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Found in translation: poems from Palestine via Scotland

Poet Liz Lochhead describes how an unlikely, made-in-Scotland anthology of contemporary Palestinian poetry, translated into English, Scots, Scots-English, Gaelic and Shetlandic, makes for a fertile cultural exchange

November 5, 2014
6 min read

July 2012. We’re staying for a few nights as guests in Aida Camp in Bethlehem. This ‘temporary’ refugee camp of 650 or so families, 4,000 people, it strikes me, is exactly as old as me, having been established under a terrified flurry of canvas tents in 1948 as the grandparents and parents of the present generation either fled for their lives or were – at best – forcibly displaced from their homes as the State of Israel was created.

Now it is a permanent, overcrowded, ramshackle, ad-hoc, self-build sink-housing-scheme lookalike, albeit with brave wee creative and personal decorative motifs here and there (a mural, a fancy finial). Ever expanding vertically to accommodate its ever expanding population, it’s cramped into far too small an area, hemmed in on one side by a lavish new brutalist four-star tourist hotel complex, on others by the observation towers of the Israel Defence Forces, built right into the camp’s boundary walls.

Bored young Israeli conscripts with very big guns look down on the street life just a few feet below them. Just out-of-school weans playing with their pet cats, climbing in and out of skips and rubble; somebody running home at dinnertime with a tower of pitta‑bread sandwiches hot and fragrant from the falafel shop; young men hunkered and smoking, laughing and sharing banter with the crowds of girls passing in their bright jeans and skimpy, tight t-shirts, in the hijab headscarf or without it, who give back as good as they get.

All everyone wants us to do is ‘tell the world we are not terrorists’.

Petty, daily harassments

No shower this morning, none for the past four days, just another rub-down with baby wipes, no unnecessary flushing of toilets. The water, stored in the tanks on the roofs, has just about run out again. Most inhabitants merely shrug: they’ll probably turn it on again in a day or two, they do so for a few days every three weeks or so, the trouble is you never know when.

We’re going on to East Jerusalem to stay. None of our Aida Camp hosts can come there, though it’s only a little over five miles away. Their identity papers confine them to the West Bank. They try to explain to me about the Green Line, the different classes of travel papers.

The petty, daily harassments the Palestinians have to endure are impossible to imagine unless you witness them first hand. This is not to speak of the Wall, the settlements, the huge historical injustice of the Nakba, Palestine’s ‘catastrophe’ of 1948.

It’s apartheid. The State of Israel denies human rights to Palestinians. Denies that they are human beings at all.

We witness firsthand the terror of the tear gas and rubber bullets (no ‘skunk water’ and only one live round today, thank goodness) at the weekly Friday post-prayers peaceful demonstration against the Wall in the olive-growing village of Ni’lin.

Ad-hoc group

We are a little ad-hoc group of mostly young poets and songwriters. William Letford – Billy – is the nearest to my age, though more than a quarter-of-a-century my junior. Most are 15 years younger than him. There’s a Gael, a Scot or two, a couple of young Englishmen, one a recently graduated film-maker who is documenting our experiences.

When we go to The House of Poetry in Ramallah to which Henry Bell (one of the editors of our anthology and arguably its prime mover and maker) has managed, in between his Glasgow University finals, to negotiate a visit from our group, we can’t but notice on the facade the bullet-holes in the lintels of the door, the ugly silhouette of two settlements on the brow of the hill opposite.

How does poetry deal with such a reality? What else but poetry has the beauty, truth and courage to try.

Among the people we meet is a group of the principal Palestinian poets in the House of Poetry in Ramallah. Talking with them (with the aid of a completely fluent, colloquial and sparky translator; they don’t speak English) we quickly have to confront how profoundly ignorant we are of Palestinian poetry – beyond the brilliant Darwish, one of the few to have been translated widely into English.

This is particularly embarrassing as the poet Murad Sudani, the distinguished director of The House of Poetry, talks so fondly and eruditely about Edwin Morgan.

It isn’t the thing

These poets tell us how when they are – rarely – translated into English it is always by academics and generally to be quoted as part of polemical, theoretical or literary essays and in obscure publications. Their work is made into far less than poems, or is sometimes effectively censored by the omission of some of their content.

At best, it isn’t the thing, it is about the thing.

They stress the obvious – that poetry needs to be translated by poets, made into new poems; are excited by the prospect of an anthology in which, for a start, Palestinian poets themselves choose which poems of theirs would be translated.

Surely translating poetry is impossible? Of course.

John Glenday said recently, ‘Everything we write is translation. First of all I translate an initial impetus/feeling/notion into words.’ Nevertheless we must accept it is impossible even as poets to translate every nuance, every feeling. As simple a thing as the word ‘horse’, for instance, does not, cannot have the bred-in-the-bone symbolic meaning for us as it does for the Arabic poet. Yet still, something deep will always communicate. Only poetry has the absolute ability to transcend borders and cultures, connect human beings.

Not Considered in Poems of Pushkin

Lenin thought the world could be a homeland
without boundaries for all. O loved one,
face bad things he did not foresee.
Minutes erode all women, even those
not first bled down to a dry ghost by
nostalgia, our vampire bat.
Will one day none see on a new faked map
the name of she who is mine,
my loved homeland, Palestine?
Bisan Abu Khaled, translated by Alasdair Gray

A Bird is Not a Stone: An anthology of contemporary Palestinian poetry (editors Sarah Irving and Henry Bell) is published by Freight Books

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