Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai has been celebrated for crafting poems that unblinkingly explore love, sensuality, spirituality and other closely-held matters of the heart and psyche.
Yet Israel’s increasingly violent climate has prompted Shabtai to alter his focus in the past year or so.
“The changes in Israel are so deep, I had to react,” Shabtai revealed last week from his part-time home in Amsterdam. “Before, it was something like an apartheid. But now it’s going more to the pole of [ethnic] cleansing. And it occurs day after day.”
“You feel it everywhere in Israel, the persecution of the Arabs,” continues Shabtai. “For me as a Jew, it’s very tragic.”
Shabtai’s upcoming series of U.S. poetry readings with Taha Muhammad Ali, a leading Palestinian poet (and Israeli citizen), is a statement in itself.
In a Sept. 26 stop at UNCA, each will read his poems as originally written — Shabtai in Hebrew, and Ali in Arabic — which will then be read in English by Peter Cole, who translates the work of both poets and holds dual American-Israeli citizenship.
Though Shabtai cautions that he’s not a politician spouting political propaganda, he’s taken strong stands through his poetry criticizing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and expressing his conviction that Arabs are an integral part of Israel.
“What I want to say is something very simple and humane. I come as a poet who tries to write poetry of being human — to tolerate,” declares Shabtai.
Though they share a country, the poets have had widely divergent experiences. Shabtai is considered the foremost Hebrew translator of Greek drama and was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Translation in 1993. Born in Tel Aviv (where he still has a home), he studied Greek and philosophy at Hebrew University, the Sorbonne and Cambridge, then went on to teach theater studies in Jerusalem. He’s written more than 15 books of poetry; Love & Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 1997) was translated by Cole and marks Shabtai’s first full-length work to appear in English.
In contrast to U.S. poets (whose published work is largely relegated to literary journals), Cole notes that poets in Israel have a much more public role. For example, poems — including Shabtai’s — regularly appear in Ha’aretz, a daily newspaper based in Tel Aviv that Cole compares to The New York Times.
The highly-regarded Shabtai has generated intense controversy with his unflinching political poetry at a time when many Israelis are rallying around the flag, Cole reports.
“He’s a deeply moral poet, but he’s challenging the readership and the powers-that-be to recover their humanity, which he feels the situation is depriving them of,” offers Cole.
“At the heart of all his so-called provocation is really a deeply ethical concern with Israeli culture,” Cole continues. “That’s really, as I understand it, the driving force in his recent poetry — really all his poetry, though … you feel at bottom an intent to establish a moral center and an ethical life in relation to the language and the culture at large.”
Ali’s life has been quite different. Born in the Galilean village of Saffuriya, he attended elementary school but spent the better part of his boyhood walking from village to village selling eggs, recounts Cole. When the 1948 Arab-Israeli war broke out (resulting in Israel’s statehood), the 17-year-old Ali and his family fled to Lebanon with other villagers.
“Many, many Palestinians fled — or were chased out, depending on the perspective, which history books you read,” observes Cole.
When the family slipped back across the border a year later, they found that their village had been razed to the ground. They settled in Nazareth (where Ali still lives) and began selling trinkets to Christian pilgrims. His sons continue to run Ali’s souvenir shop there, says Cole.
“All the while, he was teaching himself classical literary Arabic,” notes Cole.
Ali has published four books of poetry in Arabic. Ali’s Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story (Ibis Editions, 2000) contains selected poems that Cole has translated into English from the four Arabic-language books.
“The overwhelming feeling you get from his poetry is some very deep-seated hope,” suggests Cole. “There’s something very life-giving about his poetry … and he’s anything but bitter. He’s full of joy and is a marvelous storyteller. When he performs, all this comes out.”
“[Ali] is an extremely charismatic, nourishing sort of presence,” offers Cole. “Shabtai is extremely vital and dynamic, but he doesn’t put a nicer spin on things than they deserve.”
UNCA’s Rick Chess, associate professor of literature and language and director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, says the poetry reading is not designed to be overtly political.
“It’s a literary event,” notes Chess.” But it gives an opportunity for the rest of us to see how an Israeli and an Israeli-Palestinian can be together, joined by a common love of literature and the arts.”
Ultimately, Chess wants to inspire people to discover how poetry can communicate the human experience.
“I hope people will get something from poetry that they can’t get from the news — that poems offer us a nuanced portrait of complex feelings,” he offers.
And both Cole and Chess share the hope that American audiences will learn to appreciate two powerful poets.
In the siegelike atmosphere of Israel — where bombings occur all too often and security frisks have become a way of life — Cole offers another vision.
“Things are about as bleak here as they’ve been in a long time,” Cole says heavily from his home in Jerusalem. “People in Israel, Palestinians and Jews alike — everything has become polarized. There’s not a lot of contact. This is a very small attempt to do something in a more positive direction.”