Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Poet to Poet: Palestine to Scotland

Iyad Hayatleh  and Tessa Ransford. A Rug of a Thousand Colours: Poems inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam by two contemporary Scottish writers each also translating the other. Luath Press.

A Rug of a Thousand Colours is a brave and unusual book. Both these poets benefit by collaboration in terms of their writing work. The history of the two poets' association is also of some relevance. Since founding the Scottish Poetry Library in the early 1980s, Tessa Ransford has been a well known figure in Scotland. She spent her childhood in India, a point that is relevant to her strong sympathy for others whose lives have moved them around the world. Iyad Hayatleh came to Scotland from Palestine with his wife and children as a refugee, and first met Tessa Ransford back in those early days through PEN and its efforts to help writer refugees. In due course Iyad and family received permission to remain in Glagow and became British citizens. Iyad has contributed considerably to the poetry community in Glasgow, and has wirtten and published many poems, often with Tessa's translations, in Scotland, while he is active in Arabic on the internet.

Tessa and Iyad have produced this interesting book as a result of that friendship.

The core of the book is the title sequence, Five Pillars of Islam.

With the Arabic language, most Scottish readers need to be fully guided by the translator. They do not have that option of a quick glance at the words opposite in a European language, that may make sense to them.  So the translator's work is more important.  Tessa's work has always displayed an interest in theological explorations, and explorations of ways of life and how they relate to belief. Ransford gives an assured and convincing version of this central poem. I would say it presents Mohammed as a god not unlike the Christian god, along with the writer's personal sense of struggle and loss, and a sense of dependence on the god among the difficulties of human life.

Because I don't have Arabic, I have had to depend entirely on the translatin to understand Iyad's poems, though I have on occasion heard him reading poems very impressively in Arabic.  I know the translations are reliable and good,  because of the collaboration and because of the introduction in the book. However it occurs to me that here is one advantage of the internet over print.  One can call up cheap and instant if faintly unreliable translations for any piece of work one is reading there.

The Five Pillars sequence is interspersed with several poems by Tessa Ransford. Hayatleh's Salah (Prayer) discusses the chanting of the prayer in his baby's ear, this baby born in Glasgow:

   and an astonished midwive with open mouth gasps
   What on earth are they doing here?
   What is he mumbling in the baby's ear?

is followed by Prayer Sequence by Tessa Ransford, which is both Christian and allusive: to Christianity: to Milton, to a childhood hymn (Now the day is over) , and shows, in contrast to the Islamic sequence, how the Christian will have more difficulty abdicating responsibility to the god.

   I have prayed in panic to the gods of chance
   let it not happen

In Hajj (Pilgrimage) Hayatleh considers the myths of the history of Islam -- some coinciding with Old Testament stories -- and places himself among the refugees who most need mercy.

Ransford's Pilgrimage uses a suitably different interpretation. She compares her own journey through life to that of Chacuer's Canterbury Pilgrims,

   not sure they want to get to know each other well
   but forced to get alogn the road together.

This is a good, if accidental,, image of the world's religions coexisting.
Throughout the book, Hayatleh's religion comes over as devout and precise, a net of myths and traditions to which he is completely attached. He even states that he had to consider, before agreeing to write these poems, whether from the point of view of his religion they conform to its rules of holiness.

Ransford's religion is different. Perhaps it should be described as a kind of post-Christianity, tailored to her views and reading of wider texts and interpretations, and essentially personal. Hayatleh does not personalise his Islam, he is a follower, and represents an example of what politicians call the integration of different faiths in a country.

Both poets present religion as a consolation and a refuge. When things are very difficult it is good to have such a conslation, no doubt, but it may be that this points to the essential difference between the outlook of religious people and of atheists. For the atheist there is nothing but the world and other poeple. For the atheist the world is less self-centred, other people on the journey matter just as much as oneself, one does not have the same sense of specialness (in God's eyes) as individuals. Not only does god not bring the bad things, he does not bring the good things either. We have to recover from our own ills and make our own good, and we cannot abnegate this responsibility.

However by merely publishing these poems, our poets show they are willing to share with others their most truthful conclusions about the world, the people nearby not just being co-travellers or witnesses, but friends and poet friends. Religion has to justify almsgiving (an atheist would find that concept odd).  Both these poets have been generous in giving of their own outlook to others.

I had intended to review this book alongside another two-poet book Poet to Poet 5: The Holy Place,by John Dotson and Caroline Gill, but I have had so much to say about this book that I will post the reivew of the other book separately, although they make interesting parallels.

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