabs concluding their citizenship in the Israeli state was hollow and experiencing heightening feelings of exclusion, and many Jews having their sense of security shaken by images of Arab protesters blocking roads and throwing stones.

"We understood we could do something," Or says.

Or also hopes the class will contribute to the growth of Arabic poetry in Israel, a field previously much neglected by the mainstream Israeli literary world. Helicon began bringing the poets together and three classes have since emerged.

If the comments of participants are any indication, the poets have forged a kind of separate peace despite the lack of healing in the overall political context.

The program's strength is that the poets come as individuals and not as representatives of groups, says Basilius Bawardi, who teaches Arabic literature at Haifa University and lectures in the workshops. "This is an island of people putting ideology and politics aside and dealing with poetry and understanding each other," he says.

It was through the translations that the poets really got to know one another, the participants say. As opposed to the overall political situation in which they are a minority facing discrimination, the Arab poets had the upper hand in the translation process since all of them knew Hebrew at least on a working level.

Only a third of the Hebrew poets knew some Arabic, according to Or, reflecting the asymmetry in Israeli society where Arabs must master Hebrew in their schooling, but Jews often receive at best a smattering of literary Arabic.

The poets conferred together in groups of four or five, led by instructors fluent in each language. The poets composed transliterations and read out the poems to give a sense of their rhythm and sound. They also devised a basic literal translation. Then they looked for nuances, with group members questioning the poet to discern his exact meaning and cultural particularities.

"Translation is no simple matter," adds Samih Hazkaya, an Arab lawyer and poet from the northern town of Tira. "It is like creating something anew. It involves a kind of intimacy with the poet. You get to know him, enter his private places and emotions, and come to an understanding of how he sees things," Hazkaya says.

Khaled Masalha, a dentist and poet from Dabouriya in northern Israel, said the class helped him "to break free" of the more rigid framework of Arab poetry, which traditionally has very strict rules on meter and rhyme.

Mr. Masalha translated a poem by Jewish poet Ronit Shpiner about pressures and demands of life, including bringing up children in a climate of fear, and external threats ranging from terrorism to earthquakes. Ms. Shpiner's lament was that all this leaves no time or energy for love.

"I had no problem relating to the content ... But the rhythm was difficult. It was tough to get it right in Arabic," Masalha says.

Eyal Rechter, a business administration student, worked with Arab poet Salwa Jamal on a translation of Rechter's poem, "From Mother," a letter of a bereaved Jewish mother on the anniversary of her son's death.

"For Jews, most of the bereavement for mothers is a result of the encounter with Arabs," Mr. Rechter says. "There I was sitting with an Arab woman, translating the poem. I felt that my context was foreign to her, but the feelings I expressed were universal. Politically, you can be on either side, but every mother loves her boy."

Radi Abd Eljawad, an Arab sculptor and teacher and the senior member of the group with 34 years of poetry- writing experience, says the class prompted him to try his hand in writing poems in Hebrew. "I have just written a poem in which I imagine myself as a Jew and am speaking Hebrew."

The poem, he says, is about Israeli feelings of insecurity at being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of perceived Arab enemies they view as "foxes" and also what he sees as a lack of Israeli feeling accompanying house demolitions by the army and other measures used against Palestinians in the occupied territories.

"I never believe in a perfect world," says Mr. Abd Eljawad, who grew up in the Askar Refugee Camp in the West Bank. "On our side there can be wrong things, while the enemy can be wrong in some ways and right in other ways. There can be wrong things on each side, but you can also find good ideas."

Abd Eljawad said he was impressed by Recther's poem on his military service at a desert watchtower, which he translated into Arabic.

"It's an excellent one because it is addressing something not related to militaristic or national feelings, but talking about human beings and what it is like for them to be in the desert, that they want to go to their wives and make love to women. It reflected the humanity of the soldier very well."

Or says he hopes the joint work will have a long-term impact on the writings of the poets. "When you see people go through a process together, work together, create together, and establish quite deep contact," he says, "you can see that coexistence is entirely possible."

From Mother

Your friends
Have grown up today
In one more year,
And they're alive.
It is not envy, 'tis only
Pain.
That won't let go.
I ought to share it with them.
Even when you still existed,
That was hard.

- By Israeli poet Eyal Rechter, translated from Hebrew to Arabic by Arab poet Salwa Jamal (and into English by Eyal Rechter)

I bought a book of poems,
"Selected Polish Poetry After
1945."
World War II.
An Arab taxi driver,
I caressed its golden letters,
"After 1945."
And wasn't afraid.
For the blink of an eye we met in the mirror,
I returned to the poems,
and he to Jerusalem.
Twenty-six Shekels,
fare price.

- By Jewish poet Ronit Shpiner, translated from Hebrew to Arabic by Arab poet Radi Abd (and into English by Ms. Shpiner with Vivian Eden)

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