Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish: Still Setting off Political Fireworks
It’s rare enough for a living poet to outrage politicians—who often focus their ire on musicians. But it’s even rarer for a complex, polyphonic poet who’s been gone nearly a decade to send political leaders into a panic. But such is the resonance of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (March 13, 1941-August 9, 2008), who shaped a Palestine of words.
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev is among those who have worked to keep Darwish’s art out of public spaces. This month, she announced her intention to leave the ACUM Israeli music awards early to protest the inclusion of music by singer-songwriter Mira Awad.
At issue: Awad’s adaptation of the Darwish poem “Think of Others.” The poem, translated into English by Mohammad Shaheen and published in Almond Blossoms and Beyond (2010), has been an anthem for the exiled and forgotten around the world. It ends:
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you liberate yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: “If only I were a candle in the dark").
If he were still with us, Darwish surely would not be surprised by the showy denunciations of his poetry. His words set off political fireworks from the time he was in elementary school, and he wrote satirically about the fear of his words. “I threw a poem at the conquerors’ car, and it blew them up,” he wrote in his 1973 prose work, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi in 2010.
Born in the village of al-Birwa, Darwish and his family were forced out of Palestine in 1947, when he was just six years old. Darwish writes about this childhood exile in Journal of an Ordinary Grief:
"When the first shots rang out, I was surprised that a wedding celebration should be taking place that evening. And when they led me away to join the long caravan, the moon was our companion on a road that later I understood was the road of exile. "
The family managed to sneak back in a year later, but they found al-Birwa had been razed. After that, they lived long years without formal status, as “present-absentees.” In Journal of an Ordinary Grief, Darwish writes about his first major poetic performance, at an elementary-school event celebrating the establishment of Israel. "I said some words against the government and its victory, and against oppression and colonization. The village elder was livid. 'This boy is going to bring ruin upon us,' he said[.]"
In the 1960s, when the poet was in his twenties, he was imprisoned for reciting poetry and traveling between villages without a permit. Authorities were particularly outraged when his 1964 poem “Identity Card” was turned into a protest anthem. It opens:
Write it down! I’m an Arab
My card number is 50000
My children number eight
And after this summer, a ninth on his way.
Does this make you rage?
I am an Arab.
The poem, here translated by Salman Masalha and Vivian Eden, continues to make conservatives rage more than a half-century later. Last year, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly dressed down Army Radio commander Yaron Dekel for hosting a discussion of the poem on air.
Between the 1967 war and 1970, Darwish was under virtual house arrest in Haifa. “Eventually,” the poet said, “I had to get away.” In 1970, he left to study for a year at the University of Moscow, but he quickly became disillusioned with the Soviets. After that, he worked as a journalist first in Cairo, later in Beirut. In Cairo, Darwish met literary superstars Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Amal Donqol, and Bint Al-Shate’, the pen name of Aisha Abd al-Rahman.
Cairo transformed both Darwish’s poetry and how he understood his critical reception. “After the defeat in 1967, the Arab world would applaud all of the poetry and literature coming out of Palestine, whether it was bad or good,” he said in an interview collected by the Darwish Foundation. Literary standards, Darwish said, were dropped entirely for Palestinian resistance poetry.
This feeling spurred Darwish in a passionate drive toward ever more vivid, polyphonic, finely crafted phrases. Yet he also continued to see himself as a poet writing a lost literary and cultural history. In a 1997 documentary, he told an interviewer: "I don’t think a poet is entitled to a greater happiness than that some people seek refuge in his lines of poetry, as if they were real houses."
After the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon, Darwish left Beirut for Damascus, then Tunis, and later Paris, where, he has said, he came fully into his voice. It was in Paris that Darwish wrote Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, which has been translated by Jeffrey Sacks; the love poetry in The Stranger’s Bed, translated by Fady Joudah; and the text of Memory for Forgetfulness, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi.
It wasn't until 1996 that Darwish was allowed a limited return from exile.
Wherever he lived, Darwish continued to publish poetry collections every year or two, wrestling with himself, reading widely, looking to deepen and broaden his work. His work knits together poetic rhythms, memoiristic self-reflection, the characters of fictions, and the dialogue of theatre. Throughout, it reflects an eternal exile, a fragile sense of what’s been lost, is continually being lost, and how it might be preserved in words.
Although long-beloved in French translation, Darwish arrived late to English, achieving acclaim only in his final years. Indeed, his work continues to arrive in translation. A new collection, translated by Mohammad Shaheen, is forthcoming in mid-August of this year. It promises to feature both early and late poems, most previously not translated to English. Some of these poems were discovered in 2008, after Darwish’s death. The collection also includes reflections on Darwish and an essay, “How We Found the Poems” by the great Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury.
A five-book Mahmoud Darwish starter kit:
In the Presence of Absence, in translation by poet-novelist Sinan Antoon. A masterful, dizzying prose work, for which Antoon won the 2012 National Translation Award.
Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. This is from Darwish’s pre-Paris work, but it’s conversational, theatrical, enjoyable, and tells many stories from the poet’s early life.
Memory for Forgetfulness, translated by Muhawi. This was written in Paris and originally appeared in 1985, one of Darwish’s most intensely rhythmic prose works, echoed in English by Muhawi.
The Butterfly’s Burden, a bilingual edition, translated by Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah, which brings together three collections: The Stranger’s Bed (1998), a collection of Darwish’s love poems; State of Siege (2002), a collection written while the poet was under siege in Ramallah; and Don’t Apologize For What You’ve Done (2003). Joudah’s English translation was winner of the Banipal prize in 2008.
If I Were Another, also translated by Joudah, is a selection of works from Darwish’s later years, and ranges from the deeply personal to the broadly Palestinian. It was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2010 and winner of the 2010 PEN USA Literary Award for Translation.