Wednesday, August 01, 2007

In Praise of Mahmoud Darwish

I've been reading three books of poetry translated into English by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish:

1. First I read "The Adam of Two Edens" edited and translated by Munir Akash and Daniel Moore which is a selected poems of the last two decades. The book has a wonderful introduction to Darwish's life and work. In this first book I read I was struck by how much Darwish is a poet of exile, or as he says an Adam expelled from the first Biblical Eden of long ago and then recently expelled from the Eden of Palestine during the 1948 war when he fled with his family as a young child. Since then his whole life has spent in exile, and he is great poet about being in exile. Darwish wrote poems of many exiles including a great sad lament about the Arabs leaving Spain long ago and another poem about Native American exile from the poem "Speech of the Red Man":

Don't kill the grass any more
It possess a soul in us that could
Shelter the soul of the earth

That image of Native Americans seeing the grass having a soul that shelters the earth is haunting.

2. Then I read "Why Have You Left the Horse Alone," a book Darwish published in 1996 in Arabic but recently translated into English by Jeffrey Sacks. Reading this book I was beginning to also see Darwish a poet of the Mediterranean speaking in his poems of what we all in North America, Europe and the Middle East have in common. Darwish is a world-class poet familiar with a huge range of poetries who gives us ancient Sumer, Babylon, the Greeks including their great tragic poet Aeschylus, and the Romans in this poem "I See My Ghost Coming From Afar:"

I gaze upon the Persians, the Romans, the Sumerians,
and the new refugees, ....

I gaze upon my language.
A little absence is enough for Aeschylus to open the door to peace,
for Antonio to make a brief speech at the outbreak of war
for me to hold a woman's hand in my hand,
to embrace my freedom,
and for my body to begin its ebb and tie anew.

3. Now I'm reading "Unfortunately, It Was Paradise" a selected poems translated and edited by Munir Akash, Carolyn Forche with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein which has selections of Darwish's poems with three poems from before 1986 to an long excerpt from his masterwork book "Mural" from 2000. In the introduction Akash and Forche tell us that after the young child Darwish and his family fled their village Birwe in 1948, the Israelis destroyed the village Birwe along with 416 Palestinian villages. Then Akash and Forche say that Darwish, without a country, made language his identity, a place where he makes meaning and recreates the lost homeland:

Who Am I? Thais is a question that others ask, but has no answer.
I am my language. I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language.
I am my language .... ("A Rhyme for the Odes" 91)

We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing ...
Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. ("We Travel Like All People 11)

Reading these books enables me to bypass the stereotyped and cliched images of Palestinians in mass media and begin to touch at least one Palestinian who others consider their poet laureate.

I love his poems including "The Everlasting Fig" that is a dialogue between father and son, with the father taking the son "wherever the wind blows" but away from the "plains where Bonaparte's soldiers/erected a hill to watch the shadows on ancient Acre's hills." As the father flees with his son from the French invaders and all other invaders, the son asks, "Why have you left the horse alone?" and the father answers,

To keep the house company, O my son,
for houses perish if their inhabitants go away. ("The Everlasting Fig," 65).

So this father loved his house so very much that he left his precious horse to keep it company and keep it alive in the title of the book of poetry "Why Have You Left the Horse Alone," as the horse was never alone.

Anybody who's interested in the world should read Mahmoud Darwish.

1 comment:

Farid Gul Momand said...

There are people who remained not that well - known or celebreated , though they they don't need to be for the work they do or the lives they change. Mahmud Darwish is a voice for all those opressed and suffered majority of people around the world, who share one such legacy, the legacy of being under foreign oppression and internal conflicts. I wish I could read him more, I wish people read him more....and to listen to his story that most of us share in one way or the other.

Farid Gul, London