The Arty Semite

National Poetry Month: Hebrew, Arabic, and Dead Poets

By Jake Marmer

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Among the most original contemporary Israeli poets is Almog Behar, a Jerusalemite in his early 30s. His story “Ana Min Al-Yahoud” (“I am one of the Jews”), which won the Haaretz Short Story competition in 2005, in many ways defined his artistic and poetic practice: incorporating the Arabic heritage of his ancestors (who made their way to Israel from Iraq) into his Israeli, Hebrew-speaking purview. The musicality of his work grows not only from the tension in such a union, but also from cultural cross-pollination, and the possibilities this process has to offer.

And so, while the first poem featured today addresses the two languages and the two voices that are in conflict in the poet’s very throat, in the second piece, the undercurrent of Arabic heritage envelops a Jerusalem setting in an organic, wholesome and sweetly nostalgic manner. The third poem, despite its seemingly ominous title, is a more light-hearted, humorous diversion from heavy matters of identity conflict.

Those interested in learning more about Almog’s work, both in poetry and social justice, should read his interview on Words Without Borders.

As part of the Forward’s National Poetry Month celebration, we will be featuring an interview with Almog, along with interviews of six other poets. Stay tuned!


My Arabic is Mute

My Arabic is Mute
Strangled in the throat
Cursing itself
Without uttering a word
Sleeping in the suffocating air
Of the shelters of my soul
Hiding
From family members
Behind the shutters of the Hebrew.

And my Hebrew erupts
Running around between rooms
And the neighbors’ porches
Sounding her voice in public
Prophesizing the coming of God And bulldozers
and then she settles in the living room
Thinking herself
Openly on the edge of her skin
Hidden between the pages of her flesh
one moment naked and the next dressed
She almost makes herself disappear
In the armchair
Asking for her heart’s forgiveness.

My Arabic is scared
quietly impersonates Hebrew
Whispering to friends
With every knock on her gates:
“Ahalan, ahalan, welcome”.
And in front of every passing policeman
And she pulls out her ID card
for every cop on the street
pointing out the protective clause:
“Ana min al-yahud, ana min al-yahud,
I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew”.

And my Hebrew is deaf
Sometimes so very deaf.

הערבית שלי אילמת

הערבית שלי אילמת
חנוקה מן הגרון
מקללת את עצמה
בלי להוציא מילה
יֵשֵנָה באוויר המחניק של מקלטֵי נפשִי
מסתתרת
מבני-המשפחה
מאחורי תריסי העברית.

והעברית שלי גועשת
מתרוצצת בין החדרים ומרפסות השכנים
משמיעה קולה בַרביםמ
נבאת בואם של אלוהים
ודחפורים
ואז מתכנסת בסלון
חושבת את עצמה
גְלוּיוֹת גלוּיוֹת על שפת עורה
כסוּיוֹת כסויות בין דפי בשרה
רגע עירומה ורגע לבושה
היא מצטמצמת בכורסא
מבקשת את סליחת לבה.

הערבית שלי פוחדת
מתחזה בשקט לעברית
ולוחשת לְחברים
עם כל דפיקה בשעריה:
“אהלן אהלן”.
ומול כל שוטר עובר בַרחוב
שולפת תעודת זהות
מצביעה על הסעיף המגונן:
“אנא מִן אל-יַהוּד, אנא מִן אל-יַהוּד”.

והעברית שלי חירשת
לפעמים חירשת מאוד


A Jerusalem Courtyard

The night-sweetness of her love pinches
In my flesh, in a Jerusalem courtyard,
Between vine and stone, between
The notes of the ‘Ud and Ladino,
Between the walls of my body.
at the edge of the courtyard fixed against an old metal fence,
is an old woman with her head covered,
drawn out from the alleyway
On her way home from the prayer house,
Tasting the notes, imagining for a moment
that she is again the daughter of a king, passing
Between the courtyards. And the ‘Ud,
That was a forbidden language to my ears,
was let loose in the courtyard from its bounds,
And I, who taught myself to suckle honey from a stone,
learn now to drink nectar from a girl’s mouth.
The old woman’s eyes laugh behind the musicians’ backs
and the beautiful fat woman-singer,
And to my eyes she looks now just like my grandmother,
Who before she died went back to speaking,
not a word of Hebrew.


Dead poets

Dead poets
Write better
Than me
Better than the living poets
Better than those who have not been born yet.
When I become a poet
A dead poet
Maybe I will write better
Than me
Better than the living
Better than the poets who have not been born yet.

משוררים מתים

משוררים מתים
כותבים טוב
ממני
טוב מן המשוררים החיים
טוב מאלו שעוד לא נולדו.
כשאהיה משורר
משורר מת
אולי אכתוב טוב
ממני םטוב מן החיי
מן המשוררים אשר עדיין לא נולדו.


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