Poem of the Week / A Relationship With the Land: It’s Complicated

Salman Masalha, on tasting the salt of assault and a damned homeland.

Vivian Eden
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Salman Masalha, “Self Portrait.”
Vivian Eden

Homeland Hymn

Salman Masalha

On the mountain that kisses a star, the winds
flail and wail. This is not a wind that blew in
from the west, it is a wind that sighs:
Who lifts up his eyes on high
to the bereft land, which God has left
to its own devices, filthy with hate, imprisoned
in plaints and the flame of the sword?

On the mountain that lusts for a star, the wind’s
silence is naked. Sandstorm soldiers again
have shaken the basalt boulders from slumber,
hungering for battle, tongues
tasting the salt of assault. Only the man
who roamed among ruins of a glorified war
hewed gravestones in memory’s
path, and whispered like embers.

On the mountain mute as a star,
the furious windstorm raves.
Not the insolent wind but the redemptive wind
of the land addressed in a poem of lament,
a single line:

Land flowing with milk and a homeland damned.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, from Ahad Mikan (“In Place,” Am Oved, 2004). The Hebrew poem was first published in Haaretz in the Culture and Books Tarbut Vesifrut section on June 21, 2002.

In a recent op-ed, Uri Avnery wrote: “A homeland is the place where you get angry,” a political version of the observation that those who hurt us most deeply are the ones we love best.

There is much pain but no “I” in this poem; the voice is that of an angry and saddened prophet.

The land and its atmosphere are depicted in erotic terms of kissing, lust and nudity. The scene is set along Israel’s northern border or perhaps the Golan Heights, where much of the stone is basalt – the Hebrew word for which chimes in internal rhymes with many of the verbs in the poem.

There are no people in the first stanza. The wind (ruah in Hebrew, which also means spirit) speaks and is endowed with human motions. It flails, wails and sighs, and the wind – or spirit -- in turn attributes human emotions to the bereft land, "filthy with hate." Even God has left the land to its own devices, apparently fed up.

In the second stanza, humans appear, first en masse as soldiers who seem to have come up north from the desert – the original jihadists from the Hijaz? The Israel Defense Forces from the Gaza Strip? – and then as one man who deals with stone, memory and keeping the embers of the human voice alive. “The man” is a sculptor perhaps, or a historian, some sort of artist or intellectual – ish ruah in Hebrew.

The final third of the poem identifies “the man” specifically as the one who sums up the scene in a poem of “a single line: / Land flowing with milk and a homeland damned.”

Salman Masalha was born in the Galilee village of Maghar in 1953 and has lived in Jerusalem for all his adult life. He has published one book of poetry in Hebrew and seven in Arabic, translates from both languages and contributes opinion pieces to Haaretz and to the international press in Arabic. Composer-performers, among them Yair Dallal, Micha Shitrit, Eyal Sela in Israel and Marwan Abado and Kamilya Jubran in Europe have set poems of his to music.

*Musing: How does poetry become prophetic?

*Bonus: Marwan Abado sings a drinking song in Arabic by Salman Masalha, “O Publican

Salman Masalha.