All Faces but Mine: Book Review

All Faces but Mine: The Poetry of Samih Al-Qasim. Translated from the Arabic by Abdulwahid Lu’lu’a. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 261. ISBN: 9780815610526.

Abdulwahid Lu’lu’a, the translator of this work, is a retired Iraqi professor of English literature. He taught at many Arab universities, published books in Arabic, and translated books into English and Arabic, winning a range of literary prizes.

Samih Al-Qasim, the poet of this collection, was born in 1939 in the city of Zarqa. Following the onset of the Second World War, Al-Qasim moved with his family to Rama in Galilee, Israel, where he lived until his death in 2014.

Al-Qasim took an interest in poetry from an early age and by the age of 18 his first collection of poems, Mawakib al-Shams (The Sun Processions) was published. He became heavily involved in political activism and was known as one of the “resistance poets,” a group of Palestinian poets including Mahmoud Darwish and Tawfiq Zayyad whose poetry was widely celebrated as part of the Palestinian national movement.

Al-Qasim’s works include poems, plays, novels, and political essays on various topics. He also edited works in journals such as al-Ittihad and al-Jadid.

All Faces but Mine is a selection of poetry from throughout Al-Qasim’s life, translated into English by Lu’lu’a’s delicate art that keeps the meaning and the beauty of the original poem intact. He arranged this translation in 12 chapters with a selection of the poet’s works arranged chronologically from 1991 to 2014.

Al-Qasim’s poems, like much other Arabic poetry of Palestine, are famous for celebrating the revolution and resistance to the Israeli occupation of historic Palestine. Despite Al-Qasim’s imprisonments and house arrests, he never stopped writing in the same revolutionary style. Among his works, he has a genre called sarbiyya, “flock poems.” In a flock of birds flying together, sometimes there are one or two birds which are flying sideways and each time they will be feeding new ideas or images back to the flock. These birds metaphorically represent activists. The poet has twelve of such “flock poems” among his fifty-six collections. A few examples in this book are as follows:

“The funeral oration by the deceased at his memorial celebration,” in which the dead-alive is a Palestinian hero. The poem focuses on the Arab nations who are holding memorial days only for dead people, showing their concern, bringing flowers, and sending condolences. The dead-alive hero here is imitating the tragedy of Hamlet whose uncle, an invader, married Hamlet’s mother. In this case, Palestine is the motherland of the poet and the Palestinian is bewildered between the illusion and the image of Arab nations gathered only to commemorate the “dead,” and the reality of the supposed existence of Arab nations, with their invader marrying their homeland.

I, the Arab Hamlet, witness me:

Training my mind in the madness puzzles.

My father is dead, who does not die,

My mother is my mother.

My kingdom is booty for my uncle. (p. 129)

The birds shoot out of the flock back and forth with an image of “war that looked like a war” but not a real one, and “peace that looked like a peace” but not a real one.

“Atlantis King” is another “flock poem” in which is a symbolic representation of the life and death of Yasir Arafat and his style of management of Palestine. The story starts from its ending and the birds which are flying off from the flock in this poem are the images of King Yasir of Atlantis-Palestine. The poet tells the king bluntly how he had miscalculated the situation and now has to pay the price. The King tells the reader at the very beginning that he has prepared himself for this ending:

My throne is on water. My kingdom is on water…

And of water are my scepter subjects.

Risking my innocence… I prepared the fire baptism

And passed through hell towards the torment… (p. 135)

“I regret” is another “flock poem,” published in 2009 as a reaction to the 2008 Israeli bombardment in Gaza. The present-day Israelis’ manner is the same as the ancient Israelites under the leadership of Joshua, where both thought that God was fighting Palestinians for them when they defeated the five Palestinian kings, locked them in a cave blocked with a big rock, and let them die without being noticed. The poet, in a similar way as in Hamlet, is holding a mirror so the Israeli can see in himself his real human nature, which is not different from the basic nature of the Palestinians. This poem is a conversation between Israeli and Palestinian. The Palestinian addresses the Israeli as “my friend and rich-poor enemy”:

My hard life is costly,

Oh, my brother, and rich-poor enemy.

My quick, sudden death is costly.

I regret,

Because I was born outside the system… (p. 184)

… You tell us that God has chosen you.

A guidance for humans,

…But you lie one day,

You steal one day,

You kill one day,

…So can you sympathize, and will you sympathize,

When, my brother, and pious enemy,

Will you regret? (p. 187)

Each time a bird shoots sideways, it makes the reader wonder with what message it would fly back to its flock.

Through his poems, Al-Qasim delivered an understanding of what Palestinians have endured during all these years of conflict with Israelis, the revolution, and the resistance to occupation. The poet advocated by his words for Palestinians’ rights. His defense was sharp while his poems were tender. His life as an activist and his poems, full of melancholy, are the highlights which invite the reader to keep reading his poems.

In general, this book is a very well-rounded translation which is easy to follow. It is a good source for any literary collection, especially any academic library that supports Arabic Studies.

Shahrzad Khosrowpour
Chapman University