Love of Verse Unites Arabs and Jews ; in Studying One Another's Works, Jewish and Arab Poets Each Discover a New Respect for the Literature - and Humanity - of the Other

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Imagine a Middle East in which Arab and Jew make poetry together rather than battle one another. Utopian? Naive? Away from the headlines about bombings and army incursions, promising Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli poets have been coming together to study their art, learning about verse but also using the creative process as a bridge across a national and linguistic divide.

"The framework of a poetry class cannot solve a political conflict between nations but it can contribute to gaining familiarity, understanding, and mutual respect between Arabs and Jews and even to help establish ongoing cooperation between poets," says Amir Or, founder of the program and director of Helicon, the Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel. It has just published an anthology in Arabic and Hebrew of the poems that emerged from this year's joint class.

The topics of the poems range from the drudgery of manning an army watchtower (Jewish poet Eyal Rechter) to continuing despair and emptiness over the loss of homeland (Arab poet Muslim Mahamid). But regardless of the differences in perspective and experience, there are many common themes including love, loneliness, and battling fear.

Over a period of six months, the 11 Jewish and five Arab poets joined together in the northern Israeli town of Zichron Yaacov for workshops taught by leading Jewish and Arab literary figures and scholars. Among the topics were Hebrew and Arabic poetic traditions, reading aloud at recitals, editing of texts, principles of translation, and writing exercises.

The class was motivated in part by the widening gap between the worlds of Israeli Arabs and Jews after the eruption of the intifada uprising in the fall of 2000, says Mr. Or.

As fighting raged in the occupied territories, Israeli Arabs demonstrated in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Thirteen Arabs were shot dead by police in protests that marked a major crisis in relations, with many Arabs concluding their citizenship in the Israeli state was hollow and experiencing heightening feelings of exclusion, and many Jews having their sense of security shaken by images of Arab protesters blocking roads and throwing stones.

"We understood we could do something," Or says.

Or also hopes the class will contribute to the growth of Arabic poetry in Israel, a field previously much neglected by the mainstream Israeli literary world. Helicon began bringing the poets together and three classes have since emerged.

If the comments of participants are any indication, the poets have forged a kind of separate peace despite the lack of healing in the overall political context.

The program's strength is that the poets come as individuals and not as representatives of groups, says Basilius Bawardi, who teaches Arabic literature at Haifa University and lectures in the workshops. "This is an island of people putting ideology and politics aside and dealing with poetry and understanding each other," he says.

It was through the translations that the poets really got to know one another, the participants say. As opposed to the overall political situation in which they are a minority facing discrimination, the Arab poets had the upper hand in the translation process since all of them knew Hebrew at least on a working level.

Only a third of the Hebrew poets knew some Arabic, according to Or, reflecting the asymmetry in Israeli society where Arabs must master Hebrew in their schooling, but Jews often receive at best a smattering of literary Arabic.

The poets conferred together in groups of four or five, led by instructors fluent in each language. The poets composed transliterations and read out the poems to give a sense of their rhythm and sound. They also devised a basic literal translation. Then they looked for nuances, with group members questioning the poet to discern his exact meaning and cultural particularities. …