The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Poetry
Teargas poems

I loved these revolutionary poems, by Egyptian poet Kareem Abdulsalam and translated by Elliott Colla over at Jadaliyya. The first two probably deal with events that took place on January 28. The last one speaks to the longing for Midan Tahrir as a place in which everything seemed possible, and everyone felt purposeful (a longing that as we've seen has led people to return to that square and others in the past week). Enjoy. 

4. What Comes From a Cop

Armored cars
Boxes of perfected fear.
     We thought they were divine creatures come to crush us
          as native Americans first looked at horses. 
     We thought death itself sprang from them.

Armored car
     Went up in flames
     And the policeman inside struggled against the tongues of fire
          Fought against fear.

When we rescued him, 
     He joined the rebellion.

5. He Thought We Were Going to Kill Him

Central security policeman
Peasant who came straight from the village
To fire tear gas at revolutionaries. 
When we grabbed him, 
He thought we were going to kill him
And cried like a child,
     I want my brother. He’s over there
     In that burning armored car.

We took him by the hand
     To his brother—the very one from the last poem. 
He’d taken off his black vest, 
     And was sitting on the ground with the revolutionaries.

6. What Is to Be Done, Now?

What shall we do, now that freedom has dawned over Midan Tahrir?

It would be senseless to go back home,
     To tell tales of the many victories won by the people. 
We will tell the stories often, 
     And listeners will ask us and ask us to repeat them.

In our hearts we might wish that the Dictator had persisted in his stubbornness
     that we had remained in Midan Tahrir forever…
          churning out hurried placards and posters
               sharing food with one another
                    sharing slogans of freedom.

We desire, each one of us, to go on talking about ourselves without end. 
     We dream of sitting,
          all of us together,
               on the ground,
                    singing ballads about our country
                         on cold nights
                              while the tanks protect us.

A giant sexless story-telling statue?!?
The designers plan to install speakers throughout the park, allowing people to tune in to the giant as he plows through recordings of traditional stories and legends. For those who might find the sight distressing, the statue would sport recreational rooms and a library located at the base in the Giant’s ankles. One wonders whether the architects took the metaphor “to study at someone’s feet” a little too seriously. In a city almost exclusively dominated by state of the art, air-conditioned phalluses, such a statue would not only be sexless, but be equipped with a series of elevators that would transport one through parts of the body where few Fundamentalists dare to tread, while from its viewing deck, situated in the Giant’s hollowed-out cranium, one would be able to enjoy Dubai’s skyline as it stretched out to where neon lights spider over the rust-colored dunes in the distance.

Only in Dubai. And even there, I find it hard to believe that this is actually going to be carried out (the author does not specify a construction company or a timeline, and a cursory Arabic google search turned up no information about the project). In any case, an interesting and idionsyncratic piece, which also includes a discussion of the popular poetry contests sponsored by Emirati sheikhs--although some of the author's claims (about the relationship of Arabs to the word and to magic, for example) struck me as a little broad and a little off.
Poetry from Nazareth

After reading an excerpt from Adina Hoffman's biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, I've put her wonderfully titled work on my reading list. Here's a taste: 
Taha was born and grew up in Saffuriyya, a Galilee village that Israel destroyed in the wake of the 1948 war, and most of his poems well up from the hard ground of that setting. Cunningly combining a plain-spoken register with an idiosyncratic (sometimes biting, sometimes mournful) storytelling sense, these are quietly sophisticated lyrics, many of them populated by “simple” characters like the trusting and doomed peasant-everyman Abd el Hadi. These poems are engaged and political in the deepest sense – the word, after all, comes from the Greek politikos, “of a citizen” – though they eschew the direct approach to the so-called Struggle that is the hallmark of the “poetry of resistance” written by many of Taha’s peers and by the next, most acclaimed generation of Palestinian poets. Younger than Taha, Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al Qasim, for instance, began to write much earlier and came to widespread fame almost as soon as they did. Taha has often likened his own poetic method to what he calls in English “bill-i-ar-des”: the word has four syllables when he says it. “You aim over here – ” a long, gnarled, yet delicately mottled farmer’s finger points to the right – “to strike over there.” The finger bends sharply to the left.

Then a recent discussion lead a good friend to send me some links to translations of Ali's work, and it is so excellent I thought I'd share--Arabic and English version are after the jump. Here's hoping that a full collection of his poems is translated into English soon. (And thanks, Mandy). 

لقــاء فــي مطــار محايــد

شعــر: طــه محمــد علــي



وكنا من ضُحى النبعِ



"ماذا  تكره..

ومن تُحِب؟!”


من خَلفِ أهدابِ الفُجاءة


يُسرعُ ويُسرعْ

كظل سحابِة الزُرْزُورْ:

"اكرهُ الرحيلَ...

أحبُّ النبعَ والدربَ

واعبُدُ الضُحى!”


فأزهرَ لوز

وشدَتْ في الايكِ أسرابُ العنادِلْ!




عُمرُه الآن عقودٌ أربعةْ

يا للْجواب من السؤالْ


عُمرُه عُمرُ رحيلك

يا لَلْسؤآلِ من الجوابْ.


يا للْمُحالْ!

ها نحن في مطارٍ مُحايِِدْ..

على شفا صُدفةٍ




وها أنتِ

تُعيدين السؤالْ؟!

يا لَلْمُحالِ من المُحالِْ!



ولم تعرفيني.

"أهذا أنتَ؟!”

ولم تُصَدِّقي.


انفجرتِ تسألين:

"إن كنتَ أنتَ أنتَ

فماذا تكره

ومن تُحبْ؟!”



يغادرُ الشُرفةْ..

يُسْرعُ ويُسْرعُ

كظلِّ سحابةِ الزُرْوُرْ:

"أكره الرحيلَ..

أُحبُّ النبعَ والدربَ

وأعبُدُ الضحى"


فاطرقت ورُودً.

وتعثرتْ بحرير حُرقتِها حَمائِمْ!



You asked me once,
on our way back
from the midmorning
trip to the spring:
"What do you hate,
and who do you love?"

And I answered,
from behind the eyelashes
of my surprise,
my blood rushing
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
"I hate departure...
I love the spring
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning."
And you laughed...
and the almond tree blossomed
and the thicket grew loud with nightingales.

...A question
now four decades old:
I salute that question's answer;
and an answer,
as old as your departure;
I salute that answer's question...

...And today,
it's preposterous,
here we are at a friendly airport
by the slimmest of chances,
and we meet.
Ah, Lord!
we meet.
And here you are
asking — again,
it's absolutely preposterous —
I recognized you
but you didn't recognize me.
"Is it you?!"
But you wouldn't believe it.
And suddenly
you burst out and asked:
"If you're really you,
What do you hate
and who do you love?!"

And I answered —
my blood
fleeing the hall,
rushing in me
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
"I hate departure,
and I love the spring,
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning."

And you wept,
and flowers bowed their heads,
and doves in the silk of their sorrow stumbled.

—Translated by 
Peter Cole



أَتَمَنّى أَن أُبارِزَ
الشَّخْصَ الذي 
قَتَلَ والِدي
وَهَدَمَ بَيْتَنا
في بِلادِ النّاسِ 
فَإِذا قَتَلَني
أَكونُ قَدْ ارْتَحْتُ
وَإِنْ أَجْهَزْتُ عَلَيْهِ
أَكونُ قَدِ انْتَقَمْتُ!

إِذا تَبَيَّنَ لي
أَثْناءَ المُبارَزَةِ
أَنَّ لِغَريمي أُمّاً 
أَوْ أَباً
يَضَعُ كَفَّ يَمينِهِ
عَلى مَكانِ القَلْبِ مِنْ صَدْرِهِ
كُلَّما تَأَخَّرَ ابْنُهُ
وَلَوْ رُبْعَ ساعَةٍ
عَنْ مَوْعِدِ عَوْدَتِهِ
فَأَنا عِنْدَها
لَنْ أَقْتُلَهُ إِذا
تَمَكَّنْتُ مِنْهُ

أَنا لَنْ أَفْتِكَ بِهِ
إِذا ظَهَرَ لي 
أَنَّ لَهُ إِخْوَةٌ وَأَخَوات
وَيُديمونَ تَشَوُّقَهُمْ إِلَيْهِ.
أَوْ إِذا كانَ لَهُ
زَوْجَةٌ تُرَحِّبُ بِهِ
لا يُطيقونَ غِيابَهُ
وَيَفْرَحونَ بِهَداياه.
أَوْ إِذا كانَ لَهُ 
أَصْدِقاءٌ أَوْ أَقارِبٌ
جيرانٌ مَعارِفٌ
زُمَلاءُ سِجْنٍ
رِفاقُ مُسْتَشْفى
أَوْ خُدَناءُ مَدْرَسَةٍ
يَسْأَلونَ عَنْهُ
وَيَحْرِصونَ عَلى تَحِيَّتِه

أَمَّا إِذا كانَ وَحيداً
مَقْطوعاً مِنْ شَجَرَةٍ
لا أَبٌ وَلا أُمٌّ
لا إِخْوَةٌ وَلا أَخَواتٌ
لا زَوْجَةٌ وَلا أَطْفالٌ
بِدونِ أَصْدِقاءٍ وَلا أَقْرِباءٍ وَلا جيران
مِنْ غَيْرِ مَعارِفٍ
بِلا زُمَلاءٍ أَوْ رُفَقاءٍ أَوْ أَخْدان
فَأَنا لَنْ أُضيفَ
إِلى شَقاءِ وَحْدَتِهِ
لا عَذابَ مَوْتٍ
وَلا أَسى فَناءٍ
بَلْ سَأَكْتَفي
بِأَنْ أُغْمِضَ الطَّرْفَ عَنْهُ
حينَ أَمُرُّ بِهِ في الطَّريقِ
مُقْنِعاً نَفْسي
بِأَنَّ الإِهْمالَ
بِحَدِّ ذاتِهِ هُوَ أَيْضاً

نَوْعٌ مِنْ أَنْواعِ الإِنْتِقامِ!


translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin

At times ... I wish 
I could meet in a duel 
the man who killed my father 
and razed our home, 
expelling me
a narrow country. 
And if he killed me, 
I’d rest at last, 
and if I were ready— 
I would take my revenge!


But if it came to light, 
when my rival appeared, 
that he had a mother 
waiting for him, 
or a father who’d put
his right hand over 
the heart’s place in his chest 
whenever his son was late 
even by just a quarter-hour 
for a meeting they’d set— 
then I would not kill him, 
even if I could.


Likewise ... I 
would not murder him 
if it were soon made clear 
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him. 
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who 
couldn’t bear his absence 
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had 
friends or companions, 
neighbors he knew 
or allies from prison 
or a hospital room, 
or classmates from his school …
asking about him 
and sending him regards.


But if he turned 
out to be on his own— 
cut off like a branch from a tree— 
without a mother or father, 
with neither a brother nor sister, 
wifeless, without a child, 
and without kin or neighbors or friends, 
colleagues or companions, 
then I’d add not a thing to his pain 
within that aloneness— 
not the torment of death, 
and not the sorrow of passing away. 
Instead I’d be content 
to ignore him when I passed him by 
on the street—as I 
convinced myself 
that paying him no attention 
in itself was a kind of revenge.

April 15, 2006


Palestinian lit festival targeted again
The Literary Saloon reports on the SECOND time the Israelis have shut down events at the beleaguered Palestinian Literature Festival (you can read about the first one here), and makes the obvious point:
From here -- admittedly very, very far away -- PalFest looks like an admirable attempt to promote culture and dialogue -- activity that is, in a way, of course political, but surely not in the (negative) way implied in the crack-down excuse --, and from here the actions by the Israeli government look pretty outrageous. Maybe they have good reasons for the police interference; what astonishes me is that they don't even seem to have to worry about explaining themselves, or any bad PR. Other than what are probably considered outlets that are on the fringe or to be in the other camp anyway no one seems to much care what they've done, or why. 
More Cavafy
Yet another fine article on Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy--spurred by the new translation by Daniel Mendelsohn, who has also translated  a new collection of "Unfinished Poems"--in the National, by Robyn Creswell. 
“Plenty of poets are poets only,” Cavafy once said, “but I am a historical poet” (or else “a poet-historian”: piïtís istorikós). Indeed, few poets were on such intimate terms with the past as Cavafy, who approached history with a combination of scholarly detachment and spooky intensity. The past he most identified with – the verb is not too strong – was the classical kind. Not that noontime of Pericles and the Acropolis, Caesar and the Senate, but the long and, for most of us, unfamiliar evening of Hellenism: the successor states of Alexander’s conquests, the thousand-year reign of Constantinople. This post-Classical era, with its sprawling, mongrelised empires and overripe atmospheres is an afterthought in most historical accounts. But for Cavafy, a Greek poet who had read the French decadents and lived all his adult life in a declining Egyptian entrepôt, it spoke to his deepest concerns.
A list of links to recent interesting things that I've just gotten around to reading:

At Words Without Borders, Carol Perkins translates a short story about adultery--"The Masseuse and her Adulterous Husband"--by Syrian writer Salwa Al Neimi. (It has some striking information about adultery laws in Tunisia). 

British playwright David Hare spends time in Israel and the Occupied Territories talking to people about and visiting different points in the wall that now separates the two; he writes a personal, provocative essay in the New York Review of Books. Here's a passage:
And that's what I feel in Jerusalem as well. Jerusalem used to be the spiritual capital—after all, that's what the argument was about. You could feel it, on every street corner, you could feel the history, but now with the hideous wall and the overbuilding and desecration of the landscape—I mean, what is going on? Aren't they destroying the very quality for which the city was meant to be precious? Aren't they killing the thing they love? Or is that my problem? Am I just a decadent Westerner who can't help thinking spirituality must have something to do with beauty? Jerusalem used to be beautiful. Now it isn't. As far as I'm concerned, Jerusalem is spoiled—How can it not be spoiled? It has a great concrete wall beside it—but then Jerusalem was never intended for me. It was intended for believers.

At The National, George Packer reviews a book about an Iraqi general, his family, and their complicity in Saddam's regime; Robyn Creswell reviews Adina Hoffman's biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali (he says it is "a triumph of sympathetic imagination, dogged research and impassioned writing" and "the is the first biography of any Palestinian writer in any language"--can that be true?)

And finally, ArteEast has a new issue of their digital magazine up; this one focuses on the Art of Engagement--on the intersection of political activism, political engagement and art, the "limits and possibilities of publicly engaged art and participatory practice in the Middle East."
Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat and Western "Ventriloquism"
There's a great article by Marina Warner in the London Review of Books about the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Edward FitzGerald--a work that is better understood as "channeling" than translating and that is remarkably reminiscent of the way the Thousand and One Nights was assimilated into Western literature.

The consideration of FitzGerald's--apparently quite inspired--rendering of Khayyam's work turns into a reflection on the act of translation itself (something I'm alway fascinated with) and on the way Western authors have spoken through Eastern alter-egos. To some degree, FitzGerald seems to have well aware of what he was doing. I enjoyed this quote: 
...FitzGerald wrote: ‘But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.’

(found via the Literary Saloon).
Mahmoud Darwish, "Unbeliever in the Impossible"
There's a really lovely article in the last issue of Harper's on Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (thanks for the tip, Matt). It's not available to non-subscribers, so I'm cutting and pasting. And honestly, Harper's is a great magazine and this article is just one more reason to subscribe
Unbeliever in the impossible:
The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish
By Robyn Creswell
He died of a broken heart, far from home. That is the sentimental version, not entirely untrue. Mahmoud Darwish, widely acknowledged as the national poet of Palestine, died last August following open-heart surgery at a hospital in Houston, Texas. After three days of official mourning in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority organized a state funeral in Ramallah, where the body was laid to rest. The ceremonies were carried live on Al Jazeera and included eulogies by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and fellow poet Samih al-Qasim. Listening to those speeches—conventionally bombastic and anodyne—one couldn’t help remembering Darwish’s more mischievous imagining of his own funeral in his memoirMemory for Forgetfulness. Written in 1986, the book recounts a single day in Beirut during the summer of 1982, when the Israeli bombardment was especially heavy and death was very much on the poet’s mind. “I want a funeral with an elegant coffin, so I can peek out at the mourners,” Darwish thinks, listening to the bombs drop and savoring the anticipated pleasures of life after death: wreaths of red and yellow roses, a smooth-voiced master of ceremonies, broadcast recordings of his poems. But then, lying in the coffin, he hears the whispers of the bereaved:

“He was a womanizer.” “His clothes were much too fancy.” “The carpets in his house—you’d sink into them up to your knees!” “He had a mansion on the Côte d’Azur, a villa in Spain, and a secret bank account in Zurich.”… “We don’t know if he had a yacht in Greece, but he had enough seashells in his house to build a refugee camp.” “He lied to women.” “The poet is dead and his poems died with him. What’s left of him? His days are over. We’re through with his legend.”11. The titles above are the best and most recent translations of Darwish into English. He has had many different translators, and the quality of these texts is uneven. In the interest of consistency, I have provided my own translations.

Darwish was indeed a legend. He became famous while still very young as “the poet of the resistance”; later on, his books sold in the millions and were translated into dozens of languages; his public readings filled soccer stadiums and his poems were set to music by the Arab world’s greatest performers. But all legends end in gossip. In Darwish’s vignette, the rumormongers strike before the body is even in the ground. Their reproaches are in fact a collection of lies and cruel half-truths. Darwish did not own mansions or yachts, but he was for a long time associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose corruption, by the time Darwish wrote his memoir, was already apparent. He was not a European playboy but was by all accounts, including his own, very fond of women. He left Israel for good in 1971—living in Moscow, Cairo, and Beirut before settling for a long stay in Paris—a departure that some Palestinians, especially those who remained behind, considered a betrayal. He wrote for more than forty years from the heart of a conflict that never left the headlines, and he could escape neither the eulogies nor the resentments, nor his own unsparing self-criticism. What’s left of him, beyond the legends and the gossip, is the poetry.

Darwish was born in 1942 in Birweh, a small village in upper Galilee, not far from Acre. His family fled to Lebanon during the 1948 war, and by the time they returned to Birweh, about a year later, it had been razed (a kibbutz for new Jewish immigrants was built on the site). They also returned too late to be included in the first state census, which meant that Darwish’s family, along with approximately 35,000 other Palestinians, were classified as “Present Absentees,” formally recognized by the state but with no right to reclaim lost property.

Many of Darwish’s early poems are attempts to establish some kind of presence, however meager, in the face of institutional forces premised on its denial. The most famous of these poems, indeed the most famous poem ever written by a Palestinian, is a short lyric called “Identity Card,” published in 1964. It is a monologue delivered by a stone quarrier, who confronts an Israeli official, perhaps at a checkpoint or in a police station. Here are the opening stanzas:

Write it down!
I’m an Arab.
Card number, fifty thousand.
I have eight children
and the ninth is due after the summer.
So, are you angry?

Write it down!
I’m an Arab.
I work with comrades in the quarry.
I have eight children.
I break their bread
and clothes and notebooks
from the rocks.

The poem’s refrain is typical of the straightforward, conscientiously unpoetic diction of Darwish’s early work. Many of these poems were first recited at village festivals, a venue that was, for Palestinian poets in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at least as important as Haifa’s fledgling literary magazines. Much of Darwish’s work from this period seems written for recitation rather than reading. The lyrics are insistent and exclamatory, scored for performance. Each stanza of “Identity Card” fills out the quarrier’s unhappy biography: his occupation and physical traits (“hands hard as stones”), his family history and village of birth (“Remote, forgotten,/ its streets without names”). The monologue ends with a warning directed at the Israeli official and his government: “Beware my hunger/ and my anger!”

Critics have puzzled over this small poem’s enormous popularity. At the time it was published, poets in Beirut, Baghdad, and Cairo were writing verse of great sophistication, combining an avant-garde fondness for obscurity and metrical experimentation with themes drawn from Greek and Near Eastern myth. By comparison, Darwish’s poem seems crude. Many fellow intellectuals, and even Darwish himself in retrospect, wondered if “Identity Card” wasn’t a collection of sound bites rather than a poem. Its assertion of Arab identity, thrown in the face of a hostile authority, was admired as a political gesture, yet the poem seemed to lack the necessary complication of literature.

The complications of “Identity Card,” as with so much of Darwish’s early poetry, are found not in its verbal texture but in the ironies of its imagined situation. For example, what language do we imagine the stone quarrier to be speaking? Since he defines himself as an Arab, and the poem is written in Arabic, surely he must be speaking Arabic. In Memory for Forgetfulness, Darwish discusses the origins of the poem and claims that the refrain was a phrase he once directed at an Israeli official as a young man (who was often in trouble with the law). But then he adds, “I said it in Hebrew, to provoke him.” For an Arab living in Israel, speaking Hebrew—a language Darwish mastered at school—is not necessarily an act of submission. It can also signal a challenge, or insult. This sensitivity to the nuanced relationship between language and power is typical of Darwish, as it is typical of many Irish writers, from Joyce to Heaney. And “Identity Card” is plainly meant as a challenge: “Are you angry?” is a taunt repeated throughout the poem. So it is plausible to imagine the quarrier goading the official in Hebrew even while we read his words in Arabic—that is, to imagine the poem as a translation. We might also note that the printed poem is itself what the Israeli clerk has been told to “write down.” And since he would have written in Hebrew, the Arabic text would again be a translation, this time of the clerk’s dictation.

Many of Darwish’s poems are like this: using exaggeratedly simple language, they conjure social and political experiences of great complexity. A straightforward declaration of identity unravels into an ambiguous and intertwined history. And in this way the density of everyday experience—its subtleties of language, tone, emotion, and context—is both respected and made into a subject for political reflection.

For the young Darwish, Hebrew wasn’t just a tool for taunting bureaucrats; it also gave him access to world literature. Until the end of 1966, Arab citizens of Israel lived under martial law. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press were severely limited. This censorial apparatus had a stunting effect on Arab intellectual life: books and magazines from the wider Arabic-speaking world were difficult to come by, and this is why Darwish first encountered the poetry of Neruda, Lorca, and Nazim Hikmet, along with the classics of European literature, in Hebrew. It was in part Darwish’s reading of these poets that allowed him to create a new kind of poem in Arabic, one that exploded the fusty conventions of patriotic verse with the charge of love poetry.

It is one thing to write a poem expressing love for one’s country, an elementary school exercise in any number of shaky or repressive states. It is another to write a poem in which one’s country is the object of erotic attention. Neruda does something like this in his early work, such as the third of his Twenty Love Poems: “Ah vastness of pines, babble of breaking waves,/. . . in you the earth sings!/In you the rivers sing and my soul escapes into them.” But the “you” of Neruda’s poem is a woman (he called her “Marisol”). The murmurous waves and singing rivers are tokens of her sensuality and mysterious remoteness. In Darwish’s poetry the direction of the metaphor is reversed. Here, the beloved is in fact the land of Palestine. It is her streams, springs, and mountains that are the objects of the poet’s love, and he lends them human attributes. The poet is no longer a patriot but a devotee: “Your eyes are a thorn in my heart,” he says to his beloved. “They wound me, and I worship them.”

These are the first lines of “A Lover from Palestine,” the title poem of Darwish’s third collection, published in 1966. The beloved who makes her appearance here, an allegorical figure for Palestine, is a fugitive and vulnerable presence, spotted among a crowd of emigrants at the port or fleeing through the hills:

I saw you on the mountains of thorn
A shepherdess without a flock
Hunted through the ruins.
You were my garden when I was a stranger in the land.

The “ruins”—atlaal—of the third line are among the most potent topoi of Arabic poetry. They belong to the oldest stratum of that tradition, the odes of pre-Islamic Arabia. In these poems of the sixth and seventh centuries, the nomad poet typically begins his chant with an erotic recollection. Pausing at an abandoned desert campsite (atlaal), he recalls a tryst with his beloved, whose charms he tallies up in detail. The site is therefore a bittersweet one, mixing memory and desire. The ruins conjure up a vision of the loved one, but their desolation attests to her disappearance. (Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” is modeled on this form.) In the same way, Darwish’s Palestine is present as “the other lung of my chest,” “the voice of my lips,” while also being lost, exiled, absent. The atlaal of these lines are the ruins of all those Galilean villages, depopulated and demolished after the 1948 war.

Nostalgic sensuality is an unusual mood for political poetry, whether Arabic, European, or American. The political poet feels most at home in the pose of public moralist, the somber-voiced keeper of tradition or scourge of the fallen present. Even the angriest verses of political invective fall naturally into the rhetoric and rhythms of public speaking. Think, for example, of the anaphora of Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “who ate fire… /who scribbled all night… /who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge”; or the orotund cadences of Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: “We, who seven years ago/Talked of honour and of truth,/Shriek with pleasure if we show/The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.” Darwish does not shy away from declamation, and he has coined more than a few slogans. But his best political poetry, because it is love poetry, is uncannily intimate, even esoteric, pitched for the ears of his paramour rather than those of the public. At times it is frankly mystical, imagining a union that recalls the rapt ecstasies of Sufi saints:

Take me behind your eyes….
Restore the color of my face,
my body’s warmth,
the light of heart and eye
and salt of bread and song
and taste of earth.

—“A Lover from Palestine”

Or else the sufferings of the martyrs of love: “My country, my love for you/has given me nothing but the staves of my cross” (“Rubaiyat”). This mix of genres and conventions does not fit easily into any traditional poetics, just as it does not sit comfortably with any typical practice of politics. At the time these poems were written, however, their disparate elements may not have seemed so strange. To link the political with the libidinal, revolution with eros, was hardly an unusual impulse in the 1960s.

Alongside Darwish’s nationalist verse is another series of poems dedicated to a human beloved. This second type of love poem is in fact the more radically political. They show how even the most intimate relations are structured, and sometimes made impossible, by forces beyond any individual’s control. Beginning in 1967, with a poem entitled “Rita and the Rifle,” Darwish composed a number of lyrics about an Israeli who was, as he confirmed in later interviews, his first lover: a Jewish woman of Polish-Russian descent whom he met in Haifa. Over the years, Rita became a leitmotif in Darwish’s poetry. She returns again and again, like a haunting or obsession. His initial evocation of her has the sensual directness of his best early verse: “Rita’s name was a festival in my mouth./Rita’s body was a wedding in my blood…. /For two years my forearm was her pillow.” As described in this poem and in her later appearances, Rita has many traits typical of the beloved in Arabic erotic literature: her eyes are honey-colored, she sleeps a lot (because languor is sexy), her hair is thick and heavy like a horse’s tail, and she is always somewhere else. None of which disguises the fact, or scandal, of her being an Israeli Jew; there are even suggestions in the poems that she has been mobilized by the army. But scandal is the lifeblood of love poetry; the couple’s flouting of social norms testifies to the authenticity of their passion. Even in pre-Islamic verse, the beloved is always from a different, usually hostile tribe, which is why she forever roams a distant quarter of the desert.

“We are both unbelievers [kaafir] in the impossible,” writes Darwish in one of the love poems, “A Beautiful Woman from Sodom.” It is an intricately ambiguous (and slyly impious) line. Not believing in the impossible might mean believing that anything is possible—even a happy ending, say, to a love story between Montagues and Capulets. But we can understand the phrase in a more world-weary sense too: We do not believe in the impossible because we know better than to put our faith in it. Both senses are alive in Darwish’s love poetry, but it is the second one that wins out. In several of the Rita poems, the lovers are alone in a small house on a bed by the window, with rain falling outside. When Rita sleeps, the mood is hushed and intimate: “No sound/but her heartbeat and the rain.” When she is awake, however, the atmosphere becomes suddenly claustrophobic. Listening to the lovers talk, it is difficult to know whether they are flirting or twisting the knife. In one exchange, the poet’s lover teases him by demanding that he take her to Australia. She is asking for an elopement from history, which is another name for their claustrophobia. “Take me to Jerusalem,” the poet responds—with a tender smile, or a snarl?—thus trading one kind of impossibility for another. It is impossible to go to Jerusalem, presumably, because the poet has in mind the undivided or unoccupied city that was. That city is no more visitable than the Birweh of Darwish’s youth or the desert atlaal, and in one of the last poems he wrote about Rita, she gets up one morning and abandons their campsite:

She broke the day’s pottery against the window’s iron,
then lay her pistol on the draft of my poem,
threw her stockings on the chair
and as the pigeons began to coo
she walked out, barefoot, into the

At a press conference held in Cairo in 1971, Darwish announced that he was leaving Israel for good. He knew he would be criticized—“I am not the first citizen or poet to travel far from his country in order to draw close to it,” he defended himself, perhaps channeling Victor Hugo—but felt he had little choice. During the prior ten years he had been arrested several times by Israeli authorities, usually without cause (under the emergency regulations they did not need one). He was prohibited from leaving Haifa without a travel permit, and after 1967 he was placed under continuous house arrest. So when he received a fellowship to study in Moscow—the poetry of Arab leftists from this era glitters with memories of snow and metro stations—he chose to make his emigration a permanent one. After a year in the U.S.S.R., he worked briefly at Cairo’s Al-Ahram newspaper and then moved to Beirut, where he lived for the next decade, writing and editing for the PLO’s journal, Palestinian Affairs.

Darwish’s flight may have wounded the feelings of fellow intellectuals who remained in Israel or the newly occupied territories, but it did little harm to his relations with his readers. Forced emigration is, after all, a common experience among Palestinians. The raptures of his early verse quickly gave way to a brittle, sometimes elegiac sensibility, more attuned to moments of transience than to moments of ecstasy. The tactile connection between the land and the poet—a poet who imagines bread as extracted from the very rocks—is replaced by the symbolic landscapes of memory. But if Palestine as a lived reality seems to drop away, becoming a more and more abstract object of longing (“You possible-impossible,” he apostrophizes her in one poem), the new geography of exile becomes increasingly vivid. And over the next two decades Darwish mapped this new terrain as skillfully as he once did the hills and villages of Galilee.

“The quintessential Palestinian experience,” historian Rashid Khalidi has written, “takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified.” These are the places of Darwish’s poetry. The checkpoint and the border, as Khalidi notes, are places of interrogation, but they are also, perhaps more poetically, places of waiting: places where moments of action and decision are preceded by long periods of boredom, restlessness, and a half-querulous, half-humorous anxiety. This is the mood of the café, the trench, and the refugee camp, and no poet has captured its distinctive ennui as well as Darwish. “Athens Airport connects us to other airports,” he writes in “Athens Airport,” a prose poem published just after his stay in Beirut. “It changes its residents every day, but we remain in our seats.” The poem describes an entire community—an intellectual, a clerk, a militant, a lover—all trying to carry on their everyday tasks in that international limbo. In this place, “connection” turns out to be only another word for separation or quarantine: the loop of airports never ends, like Borges’s famous library. The cruelty of the Palestinian situation is that these purgatories are in no way extraordinary but rather the backdrop of daily existence. “Life goes up,” Darwish writes in another poem, “in the smoke of train stations.”

But of course the train station, like the border crossing or the atlaal, is also a site of romance. Here is where you kiss one last time and make promises you cannot keep, with strings throbbing on the soundtrack. Such moments do not redeem the monotonies of exile, but they, too, are part of its fabric for Darwish. “They Killed You in the Valley,” a lyric from the 1972 collection To Love You, or Not to Love You, evokes some of exile’s momentary and unexpected compensations:

We learned the universal languages
and the miseries of long trips
to distant equators. We learned
how to sleep on slow trains and fast trains,
how to make love at port
and how to flirt with all kinds of

The Lebanese Civil War began in 1975, two years after Darwish arrived in Beirut. In 1982, Israel and its Lebanese Christian (Maronite) allies succeeded in expelling the PLO from the country, and Darwish was part of that exodus. He was not a combatant, but he was close to the Palestinian leadership and wrote extensively about the conflict, in poetry and in prose. He criticized the Maronite alliance with Israel but saved his harshest words for Arab regimes, which he accused of exploiting Palestinian suffering for their own ends, of trumpeting the resistance but offering its heroes neither support nor even a decent life in their own countries: “To remember that I have a lost roof,/I am made to crouch in nakedness,” he protested in “Psalms.” “So that I do not forget the pure breezes of my country,/I am made to breathe in tuberculosis.” Such regimes, Darwish wrote more bluntly in another poem, “Know nothing but how to make speeches and flee.”

The experience in Lebanon also led to Memory for Forgetfulness, a classic of modern Arabic letters and one of the great war memoirs of the twentieth century. Published four years after the defeat in Lebanon, it is the culmination of Darwish’s first twenty years as a poet, a summing up of his views on literature and politics. The narrative takes place on August 6 (Hiroshima Day), 1982. It begins with the roar of the first Israeli sorties—“A nightmare from the sea: roosters made of metal”—and the percussion of bombing never fades from the narrative. Memory for Forgetfulness is not a soldier’s memoir. Darwish writes as an engaged intellectual, but also as a civilian. Most of the book is spent in quotidian activities: waiting for a taxi, quarreling in cafés, searching for a place to eat lunch. This street-level view allows Darwish to convey the singular helplessness of non-combatants caught up in modern “asymmetric” warfare. The poet stares into the crater made by a vacuum bomb and can only imagine the six-story building that used to stand there has been gulped down by some extraterrestrial monster. For Darwish, crouching under the thunderclaps of broken sound barriers, bravery is reduced to the act of making breakfast in his kitchen, venturing downstairs to visit neighbors or out onto the street. It is, he writes, “an absurd heroism,” or else “a heroic absurdity.”

In Memory for Forgetfulness, everyday experience assumes an odd, dreamlike clarity. It is the clarity of tedium illuminated by danger. “Meanwhile nothing happened,” Orwell writes in his memoir of civil war,Homage to Catalonia, “nothing ever happened.” And yet, “The whole period stays by me with curious vividness.” Darwish does not aim for the windowpane translucence of Orwell’s prose, but he often achieves a kind of hallucinatory precision—neatly captured in Ibrahim Muhawi’s translation—as when he spends several pages describing the preparation of his morning coffee, or a woman’s high heels, or the female broadcasters on Radio Monte Carlo, discussing the bombardment of Beirut “as if they were just emerging from a bath.” There are actual hallucinations too. In one of the memoir’s closing episodes, Darwish imagines that he is visited by an old friend, a PLO representative assassinated in Paris almost exactly four years earlier. Darwish asks him what life is like in the afterlife. “It’s just like here,” the ghost shrugs. The weather is hot and humid, just like August in Beirut. In the afterlife they watch television all day too, mostly the news, trying to keep up to date on the progress of the siege. He hasn’t met any of the martyrs. Did you get married? Darwish asks. No, the ghost shakes his head. “If you had no luck in this world, you have no luck in the next either.” A peculiarly Palestinian humor is at work in this scene, in which the afterlife, rather than providing the houris and comforts of paradise, turns out to be just another case of airport ennui.

There is an eerily posthumous feel to much of the poetry Darwish wrote after he left Lebanon in 1982. Edward Said once noted that Darwish’s post-Beirut poetry is preoccupied not so much with endings as with “what happens after the ending, what it is like to live past one’s time and place.” What ended in Beirut was a certain brand of Palestinian politics, one that had held on longer than most nationalist movements to the militant and secular praxis of liberation. With the PLO’s move to Tunis and its eventual signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the group normalized its politics, setting itself up as a state even as it lacked real control of its territory. Darwish was a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee throughout the Eighties but resigned his position in protest over the Oslo agreements (“My conscience will not tolerate participation in this adventurous decision,” he said at the time). His work from this period reads like an attempt to write political poetry in a moment that is, according to his own lights, post-political. “I know that time/can’t be my ally twice,” he writes in “Eleven Planets over the Last Act of Andalusia.” To have lost one’s alliance with time: the sentiment is not free of bitterness, even if it is not clear who has betrayed whom. The phrase also speaks to the melancholy of a poet—and beyond him, of an entire national project—who finds himself having somehow lived past his own historical moment.

During the last period of his career, Darwish read deeply in history and mythology. He searched for analogies or illuminating parallels with the Palestinian experience and found them in the annals of history’s losers: the Moors of Andalusia, the native peoples of North America, the pagan cultures of the ancient Near East. Darwish used these chronicles of loss to amplify his sense of Palestine’s predicament. His poetry of these years attempts to generalize that experience, to make it part of a long and often suppressed history of the defeated. It is what he came to call “the poetry of Troy.”

It was also during this period that Darwish began to be translated systematically into English, often by university presses. His late poetry, with its bold historical allegories and cross-civilizational leaps, has been especially appealing to the American academy (hypnotized as it is by the kaleidoscope of multiculturalism and identity politics). Whenever a poet is translated from one context to another, a certain distortion creeps in, and Darwish’s reception in this country has not been more distorting than most. But the conditions of this reception have meant that his late poetry is more widely available, and in better translations, than his early work. This is not necessarily a good thing. The late poems, for all their intellectual brio, have a tendency to lose themselves in the altitudes of metaphysics and myth. Some of the historical parallels are acute: Darwish was not the first to suggest a comparison between the loss of Muslim Spain and the loss of Palestine, but “Eleven Planets over the Last Act of Andalusia” is a poem of mournful intelligence, melding the epic with the mundane. “On this journey,” he writes, looking back over these twin histories of dispossession, “we remember the buttons of a shirt we lost/and forget the crown of our days.” But other parallels, such as those he draws with the cultures of Sumer and Canaan, lack a clear rationale, and the mythological décor sometimes overwhelms his poetry: “You fly/from one era to another, safe and whole/on a howdah made of your victims’ planets,” the poet addresses a goddess in “Inanna’s Milk,” sounding as operatic in Arabic as in translation. It was also during this period that Darwish began working in longer forms, which sometimes tempt him to a surfeit of lyricism, an excess all the more apparent in English.

In 1996, Darwish returned to the Middle East, dividing his time between Amman and Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital. Two years later, following surgery to repair his damaged arteries, Darwish had to be placed in intensive care. It was thought he might not live. (This was the second time he had undergone such surgery—the first time, his heart stopped beating for two minutes and was revived only by electric shock.) This brush with extinction led to one of Darwish’s greatest works, a book-length poem called Al-Jidariyya (“Mural”). It recounts an experience of suspended animation—of “absolute whiteness,/of being and not being,” of “having arrived before my appointment” —followed by a half-hearted resurrection. This experience of death-in-life and life-in-death is perhaps Darwish’s last metaphor for the purgatory out of which many Palestinians have tried to make a home for the past sixty years. The poem also acknowledges a quiet ambivalence about the very fact of survival, a survival that seems untimely and sorrowful. This mood is expressed, in one of the poem’s most moving passages, as a kind of alienation from the body itself, from those intimate and ordinary pleasures that Darwish had celebrated for forty years:

I know my whole heart by heart.
No more babying or coddling.
One aspirin is enough
to pacify it, make it rest.
It is as if my heart were some
eccentric neighbor,
whose passions and women
I can no longer bear.
The heart rusts like iron,
it no longer moans, aches, goes crazy
at the first, uninhibited drops of rain.
It doesn’t rattle like the dry August sedge.
It is as if my heart were a hermit, vestigial
As the “as” in some simile.

The similes are playful but the mood is exhausted—the exhaustion of a lover, perhaps, whose body has finally betrayed him. The heart that would give out eight years later already feels like a vestigial organ. Who can specify all the intimations at work here? Who can tally the personal and political disaffections? “I do not belong to me,” Darwish writes at the end of his poem, and then again: “I do not belong to me.”

iscussed in this essay:

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. University of California Press. 182 pages. $18.95 (paper).

Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry, by Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, and Samih al-Qasim, translated by Abdullah al-Udhari. Saqi Books. 168 pages. $14.95 (paper).

The Adam of Two Edens, by Mahmoud Darwish, edited by Munir Akash and Daniel Moore, translated by Hussain Haddawi, Sinan Antoon, Sargon Boulos, Ferial Ghazoul, Clarissa Burt, Noel Abdulahad, Mona Asali van Engen, and Tahia Khaled Abdulnasser. Jusoor and Syracuse University Press. 203 pages. $19.95 (paper).

Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, by Mahmoud Darwish, edited and translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein. University of California Press. 191 pages. $19.95 (paper).

Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Jeffrey Sacks. Archipelago Books. 198 pages. $18 (paper).

The Butterfly’s Burden, by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah. Copper Canyon Press. 327 pages. $20 (paper).

Robyn Creswell is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at New York University.
"As Good As Great Poetry Gets"
Don't know how I missed this, but the November issue of the New York Review of Books had a nice long profile of Cavafy and discussion of the relationship between his work and his biography, most notably his membership in the Greek diaspora and his homosexuality.
Ursula LindseyPoetryComment
New York encounters
So I apologize again for my recent lack of writing...

I've been couch surfing and (then) moving into a new place.

The cultural highlights of my last month in New York, however, have been seeing Tariq Ali and Norman Finkelstein, among others, talk at the Brecht Forum a few weeks back about Barak Obama's foreign policy. The general consensus was that his foreign policy, despite his hopeful rhetoric, was a continuation of self-defeating imperialist American tendencies. Also, an interesting and inevitable discussion opened up over whether one should vote, nonetheless, for Obama (the panel was split). There was also quite a bit of discussion of the situation in Pakistan. Ali said that war in Pakistan was being pursued "as an alibi for the failure of the Afghanistan war." 

Last week, I had the thrill of meeting the great poet Adonis. Unfortunately, I didn't hear him read his own poetry, which he did at an event in honor of Edward Said. I was told by people who attended that it was fantastic--Adonis read his long poem on New York, "قبر من اجل نيو يورك" ("A Tomb for New York"). A few days later, I attended an informal talk he gave about Islam and literature. Adonis talked about the historic divide between literature and religion, between poets that celebrated the joys of wine and caliphs who used religion to shore up their political power. He posed a few provocative questions: he asked, for example, how one can explain the fact that if Arabic is the language of God, it was nonetheless an existing language, spoken by pagans, before God's revelation? But overall his talk was replete with simple oppositions (perhaps expecting a US audience that wasn't that familiar with the subject)--it posited a historic separation between art and religion, and set modern Arab writers up as the descendants of rebellious, hedonist medieval poets, small creators competing with the big Creator. 

On a side note, I was shocked and dismayed by my utter failure to find a book of Adonis' poetry in New York. I looked for his work at three or four bookstores, hoping to get a copy for him to sign, and found nothing.
Mahmoud Darwish commemoration
The Berlin International Literature Festival is calling for a day of reading Darwish's poetry, world-wide, on October 5th. The site doesn't have details about planned activities, but I like to imagine people reading his poems out loud around the globe.
Goodbye Mahmoud Darwish
"My Mother"

I long for my mother's bread

My mother's coffee
Her touch
Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day
I must be worth my life
At the hour of my death
Worth the tears of my mother.

And if I come back one day
Take me as a veil to your eyelashes
Cover my bones with the grass
Blessed by your footsteps
Bind us together
With a lock of your hair
With a thread that trails from the back of your dress
I might become immortal
Become a God
If I touch the depths of your heart.

If I come back
Use me as wood to feed your fire
As the clothesline on the roof of your house
Without your blessing
I am too weak to stand.

I am old
Give me back the star maps of childhood
So that I
Along with the swallows
Can chart the path
Back to your waiting nest. 


(Mahmoud Darwish, translation found on

Mahmoud Darwish died on Saturday. Many obits refer to him as something like "Palestine's national poet" or "the poet of the Palestinian cause" which in a way is true but which makes this extraordinarily talented poet sound like something smaller than he was. He wasn't just the voice of a particular state or people; he wasn't a propagandist. What I found outstanding about his work is how--deeply and constantly concerned as he is with the problems of Palestinians--he manages to never be ideological, to always be free within his writing, open-eyed and even funny, a true artist. And therefore universal and all the more powerful when he does talk of the suffering and injustice of Palestinians. I still remember the shock of delight when I first read "Memory for Forgetfulness" ("what a book!"), of which an excellent English translation is available. 

Al Jazeera English has a nice segment on Darwish. I also recommend his official site, which has a great selection of audio recordings (unfortunately seemingly without the transcripts to go with) of the poet reciting his work. And I'm posting more English translations of some of his poems after the jump.

"Identity Card is one of the first poems that made Darwish famous across the Arab world. 


Identity Card

Record !
I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the nineth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks...
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself
at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.

My father..
descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house
is like a watchman's hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title !

Record !
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards
of my ancestors
And the land
which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Therefore !
Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper's flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger !


The Pigeons Fly

The pigeons fly,

the pigeons come down...

Prepare a place for me to rest. 
I love you unto weariness,
your morning is fruit for songs
and this evening is precious gold
the shadows are strong as marble.
When I see myself,
it is hanging upon a neck that embraces only the clouds,
you are the air that undresses in front of me like tears of the grape,
you are the beginning of the family of waves held by the shore.
I love you, you are the beginning of my soul, and you are the end...
the pigeons fly
the pigeons come down...

I am for my lover I am. And my lover is for his wandering star
Sleep my love
on you my hair braids, peace be with you... 
the pigeons fly
the pigeons come down...

Oh, my love, where are you taking me away from my parents,
from my trees, small bed and from my weariness,
from my visions, from my light, from my memories and pleasant evenings,
from my dress and my shyness,
where are you taking me my love, where?
You take me, set me on fire, and then leave me
in the vain path of the air 
that is a sin ... that is a sin...
the pigeons fly
the pigeons come down...

My love, I fear the silence of your hands.
Scratch my blood so the horse can sleep. 
My love, female birds fly to you 
take me as a wife and breathe.
My love I will stay and breasts will grow for you 
The guards take me out of your way
my love, I will cry upon you, upon you, upon you.
because you are die surface of my sky. 
My body is the land,
the place for you...
the pigeons fly
the pigeons come down...