Reviews a book on Palestinian folk lore and a Palestinian prison memoir
SPEAK BIRD, SPEAK AGAIN - Palestinian Arab Folk Tales
by Ibrahim Muhawi, and Sharif Kanaana, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1989.
POINT OF DEPARTURE - Letters from Prison
by Izzat Ghazzawi, Arab Center for Contemporary Studies. Jerusalem 1993.

For the sake of the song
The innocent wandering bird, mingling mellow notes in the window, Her voice today as her voice that calls
Five, ten, twenty years ago.
Almost nothing has changed, the same
Layers of wind and earth
Breathe soul into her body, fire in her flight, In her voiced message
Not so man, gathered from the comers of the earth, as an imagined people. But his tongue is a mixture. For the sake of the song
'The singer invents a dream, a distant tongue.
Yair Horowitz from Relationships and Worry (Translation)
The book, Speak, Bird, Speak Again, is one of the best collections of folk stories published in recent years. Its two authors, Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana edited the stories in an order that expresses their approach to their significance. The same approach is evident in the chapter headings to the stories: Individuals (Subtitles: Children and Parents, The Quest for the Spouse), Family (Subtitles: Husbands and Wives), Society, Environment, Universe. Folk tales, then, are judged by their social ecology, expressed in a concentric circle, with the individual at the center and the world at the circumference. The variation of the stories does not, to be sure, permit the assigning of a story to one group only: what seems related to the individual often touches the whole society, just as a story about the world can deal with family matters.
The composition of the chapters expresses a clear ideological approach, seeking harmony between the individual-family-society-world. This harmony is one of the classical representations of traditional society in the eyes of people belonging to a modern society. I believe that this representation mainly expresses the modern experience of our life as lacking harmony.
Ibrahim Muhawi, born in Ramallah, who left his country for the United States in the 1950s, is an American-Palestinian scholar, whose field has been English literature. He renewed his connection with the traditional folk tales of his people when teaching at Birzeit University at the end of the 1970s. Sharif Kanaana, born in Arrabe in Galilee, is an Israeli citizen, who also studied in the United States, in his case anthropology. Since 1975, he has been teaching that subject at Birzeit and AI-Najah Universities. His work has been presented at international forums, particularly those dealing with folk narratives coming out of the Intifada.
Social unity as an ideal, reflected in the organization of the stories, receives an additional significance against the background of the political struggle of the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation. This does not appear in the stories as such. They are of a genre in which the world depicted by the author is distanced from the reality of the narrator and the audience, by various techniques of style and content, such as talking and humanized animals, supernatural phenomena, linguistic formulations, rhymes, and rich musical language. But the fact that this book is written out of the spirit of the struggle is profoundly conveyed, both in the authors' introduction, and in the passages educating the reader in the geography of Palestine-Israel, and also in Palestinian expressions and customs that appear in the stories. To the modern man's longing for harmony are added the special problems of the authors, as representatives of the Palestinian diaspora - Muhawi - and the Palestinians living under occupation - Kanaana (to a certain extent because of his association with West Bank Universities).
The historical process of acquiring a specific national character, as a cradle for the appearance of written literature from oral folk tales is a known phenomenon of the past two centuries. The most famous example is the volume of Tales for Children and Household by the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (First edition 1812-1815), which, like their collections of myths and legends, became one of the comer-stones of the cultural unity of the German people, unifying the tribes, scattered in various dukedoms and principalities at that time. As a result of the work of the Brothers Grimm, the Finnish writer Elias Loennrot created his epic Kalevala, based on epic songs sung by many singers, and written down by Loennrot and his colleagues, who went out from the capital to the outlying villages to do the field work. The epic fulfilled a central task in expressing the patriotism of the Finnish people, at that time under Russian occupation, after centuries of Swedish occupation.
It is possible that this was also the basis for Sefer Ha-Aggada (the Book of Legends) of H. N. Bialik and Y. H. Ravnitzki. In the almost total absence of a Hebrew oral tradition in their time, they forged a connection between the Jewish and Hebrew national identity and the ancient written sources of the sages, thereby missing, in a way, the direct political effect achieved by the Brothers Grimm and Loennrot. At the same time we must acknowledge the enormous influence of this book on the establishment of a modem Hebrew culture in the land of Israel.
The collection of Muhawi and Kanaana does not have the same potential to influence Palestinian society as such, chiefly because the authors decided to publish their texts and analyses in English. The preference of the authors for a dialogue with their western scholarly colleagues reflects the greater awareness in our time that it is not enough for a national identity to develop inside the particular society; but to establish itself, it has to be recognized by other nations, hopefully the stronger ones such as the United States of America. The advantage of this choice is that the treasure house of stories in this book is available for comparative research, which is still important in the study of folklore, although it is being increasingly superceded by studies that focus on the social and cultural context of folk tales.
The anthropological, social and cultural analysis in the long and serious introduction of the authors reveals the human and social basis of the stories. They depict a patriarchal society, full of tensions and violent impulses, in which the personal security granted to the individual is bought at the highest emotional (and sometimes physical) price. The main tensions are rooted in competition for the family property, and notions of honor that are only partly based on a functional background of family unity in the society. Notions of honor, expressed for the most part by the savage repression of women, are a cumulative effect of the social structure, but at the same time they possess an almost demonic independence in Arab and Mediterranean culture, which has been analyzed in all its complexity by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu in his book Algier 1960.
The jealousy of the brothers competing for the family property aggravates and intensifies the repression of the women - particularly the young women - in the humiliating status of brides and sisters-in-law, torn between their loyalty to their husbands, who sometimes treat them brutally, and their loyalty to their own sex, to the other brides. While the women are often mutual guarantors for each other, they feel the tension between loyalty toward the representatives of the patriarchal society, the parents of the husband - in particular the father - and loyalty to their own family, which still exerts a strong hold over them, and over their children, in the person of their brothers.
What stands out in this collection of stories is the abundance of savage and unnatural themes, which is familiar in all folk stories to the extent that a special category of motif has been established for it in the indexing of folk literature. In folk tales, and in folk culture generally, it is permissible to give expression to forbidden feelings and impulses - in particular aggressive impulses and sexual attraction toward unsuitable subjects, such as members of the family. The unifying strand of the violent themes in this connection is the special focus on violence within the family. Children hurt their parents, brothers hurt each other, and everybody hurts the young brides. Because of this complexity the analysis of Muhawi and Kanaana is necessary, as is the comparative research carried out on other folk literature.
Among the exciting cha┬Čracters in this collection are many birds, and that is perhaps one of the reasons for the title. The birds are generally characters enchanted by damaging forces, or they change into birds, after being brutally murdered. Even birds that are neither bewitched nor reincarnations behave in a thoroughly human fash┬Čion. In the story, The Green Bird, the bird is the reincarnation of a son, who was murdered by his stepmother and eaten by his father (without the father's knowledge). At the end of the story, he returns to his human form and punishes his evil parents by making them swallow nails, and he repays the loyalty of his sister. The cry, "Speak, bird, speak again," is uttered by the listeners after the bird's lament about her bitter fate. Is it not natural that the cry of encouragement, directed to someone imprisoned in a personality not her own, is the title of a book representing the folk literature of a people asking that its identity be recognized by itself and by its counterparts? The cry, "Speak," expresses a positive relationship to the communication of the individual and the generality in all expression, even in the most personal grief. The stories, often dealing with individuals struggling against the forces of darkness and desiring their sexual expression, are a powerful instrument in articulating the misfortune of the individual narrator.
In the story, Little Nightingale the Crier (p.102), the bird reveals to everyone the exchange of her two sons and her daughter for a puppy, a kitten and a stone by her jealous sisters, because she married a prince and they married simple craftsmen. In the story The Little Bird, the bird behaves as a human being in every way, ordering a dress at the dressmakers, putting on make-up while preparing for a party, singing of the beauty of her dress. The prince hears her and shoots her, and she sings a song, praising his marksmanship. Afterwards he plucks her feathers and she sings a song in praise of this. Finally he cooks her and she sings in praise of his cooking. After he has swallowed his dish, the prince digests her and excretes her. Then the bird can take her revenge, singing:
"Ho! ho! I saw the prince's hole, "It's red, red like a burning coa1."
- a crude hint of masculine homosexuality.
According to the author-editors, this is one of the first stories told to children, and as usual they have maintained the language of the narration, including opening "in the name of Allah," formula endings, leaving the story in the hands of the audience, and direct appeals to the audience, in this case, My Little Darlings. At the same time it is impossible to avoid thinking that the actions of the prince toward the bird represent the sad story of the fate of the woman, her sexual experience in a society that represses women. The treatment of women by men reminds the old woman narrator of shooting, plucking, cooking, eating, digesting and excreting.
In another story, the leader of the birds appears. He is Jumez Bin-Yazur, Sheikk of the Birds. The basic plot is well known from European folk literature, and also from Jewish folk tales. In the well-known story of the girl, whose skin is as soft as cheese and hence her name is Jbene (p.122), as a fulfillment of her barren mother's wish (like the wish of Snow White's mother for a daughter with skin as white as snow), the birds perform the function of the heroine's cries of longing when she is far from home. Thus, when the heroine is liberated from her servitude and marries the prince, as anticipated, the narrator ends with a formula ending: "The bird of this tale has flown, and now for another one," an end that appears in several of the stories featuring birds. Thus the story takes the form of a bird, and so the bird actually becomes a symbol for the Palestinian folk tale.

The extraordinary significance of birds in the world of Palestinian tales could be the answer to one of the riddles posed by Izzat Ghazzawi's book, Point of Departure. This book is very different from the tales we have been considering so far. It is a collection of letters from prison. Its author, a resident of Ramallah, has spent three years in prisons in southern Israel, in Ashkelon and the Negev, charged with writing Intifada leaflets.
The point of departure of the author is the unquestioning assertion of the creative "I", even in the most difficult hours of humiliation and confusion. His life-belt was his creativity, the words that he joined together in his consciousness, every hour, every minute, the literary creation in his language, the language of the defeated, in an action of resistance of revolutionary significance - particularly when the text was written down and circulated among the prisoners.
This is a surprising book from several points of view. Firstly, it is entirely lacking in self-pity or self-righteousness. We hear very little about the prison guards, and when we do there is no hatred or contempt. One chapter opens with a dialogue between the author and an interrogator: 'Well, you want your own state?" - "Yes of course!" - "So where will we go?"
Although nobody should deceive himself about the reality of the interrogation cell, the content of the dialogue, and its simple humane tone, reveals the basic understanding of the existential seriousness of the problem of the confrontation between two peoples over one small country. Nothing in this dialogue denies the Jewish claim to the land; the Palestinian claim is simply placed symmetrically opposite the Jewish, giving up a simplistic solution in favor of the complex human and political truth.
The book is also surprising because of the author's constant awareness of his internal world, connected with writing, and his thematic link that leads to mobilized aggressive writing. Ghazzawi carries on a dialogue with his wife and children, imprinted inside himself, particularly with his small daughter, who was a baby only a few months old, when he was sent to prison. It is a sensuous dialogue, which is surprising considering the circumstances in which it was written. It is the discourse that saved the creative "I" from spiritual annihilation, at a time of separation from most of his life-support systems; the discourse, involved with the roots of his creativity and masculinity, fortifies his human identity, and puts him in a position to listen to his fellow, even when that fellow is threatening and harmful.
Another voice periodically heard in this book is the voice of the poet, deep in the friendship of his colleagues, as if Ghazzawi is telling himself and his faithful imaginary comrades, his jailers, his fellow prisoners, and his people: "Nobody can prevent my dialogue with Apollinaire, with Nazim Hikmat, with Fredrico Garcia Lorca." This the subjective self, grows stronger within him and within his creative work, becoming not only a point of departure, but a base for showing those worlds that the walls of the prison and the constrictions of time cannot overcome. The discourse to the poets, most of them dead, is also a declaration of the universal longing for freedom, and in addition a intellectual poetic justification for what is basically a pure cry, without any additional significance. But there should be no mistake: the angry bitter cry is audible behind the complexity of the poetic wisdom.
The nature of the dialogue brings Ghazzawi to clear political conclusions, such as at least listening to - if not agreeing with - the Jewish claim of belonging to the land. Possibly it was this tone that caused some of the criticism in the Palestinian literary community, which, although it recognized the poetic power of the work, found it difficult to accept some of the nuances.
The riddle to which I sought a solution, regarding the significance of birds in Palestinian folklore is echoed by the fact that one of Ghazzawi's addressees is the Israeli poet, Yair Horowitz. Like many of the other addressees, Horowitz was already dead, when Ghazzawi wrote his letters.
"I am but a child in this naive desire of mine, I mean the desire to pause at the moment of birth," Ghazzawi opens his "letter" to Yair Horowitz. He continues: "Why did you leave us, Yair Horowitz, you inspirational poet? The 26th of July must have been nothing but an ordinary day in Tel Aviv, when your soul went swimming in the sky over Brussels. Why do you haunt me, Yair Horowitz, and remind me of the death of the father in the precipice? Dear Yair, I was late in writing you and when you died I felt sad. For the moment you are here in my cell, reminding me of the death of the father in the precipice. I will not admit the death of God in the precipice, because your beautiful poems live like orange blossoms which shiver with the dew and pour love on his holy land ... holiness is lost but in name. I am saddened that your heart failed you, and so early. You should
have lived to write about peace. You should have experienced the Intifada and seen for yourself this flagrant disgrace of man. They die, Arabs and Jews, and each waits for the miracle of peace ... Yair, again I tell you that your voice is sorely needed ... maybe you will tell me that they silenced the song of peace, sung by Martin Luther King, that they expelled the Dalai Lama from Tibet and murdered the mist in his eye born of his love for the great Himalayas which extend upward to the sun ... what can a poet with a bad heart like you do standing against the traffic?"
The sections of this letter to Horowitz reveal both the strength and weakness in Ghazzawi's writing. Its strength is in the delectable combination between revealing the delicate feelings of the male poet, "the glistening in his eyes that was born of his love," and between the direct statement, free of self-pity or hatred, like "You should have seen for yourself the flagrant disgrace of man." Its main weakness lies in the mystification, which appears from time to time, possibly a result of lack of knowledge on the part of the non-Palestinian reader, regarding the details of the author's life, or permanent associations of Palestinian culture. I am referring to incomprehensible sentences dealing with the death of the father and the death of God.
The reader of the English translation also encounters too many mistranslations and inaccurate spelling of the names of the addressees, a result of their being transcribed back into English from the Arabic; but this does not detract one whit from the importance of the work's translation and distribution. The personal tone in addressing the Hebrew poet personifies the good will in Ghazzawi's writing. It is concrete, physical, and sensitive, and reveals the writer's vulnerability, which he thus converts to his strength. The use of orange blossoms, a symbol of longing for a Palestinian homeland, and for the creation of a national identity for its sons, as a metaphor for Horowitz's poems, is more evidence than a thousand political declarations about the division of the land between two peoples (and several declarations of this type are found in the book) of the genuine openness that has entered Ghazzawi's soul, to recognize the right of the other - the Israeli - to partnership in this land.
At the center of Ghazzawi's reflective discourse is the Poem (with a capital "P" in the English translation), which he carries with him, and which he wants to convey in words, the incompleteness of which, he as a true poet is forced at last to recognize.
Ghazzawi's letters from prison sharply remind us of the associative link between letters and dreams. "A dream that is not solved is like a letter that is not read," in the words of Rabbi Hisda in the Babylonian Talmud. Ghawazzi shows the courage of an emotional dream, sending his letters, his dreams "to swim in the skies" (his term) of the world, where several of the addressees have died, and some of them, Palestinian and Israeli, are described as "too busy with lethal frenzy to listen to the voice of an intelligent poem."
In choosing Yair Horowitz of all the Hebrew poets of his generation, Ghazzawi surprises, pleases, and earns respect. The surprise stems from the fact that many poets and poetesses have written clearer political messages that Horowitz. Furthermore, Horowitz was not one of those who made a point of having his poems translated. It causes pleasure because it says something about the potential of poetry as a means of communication, and something about future communications in a time of peace. It earns our respect because it indicates the sensitive instincts of Ghazzawi, a man belonging to a culture in which birds mean freedom, but also mean prison, poetry and folk tale, in that he listened to the less obvious voice, expressing complete freedom from external obligations, the voice of the poet of birds, Yair Horowitz.