The middle voice

Robyn Creswell in The National:

ScreenHunter_09 Apr. 12 23.37 Adina Hoffman’s biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is a triumph of sympathetic imagination, dogged research and impassioned writing. More than the story of one man’s life, it brings to light entire strata of historical and cultural experience that have been neglected or purposefully covered over. For readers of English, there is no comparable work – certainly nothing so densely detailed or eloquently argued – for understanding Palestinian intellectual life in the second half of the 20th century. And for all that, it is anything but dry or ponderous or, to invoke a cliché that no critic of biography seems able to do without, monumental. Instead, Hoffman’s book is an unconventional and avowedly personal study – the record of an engagement with a man and a literary tradition that both deserve a wider audience.

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is the first biography of any Palestinian writer in any language – hard to fathom, but true – and the choice of Muhammad Ali as a subject, especially in this light, is a surprising one. For most of his life Muhammad Ali has not been a poet but a Nazarene businessman, selling souvenirs from his shop near the Church of the Annunciation. “A Muslim who sells Christian trinkets to Jews” is his humorous self-description. He didn’t write his first poem until he was 40 years old, and though he has now published five volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories, it is still a relatively modest oeuvre.

More here.