Sadder than Water by Samih al-Qasim

Sept. 2007 WLT
Sept. 2007 WLT

Samih al-Qasim. Sadder than Water. Nazih Kassis, tr. Adina Hoffman, intro. Jerusalem. Ibis. 2006. xxxi + 179 pages. $15.95. ISBN 965-90125-5-1

Although he is one of the best Palestinian poets living in Israel, Samih al-Qasim (b. 1939) is hardly known in English. This beautifully produced book makes some of his finest poems available to English readers for the first time ever and is useful to readers of Arabic, too, because the original Arabic poems are printed parallel to their English translations. The book contains selections from his six-volume collected works published in 1992 and from his later collections and newer poems. 

Having grown up in his native village of Rama in Galilee, where he continues to live, al-Qasim experienced the Palestinian nakba of 1948 when Israel was established and the Palestinians were dispossessed and dislocated, and most of them (over 700,000) were forced to leave their ancestral country as refugees. He also experienced the Israeli military rule to which the remaining Palestinians were subjected. Together with poets like Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Zayyad, Rashed Hussein, and others in Israel, he expressed Palestinian opposition to Israel in the 1950s in recurrent oral poetic recitations at village gatherings—activities that were celebrated in the Arab world as “resistance poetry” and later published. Al-Qasim was eighteen when his first collection of poems was published, and he was to experience Israeli prisons several times because of his writings, face personal trouble in his livelihood, and publish censored poems.

Over the decades, however, al-Qasim has produced a prolific oeuvre that has won him a prestigious position in the Arab world. Rich in its imagery and its evocation of Palestinian heritage and identity, his poetry remains lyrical although it deals mostly with the painful political reality of Arab life under Israel’s harsh domination, especially in earlier poems. More recently, it has adopted a philosophical and visionary attitude in long meandering poems he calls sarbiyy¯at, in which free verse and prose intermix and allusions are drawn from various cultures and traditions.

Nazih Kassis’s selections are appropriate in representing the wide variety of al-Qasim’s poetry and innovations, and his translation is quite faithful to the original Arabic, often capturing in an elegant English turn of phrase a complex Arabic wording.

Sadder than Water has an illuminating, twenty-three-page introduction by well-known literary and film critic Adina Hoffman, in which she speaks about Samih al-Qasim’s life and assesses his poetry. “Indeed, over the years,” she says, “his poetry has worked to bring us all a step closer to a Palestine that is at once tangible and elusive, endangered and durable, representative and singular, harsh and sharply tender.”

Issa J. Boullata
Montréal