Meet the Poet-Stranger: Three Stories and Their Aftermath

Khaled Mattawa

As a writer starting out in the early 1990s, I wanted the company of fellow immigrants who worked in the language of their adopted homelands, chiseling away at their exile and making a home for themselves in poetry. One of my first projects while in graduate school was to collect the works of U.S.-based, foreign-born poets whose native language was not English but who wrote in it. I went on to assemble an anthology of sixty-two poets, and the list has grown longer and more varied since then.

Eventually, this interest led me to the postcolonial shelves in the library, and soon enough I wanted to know my older siblings. I learned that the earliest likely candidates for the first serious non-English poet writing in English were poets such as Henry Louis Vivian Dorozio (1809-1831) and Toru Dutt (1856-1877), two Anglo-Indian prodigies who wrote against tremendous odds and died in their early twenties.

Presently, the Anglophone poetry world (including international poetry in translation) continues to expand, with more poet-strangers appearing in the capitals of the English-speaking world and with more poetry in English written and published outside of traditional realms for English-language poetry. As exemplified by Walcott, as well as the Syrian poet Adonis, the Jamaican poet Kamau Braithwaite and the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, the postcolonial poet is a resident of the metropolis–at least for part of the time. He or she is an exile, a dual citizen, a member of an ethnic minority, a member of a sectarian group, and a cosmopolitan, all at once or in some combination. With the development of new and varied zones in which he or she can operate, the foreign poet, whether living in the metropolis or not, has a greater chance at close proximity to it. Other opportunities for the poet’s presence are also opening up in unprecedented places outside the Western metropolis; one of the most elaborate literary festivals in the world now takes places in Dubai. The annual poetry festival in Medellin, Colombia features at least sixty poets who come from all corners of the globe to be heard and viewed by audiences who turn out in the thousands every night.

Even the most “national” of poets have had to become international. With the effusion of migration and the development of multiplicities of diasporic communities, poets can remain within their nations as they hop from one capital to another. Over the past few years, the prominent Iraqi poet Mudhaffar al-Nawwab has come to the U.S. on several occasions to give readings to Arab diasporic communities who invited him. Like an itinerant priest of a minor religion whose population is scattered over a broad territory, Al-Nawwab interacts almost exclusively with the Arab community, and then he goes back to Damascus, where he lives in exile. With only a few of his poems translated into other languages, he is and he is not an international postcolonial poet.

Poets may or may not be engaged by the settings in which they find themselves; their approaches to and degree of engagement have to do with their sense of their audience. The level of a poet’s engagement also depends on the capacity of audiences, made of up of others, to take the poet in, which is a different undertaking than simply understanding his work or its context. The issue before us here in the American poetry scene is the manner in which audiences made up of poets, readers, students, scholars, and publishers have approached and received poet-strangers. Other than the obvious admiration for the art form, what “news,” to use W. C. Williams’s phrase, do the poet-strangers offer, and how is their work positioned within the world of American poetry? Presenting three recent anecdotes regarding the poet-stranger’s presence on the American scene, I wish to probe, in particular, the reception of the work of poets from parts of the world in which the U.S. has recently been engaged in some form of struggle, be it physical or ideological. Examining forms of estrangement that persist in our setting now, my analysis will also explore how contemporary poet-strangers have developed interesting strategies to reach out and to undermine various forms of dissonance and compartmentalization.


At a memorial evening for the poet Agha Shahid Ali in March of 2002, a celebrated American poet told a story. I hope you will pardon my attempt to restate what she said:

One year, Shahid and I were applying for jobs as poets in universities. We had been both selected as finalists for two of the best jobs. We’d talked throughout the interview process and tried to help each other. In the end each of us was offered a job. He got the job I really wanted and I got the job he wanted. I was upset, and when we talked on the phone after we both heard the news, he tried to console me. He said, “Don’t worry, darling–they gave me the job only because they wanted a darkie.

The audience in attendance laughed, and the poet went on talking for a few more minutes about her friendship with Ali. Other authors of Shahid Ali’s generation also spoke at the memorial, expressing great admiration for him as a poet and as a person. Ali was a great charmer, a wonderful cook–so went the stories. After the presentations, no one who I met talked about the “darkie” story.


In 2001, I completed a manuscript of selected poems of the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, covering five decades of his writing from 1952 to 1997. While the manuscript was being considered by several publishers, another publisher I respected contacted me and asked to see the manuscript. I received a contract a month later and signed with them. This happened before 9/11, as interest in all things having to do with Iraq and the Arab and Muslim world was peaking yet again. (I should say that, to the publisher’s credit, this book was not the first book by an Arab author that they had published, and the idea that the book was being published in response to a fad was out of the question.) In the fall of 2002, the publisher sent me a press kit for the book that they had developed. Here is the poem that the press decided to feature:

A Vision

This Iraq will reach
the ends of the graveyard.
It will bury its sons in open country
generation after generation,
and it will forgive its despot.
It will not be the Iraq
that once held the name.
And the larks will not sing.
So walk—if you wish—a long time.
And call—if you wish—on all
the world’s angels and all its demons.
Call on the bulls of Assyria.
Call on a westward phoenix.
Call them
and through the haze of phantoms
watch for miracles to emerge
from clouds of incense. (Youssef, 178)

I had chosen to translate this poem and to include it in the selection because it was one of Youssef’s many meditations on his country. The poem was written in 1997. The poet imagines this pessimistic scenario while observing Iraq after twenty years of exile, seeing it choked by Saddam Hussein and suffering under brutal economic sanctions, while opposition parties in exile quibble bitterly. He senses that his country “will not be the Iraq / that once held the name,” a feeling borne out of nostalgia and the exilic despair that brings about an apocalyptic vision.

Upon seeing the press kit, I contacted the publisher and demanded that the poem not be featured so prominently, as it ran the risk of insinuating that the poet held a position contrary to his actual opposition to the war that the United States was about to wage on his country. If we wanted to use this occasion to show Youssef’s views on the war, as expressed in poetry, we could easily have excerpted one of Youssef’s better known poems, “American, America,” in which he deplores the first American Iraq war and the suffering that the sanctions caused his people. But I also made clear to the publisher that this would not be appropriate either, because the book covered forty-five years of the poet’s writing, not just the then-current situation. The publisher obliged, and the publicity kit was issued with another poem that had nothing to do with the war. A few months later, as the book began to receive attention, “Vision” was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times. It was the only excerpt that appeared in a review of the book in Publisher’s Weekly. And the poem was reprinted by Poetry Daily, one of the most frequently visited poetry websites in the U.S. The genie had gotten out of the lamp, and it was drafted into the coalition of the willing against its will.


A few months ago, a well-known university on the East Coast held a reading panel that was part of a symposium on poetry and the politics of violence. The invitees were the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, author of The War Works Hard; the poet and Iraq-war veteran Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet; and me. Mikhail read several poems about her experiences during the first two Iraq wars (the Iraq-Iran war of 1981-88 and Desert Storm, 1991). She also read poems written since her migration to the U.S. in the late 1990s. Turner, who had opposed the war in Iraq even before it began (Turner 2009), mostly read poems relating to his service in Iraq. I read sections from a sequence addressing American militarism from a domestic angle. When the question and answer session began, members of the audience lined up at two microphones and began to ask questions. After eight questions, all addressed to Turner, the moderator paused and asked the audience if anyone had any question for Mikhail or for me. No one raised a hand.

The Shahid Ali story has intrigued me since I first witnessed its telling, and I have wondered how to interpret these incidents–the story as narrated and its narration–and to fit them within Shahid Ali’s tremendous achievements and the various approaches he had developed to become an influential poet-stranger.

Agha Shahid Ali is probably the best-known Anglo-Indian poet in the U.S., having built a strong reputation within establishment poetry circles here before his untimely death, in December of 2001, at the age of fifty-one. Among his many achievements, Shahid Ali initiated a craze about the ghazal. In 2000, Ali edited Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, an anthology of ghazals written by poets such as W.S. Merwin and Paul Muldoon. With his own poetry highly respected, and as a much-adored figure on the poetry scene, Ali was the antithesis of Breyten Breytenbach’s concept of the postcolonial writer as a “guest intruder”[1] and Derek Walcott’s notion of the “irascible guest”[2] who engages in Fanonian combat with the intellectuals at the heart of the metropolis. In this regard, Ali’s case provides an excellent example of the advantages of what Bhabha calls “contiguity” and “infiltration” and even “sly civility” as modes of operation for the postcolonial intellectual positioned within the metropolis.

Probing the sphere Shahid Ali operated within, we will note that the metropolis has changed considerably since the days of Rabindranath Tagore’s emergence as the first poet-stranger to hit Western shores and the blazing stir he caused, which quickly dimmed after his winning of the Nobel Prize in 1913. Things have changed considerably even since Derek Walcott’s appearance on the American scene (first as a poet from the Caribbean in the 1960s, and later as a metropolitan poet in the late 1970s). And unlike Breytenbach, who comes to the U.S. only for short visits with a postcolonial chip on his shoulder, Ali and diasporic poets like him have lived and worked here as resident poet-strangers.

Presently, a poet-stranger is hardly ever the only immigrant or exile of his nationality in a Northern metropolis; diasporic communities from his part of the world have grown in every metropolis he could have gone to. Now a more familiar figure, the poet-stranger bears less of the representational burden, and so his or her sense of agency can draw more on solidarity with other individuals and communities of diverse backgrounds, and much less on solitary, exilic Joycean “cunning” (Portrait 291).[3]

Within the North American context, the immigrant can and may quickly become an ethnic American. There are plenty of first-generation Americans from the poet’s ethnic community among whom he can position himself, or against whom he can juxtapose himself. Here, the poet would have to consider the advantages he stands to gain or lose by becoming identified as an exile from there, rather than an ethnic from here. It may be possible for him to be both, and to speak from these positions alternately or in combination, and in sites where these seemingly restrictive identifications can become a larger set of concentric circles that afford the poet more room for maneuverability. Considering Ali’s options in this regard, the term Kashmiri-American becomes interesting as it pertains to him. As far as I know, this ethnic designation is an ethnicity of one, since Ali is the only author identified under it. Ali gets be both a solitary exile and the sole representative of his ethnic community.

The vast majority of Ali’s work addresses his life in India and Kashmir and suggests a poet-persona whose concerns are shaped by exile. Ali’s most American book, A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991), includes several poems drawing on his years in Arizona and New England, and it features a sequence of poems in homage to Emily Dickinson. Nostalgist’s was Ali’s third book, appearing a few years after The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), which contains poems exclusively set in India. The poems in his fourth and fifth books, The Country Without A Post Office (1998) and Rooms Are Never Finished (a finalist for the National Book award in 2001), are inspired by the conflict in Kashmir and the passing of the poet’s mother, who was buried there.

Perhaps the exotic aura that Shahid Ali’s poet friends conveyed about him at his memorial emerges from the locale and content of his poems. Also, Ali’s strong attachment to the ghazal, which became his favored and almost exclusive form toward the end of his life, signaled a strong gesture toward esthetic distinction. Here, the poet carves a place for himself within the metropolitan mainstream by choosing his native prosodic form, a form on which he is the sole expert and arbiter of its utilization in English (i.e. real ghazals in English). In his preface to Ravishing DisUnities, Shahid Ali quotes from his own ghazals to demonstrate “the real thing” (DisUnities 1). Collected in a separate volume titled Call Me Ishmael Tonight, Shahid Ali’s ghazals were published two years after his passing, a posthumous magnum opus that strongly identifies him with the form.

As such, Ali’s prosodic trajectory narrowed from his beginnings. His first two books were written in free verse; his third, fourth, and fifth books featured rhymed and strictly metered verse along with several ghazals; and his last book featured only ghazals. Ali’s prosodic evolution moved from American free verse toward traditional forms. His ghazal is a hybrid, an Urdu form written in English; the longer he stayed in the U.S., the more hybridly traditional his prosody became. The act of reclaiming the ghazal came as a reaction to what Shahid Ali saw as abuse of his native form by American poets who “had got it quite wrong, far from the letter and farther from the spirit” (DisUnities 1). Poets such as Adrienne Rich and Robert Bly had utilized the ghazal, but without adhering to its formal rigor, resulting in what Shahid Ali called “surrealistic exercises” (1). And so “I decided to take back the gift outright,” (1) states Shahid Ali with ironic use of Robert Frost’s famous inaugural poem, “The Gift Outright.”

The ghazal is perhaps Ali’s most consciously pan-postcolonial form and, in that sense, represents a political gesture as well as an esthetic choice. His first published ghazal was dedicated to Edward Said and borrows the phrase, “being exiled by exiles” (The Country 12) from Edward Said’s After the Last Sky. Shahid Ali’s poems show open sympathy for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and for Bosnians under attack by Serb and Croat forces in the 1990s. Shahid Ali’s Rooms Are Never Finished features a translation of “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” a long poem by Mahmoud Darwish. Said had called Shahid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office “an extraordinary achievement” (The Country). Shahid Ali was known as an upstanding fellow traveler in postcolonial/diasporic circles.

Clearly, Ali was seen as an important contender capable of competing for some of the best posts and awards that the American literary and academic establishment had to offer. It would not be surprising, then, that he would wish to diffuse any anxieties that this may cause among his peers.[4] Nonetheless, taking Shahid Ali’s credentials and achievements into account, what could he have meant by telling his Caucasian poet friend that he was given his post only because “they wanted a darkie”? And in telling the story at his memorial, what was Ali’s friend saying about his approach toward affirmative action policies, racial representation, multiculturalism, or the diversity politics from which he might have benefited? Was she only telling the story to show how impetuous Ali was? And what might explain this impetuousness in this context?

At one level, the exchange suggests a kind of performativity marked by the poet-stranger’s awareness of metropolitan desire for the exotic. The poet-stranger negotiates this aspect of his background and meets his audience, in text and in person, having developed means of addressing these expectations and apprehensions, and claiming a place for himself and his poetry. The poet-stranger diffuses racial and cultural tensions by being audacious, by performing an ironic or mock acceptance of the stereotypes regarding his abilities and those of his community or race or nation.

In Ali’s repetition of the accusation that he only got his job because he was a darkie, we hear a form of mimicry that exorcises menace. Perhaps by repeating uncomfortable thoughts, Ali takes them “outright” from his interlocutor’s mouth, diffusing the discomfort he causes by stressing his tokenism. This is a different kind of cunning; it is not Joycean silence that grants the stranger agency, but the ability to break the silence around uncomfortable and unspoken thoughts.

But what happens when that mimicry of these apprehensions is mimicked again and retold–why does the menace return intact, as evidenced by the audience’s choice of nervous laughter and denial (and my own unwillingness to forget the incident). Clearly, Shahid Ali’s audacious self-deprecation is meant as antidote, and we do know that antidotes bear a taste of the poison they are meant to combat. Perhaps Ali’s farcical engagement with the serious issues that surround his position in American letters is meant to polarize the assessment of his work, with the audience forced to either consider him a darkie who was only allowed in the club to create a veneer of tolerance, or to seriously consider his work, in which we will invariably discover a set of sophisticated and layered achievements. And so the more that the self-inflicted accusation gets repeated, the more it sounds like a bad joke becoming increasingly stale. I would not put such a cunning move beyond Ali’s capacity for play and his ability to claim and reclaim, using different approaches and producing unexpected outcomes. It would be a risky approach, if this were indeed the approach.

Regarding the Saadi Youssef poem “Vision” that gained some attention during the war on Iraq, the obvious point is that a poet can say whatever he wants and his poems can be taken out of context. Still, the specifics of this situation in a neocolonial world are instructive and disturbing. We have a strange case of consensus among a diverse group of literary professionals who all agreed to highlight the same aspect of a foreign poet’s complex vision of his nation. Setting aside the Los Angeles Times, whose editorial board supported the war, what did the poem do for those on the left who were against the war? How did they read the poem, and what did they get from it that would distinguish them from those who supported the war? Could it be pessimism–that is, a reflection of the community’s resignation, in which the poem served as an unconscious rationalization of their powerlessness? In this case, Youssef’s momentary fatalism seems to have affirmed, for those opposed to the war, that Iraq was a lost cause, exculpating them from having to press their own government to desist from a neocolonial adventure. The poet-stranger has a long way to go if no less than people who support him use his words against him in this complicated manner.

Metropolitan decontextualization can transpire by subtle means. Here, a small omission from “A Vision” became an act of tampering. For Youssef and poets like Adrienne Rich and Yannis Ritsos, who are committed to bearing witness, the date of the poem’s composition is an important signifier. Youssef marks “Vision” as having been completed on 13/August/1997. This date was not included in any reprinting prior to the war. The date was re-inserted, however, in later postings on the internet, by right-wing bloggers; they found in the poem a Nostradamic vision of Iraq that was useful to them during the post-invasion sectarian violence, as Sunnis and Shiites massacred each other.

We can note, in reference to the reprinting of the poem, the wide variety of ways in which the native informant’s words can be utilized. In the introduction, I praised poetry’s concision, and I praised the voice of the poet as a rich, compact, mobile, and humanizing calling card from one culture to another. Now we see that poetry’s discursive technologies can prefigure, in whatever minor way, the indoctrination of the citizenry as a superpower gears up for war. This happens without malice or obvious intent. The poem only appears to tell us that the heart of darkness has moved to another location; it is now in Iraq, and the metropolis has native testimony from that location to prove it.

Now let me turn to the poetry reading with the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail and the American poet Brian Turner, where the audience did not have any questions for Mikhail. We note the geographical reversals taking place in the two poets’ work: an Iraqi woman who has experienced war in her country is no longer keen on sharing only the poetry about that part of her experience. She has lived in exile for several years now and considers that her most relevant subject. Turner, the white male soldier poet, comes to share his experiences about a war he opposed, where at each encounter “with an Iraqi I had a flag and a gun separating me from them.” She is writing away from Iraq and he is digging deeper into that subject matter. Doubtless, the neocolonial moment is complicated by the poet-stranger’s gender. Is Mikhail’s refusal to be a victim what renders her invisible, her voice undesirable? Is she asking for equality when she speaks her current experiences and being dismissed for doing so? Is the audience ashamed of the damage they caused her country and simply can’t bear asking her any questions?

This notion of poetry as exploration of the heart of darkness, which entered into the public reading of Saadi Youssef’s “Visions,” coupled with the illuminating vision of the reluctant soldier, was on display at the poetry and violence panel. The audience may not have been certain of Mikhail’s story–perhaps the Iraq-Iran war seemed to them merely ordinary business for people from that part of the world. What may have made a difference were the presence and the bearing of witness by the representative of the neocolonial power–a bona fide citizen, like the members of the audience, who not only went into the heart of darkness, but also now suffers the guilt of having gone there. That Mikhail wanted to transcend the violence she had witnessed and wished to celebrate and examine her new life and its exilic complication may have made her less relevant. Turner, on the other hand, is working on a second book about his service in Iraq, and clearly there is an audience for his testimony. Who needs a foreign poet when a metropolitan poet is available to tell the war story?[5]

If this sounds like one of the arguments used to disparage Tagore nine decades ago, then the reader has guessed correctly. Here’s what one of Tagore’s English reviewers wrote about his work: “Those who wish to be impressed by glimpses of a life that is different from our own, by revelation of the Eastern mind which works in a way we can never understand, would do far better to go to Mr. Kipling for what they want” (quoted in Sen 16). The reviewer’s comment is relevant, and is a blunt, hostile version of what can take place now. First of all, Tagore’s reviewer appears to contradict himself; he seems to be saying, “If you wish to understand the Eastern mind, go to Kipling.” But he is not saying that; he is saying, “If you wish to be impressed by . . . revelation of the Eastern mind.” In this now-familiar Orientalist discourse, the Other can only be experienced as an “impression” and through “revelation,” something that needs to be uncovered and experienced in intermittent, peripatetic glimpses. This is all that Kipling–who is the best available source for such experience and much better at it than Tagore–can offer, because the Eastern mind cannot be understood. Interacting with that mind requires the use of different verbs. The native testimony, therefore, represents raw evidence; it is a slippery, barely visible object, and the metropolitan’s examination of it is the act of agency. What’s the use of a native informant who does not wish to provide, in her person, and in her words, the story that needs to be studied?

What is the story here then, and why does the metropolitan audience want to know it? The war with Iraq is taking place there, and, like Vietnam before it, the danger Iraq presents is mostly hypothetical. The reason for the war, as most of the American populace convinced itself, was to avenge 9/11, rather than any elaborate threat such as the communist menace. What the metropolitan who is resigned to his nation’s warring ways wants to know is how this war out there will affect him. Clearly, there has to be an emotional blowback, and the metropolitan has learned to anticipate it.

In his recent book Postcolonial Melancholia, Paul Gilroy addresses the ennui that white Britons have been feeling regarding the profound change in their circumstances that followed the end of empire and the loss of imperial prestige. He attributes this ongoing melancholia to British failure to work through complex feelings of loss and culpability, writing that the British prefer instead to depreciate, discredit, and forget the disquieting, violent history that produced the melancholia in the first place. The American approach, as represented in similar conversations with exiled and diasporic intellectuals and as led by independent metropolitan academics and intellectuals, is perhaps a preemptive effort to address this oncoming neocolonial melancholy. This approach complements the several adjustments that the U.S. has made since Vietnam. Along with the reduction in the number of American casualties came the reduction of the public’s visual exposure to the war (no flag-draped coffins on television or in the newspapers), the reduction of the visual appearance of the civilian victims of warfare, and, finally, the reduction of the soldiers’ experience of the living bodies that they would end up killing through the use of robots, drones, and other advanced forms of technology. Real warfare became similar to the guilt-free electronic simulation of war. The final step in this process was to anticipate the anxiety among the public about violence taking place in their name and about the return of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, bearing physical and emotional scars as reminders of a greater violence. Poetry is important here as it reflects where metropolitan anxieties lie. One of the questions most commonly addressed to Turner was whether his poems had helped him maintain his psyche and his emotional balance (see Turner, 2007, 2008, and “Rewrite”).

If the divisions in this discussion–metropolitan and postcolonial, subject and object, native informant and neocolonial agent, ethnic and exile–seem too divisive, standing as unbridgeable binaries, it is because there was much at stake in the cases I am referring to, and such contingent moments harden the membranes of the societal body in which the diasporic, exilic, or foreign poet operates. Unrelated to the Iraq conflict, the Shahid Ali story I related took place a few months after 9/11, as U.S. troops had begun their campaign in Afghanistan, not far from the poet’s birthplace. And though I do not see a direct connection between the relaying of Shahid Ali’s “darkie” story and the 9/11 events, the telling of that story occurred in that atmosphere. Additionally, though taking complex individual stances, Turner and Mikhail do stand as metonyms of the two nations involved in the war, at least within the panel I’m referring to. Amalgamated, hybrid identities such as Mikhail’s are challenged by such crises, and so the poet-stranger speaks, aware of the continuum between the binaries in which she stands and the flexible positions she may need to occupy to speak her piece.

It’s worth our effort now to contextualize these and similar conversations and exchanges. Cultural exchanges among modern nation-states have served various functions, from creating diplomatic openings to cementing relations after trade and military agreements have been ratified. Countries at war, on the other hand, do not invite each other’s poets into their midsts. Such power is the prerogative of the metropolis, and the stories I have relayed are incidents about the dynamics of uneven exchange. A metropolis can do many things at the same time–it can capture those who declare war against its plans, it can bomb their civilians, it can build schools and hospitals there, and it can write a country’s constitution for it. It can also vaccinate the children, remove land mines, and fertilize the farmland as it continues the killing.

Needless to say, knowledge contributes to all these advantages, and individuals–poets included–are involved in these circuits of knowledge/power exchange. If speaking to the metropolis is not teachable per se, it can be learned, and a postcolonial individual can easily acquire the working paradigms and the most efficient stylistic approaches and mannerisms toward that end. Penetrable as it may be, however, the metropolis can–and often does–decide whom the spokesperson for the Other is going to be. Facing such power, it is not surprising that many poet-strangers who establish reputations in the metropolis stand in awkward positions. The example of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali serves as an interesting case in how these dynamics play out. Taha Ali is a former schoolteacher who has also made a living as a seller “of Christian trinkets to Jewish tourists” (NY Times) in his Nazareth shop. His poetry occupies only three pages in Jayyusi’s authoritative Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, while a long list of other poets are given more space, with Darwish occupying a lion’s share. Though he is not considered a major poet at home, Taha Ali has become one of the best-known international poets in America and Europe since the leading poetry presses in the U.S. and the U.K. published his poetry a few years ago. His volume of selected poems, So What, has gone through several printings. Recently, Yale University Press published a major biography of Taha Ali; it is the only biography in English of a modern Arab poet. Taha Ali is virtually unknown in the rest of the Arab world, and he is known in Palestine more as a short story writer than a poet.

It will not surprise the reader that Taha Ali’s poetry is not confrontational or that “he has rarely written declamatory political poetry” (New York Times). Taha Ali’s political views regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are subtly expressed and may even be considered pacifistic. His biographer and translator, respectively, are an American Jewish couple who live in West Jerusalem, the Israeli side of the city. Is this a case where the metropolis has found someone who knows to speak to it, or, inversely, has it found someone whose voice it deems “authentic” ?

There are many aspects of Taha Ali that make him appeal as a natural, as opposed to a national poet. In performance, he relies on his translator to read the English versions of his poetry, but he often tells in his halting English long and amusing stories about people from his village, which the Israelis had razed in 1948. Taha Ali gives a compelling performance and often enough receives standing ovations among the U.S. audiences. Interestingly, there has been a strange silence among Palestinian intellectuals in U.S. regarding what has come to be known as “The Taha Effect.” Among the Palestinian writers I have spoken to, Taha Ali’s success is seen as at least harmless to their cause, and certainly no one wants to begrudge the man his success. But he is no Darwish and he is not considered a true spokesperson in terms of the esthetic ambitions of his work, or of the ongoing confrontation with neocolonial Israel. “Why him?” is a question I have often heard. Is it simply a case of the metropolitan researcher coming to the region and choosing the poet he wishes to export to his home country? Could the situation be as simple as that? Could it be simpler still in that it is merely a case of a poet-translator and a biographer finding a poet whose work they admire and can translate and present admirably to the metropolitan world? Is such simplicity still possible when the terms of the cultural exchange are so uneven between the two settings?

This brings us to the issue of translation in its most specific and widest sense. Taha Ali’s poetry, full of imagery and direct exposition, is easy to translate. His language lacks innuendo and double entendres, and since it is written in free verse, the translator need not have a guilty conscience about losing the specific musicality of the original. Darwish’s poetry, on the other hand, presents a greater challenge; it is extremely difficult to bring forth all the textual and aural allusions he makes in his poetry. For example, in the poem “Al-Qurban” (“Blood Offering”), mentioned in the Darwish chapter, Darwish uses the rhyming end-words from “Surat Maryam,” the Maryam chapter in the Quran, which tells the story of the miraculous conception and birth of Christ. The use of these rhyming end-words provides a Quranic musical allusion that most of his Arabic readers and listeners easily recognize. Juxtaposing the martyr with Christ’s crucifixion, Darwish blends Islamic scripture with Christian theology, a complex and daring maneuver that rests on the use of these rhyming end words. One need not worry about similarly complicated matters in Taha Ali’s work. His poems do have their own power, but it is a power that does not defy translation.

As to what to choose among a poet’s work and what gets to be translated, the process is irregular to say the least. I have been asked several times how I chose my selections of a poet’s work and why I had chosen a given poet in the first place, and I never felt that I gave a satisfactory answer. I usually answer that my choices depended on my taste and on what I came up with in the translation. I also say that I always seek the poet’s approval of my selections of her or his work. In the case of Saadi Youssef, who is the most important poet that I have translated so far, I specifically consulted with two well-known Arabic poetry specialists, and both found my choices representative of the poet’s work.

But that is no consolation either, as it could be argued that the poet, the scholars and myself have, like Tagore once did, a notion of what “the West” wants–and that could also be misguided. One obvious advantage that the scholars, the poet, and I may have regarding the metropolitan audience is that we are members of it, capable of seeing it from within its poetic traditions and esthetic inclinations. I should also point out that metropolitan audiences are not monolithic, as they were not in Tagore’s time; interest in Tagore’s work and persona lasted longer in the rest of Europe than it did in England and America. Further more, metropolitan audiences and readerships tend to prefer their own resident poet-strangers. Mahmoud Darwish, who once lived in France, and the Syrian poet Adonis, who lives there now, have literary agents in Paris, and their works are more widely available in French than they are in English. Similarly, Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz–who came to the U.S during the Cold War and lived in the U.S. and wrote in their native languages–were more readily available in English during that period than they were even in their native languages. In the Soviet Bloc, Nazim Hikmet, the most important Turkish poet of the twentieth century, became well known shortly after World War II; his first translation into English appeared in the U.S. in the 1980s. This is to say that exiled writers can become localized; they can become more important in the metropolis than they are in their native countries and languages. Their authenticity as representatives of their nations, regions, or languages depends on their presence in the metropolis and their statuses as exiles, rather than being resident natives.

Furthermore, the agents involved in the process of translation respond and act according to the contingencies in which the cultural exchange takes place. The poet Willis Barnstone, my friend and former teacher, tells the story of how his translation of Mao Zedong’s poetry languished at a major publishing house in New York for nine months before they called him asking if he would translate Chairman Mao. The book came out eight days after he reminded them that they already had the manuscript. This, of course, happened in 1973, on the heels of the famous episode of Ping-Pong diplomacy. Mao the poet was not the first author of communist lineage to benefit from translation in this manner. Certainly, Brodsky’s emergence and subsequent career were affected positively by Cold War politics. For writers from Muslim countries in the post-Cold War world, the words “fatwa” and “translation” have become a natural pairing. When Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh issued a fatwa against the Bangladeshi poet Taslima Nasrin, her profile rose dramatically in a manner reminiscent of the Rushdie affair. In Egypt, for example, and elsewhere in the Arab world, there is such cynicism regarding any erotic or religiously offensive work that authors are often accused of being opportunists seeking to have a fatwa issued against them so that they will be translated into Western languages. The case of Salwa Al-Neimi’s recent novel Burhān al-casal (Honey’s Irrefutable Proof, 2007) is a case in point (see Jross 2006, and “Man’a” 2008). Not long after the publication of her book, she was accused of writing for the purpose of translation–in other words, of writing a book that would be banned by Arabic censors and that would immediately be picked up by Western publishers, which is where the real money comes from. In the meantime, Nasrin continues to write and to struggle with religious censorship in India, where she lives in exile. But interest in her work has decreased since the initial fatwa-driven excitement. The point I’m trying to make here is that such interest is not merely marketing gimmickry, but that such gimmickry does exploit a significant component of the nature of the dynamics of cultural exchange between the metropolis and the peripheries.

Increasingly, translation is playing a more important role in the diasporic poet’s writing process and in the lives and experiences of diasporic communities. The question here is: who needs translation to assist his or her position in the metropolis and how translation can enable them? The Arab communities in the U.S. who invited Mudhafar al-Nawab either did not think they needed to share their cultural heritage, or thought that he was not what they wish to have translated. In other words, in the same way that the metropolis decides to highlight certain figures from given cultures, diasporic representatives of these cultures also have a say, even if in a negative manner, in what gets translated. Al-Nawab is a fiery poet whose views are critical of Arab regimes and U.S. policies in the region. His poetry, reminiscent of Darwish’s early work, utilizes simple language but has strong musical registers, and it includes many allusions to current and ancient Arab history, elements that make his poetry difficult to translate. His importance to his Arabic audience here in the U.S. is in remaining beyond translation.

On the other hand, Arab-American literary activists have developed strong links with translation. The late Edward Said was actively involved in promoting the translation of Arabic novels into English. Said often recalled an experience with his publisher, who had asked him to prepare a list of Third World authors whose works might be translated. The publisher accepted many of the writers he recommended, Said said. But when Said asked why Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz was excluded, he was told that Mahfouz’s “works are in Arabic and Arabic is a controversial language” (Gabriel 2002). Lending his name and prestige to various translation projects over the last three decades, Said wrote several prefaces and blurbs for works of Arab literature in translation. Also, the recent vigor around translating Darwish has been led by Arab-American poets and translators. The few books of Adonis’s poetry in translation have all been the work of Arab-American scholars.

There is clearly a functional aspect to all of this. The diasporic Arab community, which is beset by misrepresentation of its cultural heritage and labeled as made up of religious fanatics and terrorists, is keen on showing the modernized and secular facets of its society, among which contemporary literature stands as a major achievement. This interest in the arts coincides with Darwish’s initiative in Palestine to promote esthetics as a means of generating international identification with the Palestinians.

As to what the poet-stranger gets in return for his investment in his native literature and its promotion in a metropolitan setting, the case of Shahid Ali proves quite instructive again. For one thing, Ali’s (poet-stranger’s) esthetic project and his poet persona rest on an investment in his native literature and its promotion in his metropolitan setting. Along with his promotion of the ghazal, Shahid Ali also translated and edited The Rebel’s Silhouette (1991), a volume of selected poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), the most celebrated modern poet of the Urdu language. It should be noted also that, in the late 1970’s and early 1980s, Shahid Ali was perhaps the only poet of an Urdu-language background writing in the U.S. With his verse drawing on his eclectic knowledge of Anglo-American prosody, Shahid Ali was virtually on his own, his poetry not part of any discernable tradition.

This element of the poet-stranger’s pronounced estrangement from the canon to which he is contributing is typical of the poets of our century. In Beginnings, Edward Said notes that writers in the West, beginning in the late nineteenth century, have had to become autodidacts, each “gathering or making up the knowledge one needs in the course of creating.” (Beginnings 8) This had become the case “because the past [began to] appear less useful” (8) to the modern writer. This same past would also invariably seem useless for the poet-stranger, who is trying to enter the metropolitan literary culture in its present incarnation. Like poet-strangers, metropolitan writers also cannot find a place for themselves in their literature or in any cultural “continuity that formerly stretched forward and backward in time” (9). The poet-stranger may not have a choice to accept or refuse such continuity, as he may find it impossible to feel part of a past alien to him and where he cannot see himself reflected.

Nonetheless, the poet-stranger, also like writers of his generation in the metropolis, still needs texts in which his own work would fit “by adjacency, not sequentially or dynastically” (10). This is where the exiled/diasporic writer’s native tradition can come to his aid. Transported to his new surroundings, his tradition will not bear on him with its weight of precedence, and will not fill him with a sense of belatedness. In this regard, translation can enable the diasporic poet, allowing him to compose texts that can be read alongside his own. Translating one’s native literary inheritance saves the poet-stranger “from his contemporaries,” as Kenneth Rexroth once noted (Rexroth 1959), making the point that a poet must try to avoid sounding like them, feeling compelled to address the same subject matter, or engaging in their formal projects. Translation offers the poet-stranger a wider esthetic and idiomatic plain than his contemporaries in the metropolis have.

Furthermore, translation can re-gift the diasporic poet his language and help him create a language inflected with that of his national origin. Similar to Walcott’s adoption, in “The Schooner Flight,” of the voice of Shabine, a character who imbued Walcott’s verse with a regional vigor, the flavor of translation in Shahid Ali’s case allowed him to claim a variety of English that only he could write in believably. Looking at two passages from Shahid Ali’s poetry, we can see he moved toward an English flavored with translation (and perhaps with his translations of Faiz). Here are a few lines from the poem “Postcard from Kashmir,” which appeared in The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987):

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

And here are lines from the aforementioned “Ghazal I” first published in 1997:

Don’t weep, we’ll drown out the Calls to Prayer, O Saqi—
I’ll raise my glass before wine is defiled by exiles.

Was—after the last sky—this the fashion of fire:
Autumn’s mist pressed to ashes styled by exiles?

The difference in the two passages is discernable in the syntax, tone, and diction. The first passage is sentence-driven, composed of a basic structure of subject-verb-object. Its dialogue is a hushed one between poet and reader. In the second passage, the sentences are divided among a congregation of subjects. First, the Saqi (wine server) is addressed in second person, then the utterance becomes a statement in first-person plural, and then it returns to first person singular. The second sentence in the second passage is a question with two major interruptions. The utterances in both couplets of the ghazal are dramatic and full of gestures; and the language, with its archaic O and commanding authority, sounds as if it is being shouted from a stage.

Most importantly, while the first passage addresses the experience of exile, the second sends the poet home and places him, despite translation, deeply inside his tradition and its poetics. Furthermore, the language of the second passage is reminiscent of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar al-Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. Shahid Ali mimics this linguistic register and makes it his own. Not only is Shahid Ali, the diasporic poet, translating his heritage, he is claiming outright the colonizer’s reproductions of his tradition’s gifts. And it is perhaps within this sort of complex maneuvering that we can place Ali’s use of the term “darkie,” an expression so exuberantly displaced that it borders on celebration.

A Libyan proverb I grew up hearing says, “Once you become a stranger, you start telling lies.” In a land of vast distances, the further away one got from one’s origins, the more she was able to invent herself and so be able to survive. It’s arguable that half of America is made up of such renamed people, and that renaming took place even before Ellis Island imposed new names on the newcomers. People renamed themselves even without being forced to do so, made up life stories, and told the lies that better suited their aspirations.

Similarly, though with a harrowing subtext, the poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan once said, “Only in one’s mother tongue can one express one’s own truth. In a foreign language the poet lies” (quoted in Kligerman, 2007 (108)). Celan was raised speaking Romanian and Yiddish as well as German. Like Kafka, he was a member of what Deleuze and Guattari call a deterritorialized community. Since Celan also wrote some poems in Romanian, it is hard to be certain as to which language was foreign to him. Celan spoke French and knew it very well. His comment about the poet lying came as an answer to a question regarding his relationship to French and why he did not write in it. Though Celan considered French a foreign language to him, it may have aided his German and inflected his voice when writing in it, in the same way that Shahid Ali’s Urdu had a palimpsestic echo under his English. Surely, Celan’s Romanian also added another linguistic register to his poetry.

The point is that Celan’s choice of German was not inevitable, and may have been strategic, not in practical but in psychological terms. “In employing the language of his mother [German], Celan chooses to enter in conversation with those responsible for the death of his parents and the destruction of his home,” argues Kligerman (108). Celan’s choice of language is perhaps the opposite of a mask, a metapoetic device meant to mop up any traces of irony or detachment that the German reader may develop while hearing or reading him. A living indictment even when not speaking in those terms, Celan’s poetry thus bears elements of performance–in this case the heartbreaking performance of grief and mourning.

This brings me to the adjustment I’d like to make here to Celan’s declaration, in which I find much truth. I would like to adjust his hunch by restating his dictum in this way: “In a foreign setting, the poet-stranger performs his truth.” This helps me understand Shahid Ali and many others coming from elsewhere and presenting themselves as strangers to strangers. As long ago as 1709, three Iroquois kings arrived in London and, when asked to address an audience of dignitaries, decided to dress up in clothes they chose from the Queen Theatre’s wardrobe. They were there on display and decided to embellish their image, perhaps to heighten their authenticity using non-authentic implements, and with an instinctive understanding that all authenticities are to some degree “planned” (Trinh 98).

A version of that understanding also operates in the self-presentation of the modern world’s most illustrious poet-strangers: in Tagore’s self-presentation as an Eastern sage in the early twentieth century; in Walcott’s search for the appropriate poetic mask; and in Darwish’s persona of “lover of the Palestine” when he was bringing his community together in the early 1960’s and declaiming their belonging to the land of their birth, and later still as a chronicler of the Palestinians’ anguish-filled saga. The poet-stranger understands he is on show, both subject and object of projection, and that while he makes his best effort to embody a universal humanity, his very gestures toward that end could well be seen as signs of his irreparable strangeness. Let’s just say that some poets are adept at swimming against the tide of misinterpretation. Some are icebreakers who chug through opposing ice. The question for readers in the cosmopolitan world is: what do we/they want from the the poet-strangers that they/we invite among their/our midst. Yes, it is a big world open to all, and the great cities of the world have become much more hospitable. But there are wars too, new ones and more devastating ones that democracies initiate and sustain. And there are populations displaced, cities demolished, and much guilt to pre-empt and erase. What conditions will we create for the strangers among us to speak? What do we want to hear from them?


[1] Perhaps one of the best expressions of this testy insider’s stance is the model provided by South African poet Breyten Breytenbach. Breytenbach sees the function of the postcolonial poet in the metropolis as being a contentious provider of awareness (“Exile” 180). The exile, or “intruder,” Breytenbach explains, is at the mercy of the “the guest” (“Letter”15), but must also assume a challenging pose. As the postcolonial learns “the chameleon art of adaptation”, he must “never again entirely relax the belly muscles” (“Exile” 180). The exile must carry an aura of invincibility and even superiority. “You demand to be treated respectfully, your edges become sharper and your paranoia more acute. . . . You are invited to New York for a conference? Insist upon being put up in the best hotel?” (180). For the postcolonial in the metropolis to be an effective advocate, he “must husband [his] weaknesses” (180). “You make sure that you are tougher than ‘they’ are, or you damn well learn how to pretend to be” (180). Breytenbach advances this masculine exilic approach as the best way to serve the masses of Africa and the downtrodden elsewhere. If the postcolonial intruder “starts wanting to be treated on an equal footing,” his hosts will “tear him to pieces” (Breytenbach, “Letter”15). Not allowed equality in the metropolis as he pleads his noble causes, the postcolonial intellectual claims superiority, threatening his hosts with a world that can “vomit at unexpected moments” (“Exile” 180).

[2] Describing his friend Joseph Brodsky, Walcott outlines his role within the metropolis. He sees in Brodsky the ideal model of an exile who is “an irascible guest” (Twilight 142). Walcott tells us that Brodsky “does not flatter the torturer or the system . . . nor has he rushed into the lowered arms of the Statue of Liberty, afraid of being burnt by her torch” (142). Noting that Brodsky is a Soviet exile in the US, Walcott adds that the Russian poet “has written under two self-idealizing democracies, America and the Soviet Russia” (142), and swiftly equates the two superpowers, a gesture of his own irascibility. Brodsky is an exile who refuses to help “ensure the perpetuity of the republic. He does not glorify his hosts. . . . He seems to be inhabiting his own country, muttering a complicated monologue which does not simplify its references, and whose spirit not to lament but to cherish disinheritance” (142).

[3] Here’s the full passage by James Joyce referred to here: “and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning.”

[4] In a similar gesture and approach, Walcott, as his biographer reports, had on occasion to calm Robert Lowell’s nerves, letting him know that he was not in the U.S. to compete with him, that they were working on different subject matters (King 377).

[5] The Vietnam war literature is a case in point. How many literary accounts do we have available that tell the Vietnam story from the Vietnamese point of view on the shelves of the metropolitan libraries? And if the victor is the one that gets to tell the story, who, then, won the war?


Works Cited

Ali, Agha Shahid. A Nostalgist’s Map of America. New York: Norton: 1991.

—. Call Me Ishmail, Tonight: A Book of Ghazals. New York: Norton: 2003.

—. Half-Inch Himalayas. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1987.

—. Rooms Are Never Finished. New York: Norton: 2001.

—. The Country Without a Post Office. New York: Norton: 1997.

Ali, Agha Shahid and Sara Suleri. “The Ghazal” Ravishing DisUnities. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2000.

Breytenbach, Breyten. “A Letter from Exile, to Don Espejuelo” in Together Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, Marc Robinson, editor. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, 1994.

—. “The Exile as African,” in Together Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, Marc Robinson, editor. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Garner, Dwight. “A Merchant of Trinkets and Memories” New York Times, May 5, 2009. (

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: B.W. Huebsch, 1916.

Kligerman, Eric. Sites of the Uncanny: Paul Celan, Specularity and the Visual Arts. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007.

Naimi, Salwa. Burhan Al-‘Aassal. [Hoeny’s Irrefutable Proof] Damascus: Cadmus lil-Nashr, 2007.

Rexroth, Kenneth. “The Poet as Translator.” 

Said, Edward. Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Sen, Nabaneeta, “An Aspect of Tagore-Criticism in the West: The Cloud of Mysticism,” Mahfil: A Quarterly of South Asian Literature, 1966, 3 no. 1:9-23.

Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. Women, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Turner, Brian. “A Conversation with Brian Turner” interview with Patrick Hicks. Virginia Quarterly Review online, 2008.

—. “War and Peace: An Interview With Poet Brian Turner” with Stefene Russell. St. Louis Magazine, April 2009.

—. “Interview with Brian Turner” Elaine Riot, Rewrite.

Youssef, Saadi. Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, translated by Khaled Mattawa. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2002.

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