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  • Letters on Uncertainty, Bewilderment and Faith
  • Kazim Ali (bio) and Rachel Tzvia Back (bio)


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Note: In the early part of 2006 Kazim wrote to Rachel about her poem "Notes: from the Wait" from her book Azimuth. Rachel, meanwhile, had been teaching Kazim's book The Far Mosque in her class. Thus the first contact between the two poets was established.

Hi Rachel,

It was so beautiful to hear you describe my poems lying in your mind down between the sea and mountain—and thanks for including "Renunciation" in your class. I hope you will let me know how the students read it or hear it. "Thicket" and "Hunger" were both hard poems for me to write. I love the idea that Isaac did not know why he was going up the mountain, because the crux of the Ismail myth is that he knows and chooses to follow his father—the first suicide martyr! He says, "Do what you are commanded, father; you will find me among the faithful." Alicia Ostriker has this terrifying read of the Abraham/Isaac myth: that Abraham has actually disobeyed God or betrayed his prophethood by agreeing to the sacrifice since [End Page 26] God never does speak to him after that—that in this case the mantle of prophethood seems to pass before Abraham's death which I guess is not how it usually works—



I feel a deep familiarity with your words—the dislocation (linguistic and geographic) informing everything, the sense of exile (and absence) as also something sought-after—for the deep well of desire it is, the possibilities, the spaces it opens within. I thought that when I returned to Israel 25 years ago, I would feel I had come home (on my father's side, we are seven generations Jewish Palestinian. Only my grandfather left—looking for the fabled American "gold in the streets"...). I had come home, but I hadn't (of course). I think often of Irena Klepfisz's words of being always "equidistance between two continents" ...

And thank you for mentioning my work—for quoting it and for holding it in your heart. How wonderful that feels.

I see you travelled to Egypt—have you ever been to Israel and Palestine? If you haven't, you must. I imagine you'll find pieces of yourself here. If you do come, please know you have a home now in the Galilee.

Yes, my Muslim students told me about that piece of the Abraham/Isaac-Ishmael tale being so different in their tradition. How intriguing that is! Isaac's not knowing is so central to the Jewish reading, raising the question of betrayal, the price of faith, the father-son relationship, etc. (The Jewish version is much closer to Greek mythological structures, don't you think? Not-knowing being an axis of so many tales....) You must know Wilfred Owen's "The Parable of the Young Man and the Old"—such a wonderful (painful) anti-war poem. And Chaim Gouri's haunting "Heritage"—Isaac bequeathing to his descendants "that hour of his life"—his father's knife-wielding arm raised above him. And so—

... when they are born, in their heartsis a knife.

Another vision of that moment, and its lasting repercussions. Disturbing—as it must be.

In peace—

Dear Rachel,

Your revelation to me of the betrayal in Isaac's myth has been haunting me since you told me about it. All along we have thought the major difference is in which son went into the thicket but the real difference is in the two very different things that happen to them there—Ismail's unbelievable decision to submit to death and Isaac's complete unawareness of the truth of what was happening there—"But, father, where is the ram?"

As for Galilee—I have long wanted to come to Palestine/Israel—and always been afraid. Also never had anywhere to go there. But you've planted a little seed for me. It would be the fulfillment of a wild dream for me to come there—a pilgrimage of a lifetime for me! Kazim [End Page 27...


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pp. 26-34
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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