Describing a watercolor by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, which depicts a wide-eyed angel with hands raised as though in shock, Walter Benjamin once speculated that “this is how the angel of history must look” as the storm of progress that smashes everything in its way drives him relentlessly into the future, and “the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky.” Rarely did the storm of progress cause as much widespread devastation as the transfer of populations during the creation of new nation-states and the consolidation of national identities after World War II. Whether Jews and Gypsies in Europe, Arabs in Palestine, or Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, millions of people suffered the destruction of familiar landmarks and the uprooting to a new landscape—emotional as much as physical—of emptiness and ruins.
Faced with this man-made void, the biographer as well as the poet is forced to double as a social and cultural historian, seeking traces of human endeavor and dignity in vanished modes of existence. Adina Hoffman opens her superb biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali with a careful reconstruction of his ancestral village (and frequent subject). Almost continuously inhabited since antiquity, Saffuriyya lay three miles north of Nazareth in Galilee, near Israel’s present border with Lebanon. For centuries, this village of four thousand Muslims, sitting on a wooded rise, existed outside of history; it had its own rhythms dictated by agricultural and pastoral urgencies that survived the rise and fall of many empires—“always crops to harvest and sheep to graze, goats to milk, wheat to plant or thresh.”
The harsh political education of the villagers, like that of many Europeans and Asians caught unawares by the collapse of old empires and the redrawing of borders, began in the twentieth century. World War I exacted some of its great human cost from Galilee, which was then the obscure margin of the sprawling Ottoman Empire. Hoffman describes peasant soldiers from the village returning, starved and often shoeless, from endless futile battles against the British in Sinai:
Were they aware as they trudged that the Ottoman Empire was now a thing of the past and that the British, their enemies in the war, were soon to rule Palestine? Stumbling, famished, toward Saffuriyya, had they heard of the Balfour Declaration, the promise made that year by the British foreign secretary to establish in Palestine a “national home for the Jewish people”?
The implications of the lost war and the collapse of their Ottoman Muslim suzerains would become apparent to the residents of Saffuriyya only as Jewish immigration to Palestine increased under British rule. Born in 1931, Taha Muhammad Ali heard the “rueful mumbling” among his elders about the new residents in their midst; he himself saw Jews for the first time when a school group from a nearby kibbutz passed through Saffuriyya, the …