Poem of the Week / Salman Masalha and a Seaview Apartment Called Homeland

'Haifa by the Sea' is a meditation prompted by the death of Emile Habiby, an Israeli-Palestinian writer and politician whose tombstone inscription refers to the Arab concept of remaining on one’s land.

In Haifa by the Sea

Salman Masalha

In memory of Emile Habiby

In Haifa, by the sea, the smells of salt

rise from the earth. And the sun

hanging from a tree unravels wind.

In a row of trees bathed in stone

men, women and silence have been

planted. Tenants in an apartment

block called homeland.

Jews whose voices I haven't heard,

Arabs whose meaning I haven't understood.

And other such melodies I couldn't

identify in the moment that went silent.

There in Haifa, by the sea,

he had them all. Poet, exile

in the wind, seeking the past

in a question blessed with answers.

Pulling words out of the sea and

throwing them back to the waves

that, like Messiah, will return eternally.

A poet has returned to a poem he never wrote

in the night of captivity, and hasn't yet returned

to the place that he drew as a child in a cloud.

There in Haifa, by the sea, at the end

of the summer that broke on the treetop,

a moon unfurled. I return to the 

silence I had split with my lips. 

I return to the words asleep inside

the paper. Moist clods of earth

and a salty path have forever wrapped

the fisherman's pole. Little 

words lay down to rest, and a poem

went silent there in Haifa, by

the sea.

Translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

Salman Masalha was born in Maghar, in the Galilee, and has been living in Jerusalem for many years. He has published seven volumes of poetry in Arabic and one in Hebrew. This poem is from the latter, “In Place” (Am Oved, 2004). More of his poems and his commentaries for Haaretz and other newspapers, both Hebrew and Arabic, can be found on his blog.

This poem is dedicated to the memory of Emile Habiby (1921-1996), a politician, Knesset member (1951-1959 and 1961-1972), journalist, novelist and occasional fisherman. Habiby (sometimes spelled Habibi) was buried in the Christian cemetery in Haifa. The inscription on his tombstone reads: “Remaining in Haifa,” a reference to the local Arab concept of sumud, remaining on one’s land, especially after the Nakba (the Palestinian term for the catastrophe of 1948, Israel’s War of Independence). This month Haifa officials are planning to name a square after Habiby. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for Sunday, May, 28, at 6:45 P.M. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and other notables from the Beit Hagefen Jewish-Arab Culture Center in Haifa are slated to participate.

The movement of the poem is from wide screen to close up. The first stanza takes in the graveyard, the sea and the homeland. The second stanza focuses on “him” – Habiby – and the third stanza focuses on the inwardness of the “I,” the speaker in the poem, in the larger context and also in terms of his relationship with the deceased.

“Haifa By the Sea” is performed by rock singer Micha Shitrit on his album “Shilhei Kayitz.”

Musings


* In Nurith Aviv’s 2005 film “From Language to Language” Masalha says: “Hebrew doesn't belong to the Jews any longer. It belongs to anyone who speaks it and writes it. Even if people from other lands may have renewed it, it belongs to this region just as Arabic and other Semitic languages do.” What are the implications of Masalha’s assertion? 

Vivian Eden