By Mahmoud Darwish
translated by Fady Joudah
Bloodaxebooks, London 2007- 326 p.
(bilingual Arabic-English edition)
Mahmoud Darwish is the poetic voice of the Palestinian people. One of the most acclaimed contemporary poets in the Arab world, he is also a prominent spokesman for human rights who has spent most of his life in exile. In his early work, the features of his beloved land - its flowers and birds, towns and waters - were an integral part of poems witnessing a string of political and humanitarian tragedies afflicting his people. In his most recent books, his writing stands at the border of earth and sky, reality and myth, poetry and prose.
Returning to Palestine in 1996, he settled in Ramallah, where he surprised his huge following in the Arab world by writing a book of love, The Stranger s Bed (1998), singing of love as a private exile, not about exile as a public love. A State of Siege (2002) was his response to the second Intifada, his testament not only to human suffering but to art under duress, art in transmutation. The 47 short lyrics of Don't Apologise for What You've Done (2003) form a transfiguring incarnation or incantation of the poet after the carnage.
The Butterfly's Burden is a translation of these three books. 'Mahmoud Darwish is one of the two or three most admired, and widely read poets from the Arab world... While unequivocally anchored in the present, his poems draw on the traditions of Al-Andalus, the near-mythical site of flowering Arab, European and Sephardic Jewish art and science - as much in Darwish's re-creation and renewal of Arabic prosody and inweaving of legend as in his fraternal openness to and exchange with poets like Ritsos and Neruda.
In the brilliant, bilingual poet Fady Joudah, Darwish has found a translator capable of rendering in English his unflinching, questing, and above all loving poems' - Marilyn Hacker
Mahmoud Darwish is the poetic voice of the Palestinian people. One of the most acclaimed contemporary poets in the Arab world, he is also a prominent spokesman for human rights who has spent most of his life in exile. Returning to Palestine in 1996, he settled in Ramallah, where he surprised his huge following in the Arab world by writing a book of love,The Stranger's Bed (1998), singing of love as a private exile, not about exile as a public love. A State of Siege (2002) was his response to the second Intifada, his testament not only to human suffering but to art under duress, art in transmutation. The 47 short lyrics of Don't Apologise for What You've Done (2003) form a transfiguring incarnation or incantation of the poet after the carnage. "The Butterfly's Burden" is a translation of these three recent books.
Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1942 in the village of al-Birweh in Galilee, Palestine. His family fled to Lebanon in 1948 when the Israeli Army destroyed their village, returning secretly to the newly created state of Israel after a year. From 1970 to 1996 he lived in Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Cyprus and Paris, finally settling in Ramallah. A member of the PLO's Executive Council, he wrote the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, resigning in opposition to the Oslo accords. His many honours include the Lenin Peace Prize, the Lannan Prize for Cultural Free-dom, the French medal for Knight of Arts and Letters and the Prinz Claus Award from the Netherlands. He has published over 20 books of poetry.
And did you touch the dream
I first heard of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish when I read translations by D. J. Hamilton of a couple of his poems in Dalmo'ma, a literary magazine published in the '80's and 90's out of Port Townsend, Washington (see blog article of February 12, 2007, below). In the years since, several books of translations of Darwish's poetry have been published in the United States.
I don't feel capable of discussing in a short space here all of the considerations in the persistent conflicts among populations and nations in the Middle East, and I don't have the depth of knowledge to talk intelligently about Mahmoud Darwish's place in the many vast and stunning literary traditions that have woven through Arabic literature over the centuries. Clearly we live, the billions of us each one a perceptive and active being, together in this world, and we must work together, by whatever means are necessary, to make it a world where we acknowledge each other's right to be here. Easy enough said, on the long road of brilliance and ashes that has brought us here so far.
We have a single dream: for the wind to pass,
a friend, and spread the scent of Arabic coffee
over the hills that surround summer and the strangers...
I am my dream. Whenever the earth narrows, I expand it
with the wing of a swallow. I expand. I am my dream...
And in the crowd I am full of mirrors of myself and questions
about the planets tracing my beloved's footsteps...
In my solitude there are paths of pilgrims to Jerusalem--
worlds plucked out like feathers over stone
How many prophets does the city need to preserve its father's
name and regret: "I fell without a fight?"
How many skies, in every people, must a city leave behind
for it to love its own crimson shawl? Oh dream...
Don't stare at us like that!
Don't be the last martyr!
(From the poem "The Tatar's Swallows," in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, poems of Mahmoud Darwish translated by Jeffrey Sacks, published 2006 by Archipelago Books.)
In a world and a time in which life is ever increasingly defined by the multiple struggles, now clandestine and with stubborn patience, now open and explosive, of the billions of us -- we who work the work of all days -- to halt the march of the corporate empires of burning earth and genocide, we find our voices one by one and many by many.
We journey towards a home not of our flesh. Its chestnut trees are not of our bones.
Its rocks are not like the goats in the mountain hymn. The pebbles' eyes are not lilies.
We journey towards a home that does not halo our heads with a special sun.
Mythical women applaud us. A sea for us, a sea against us.
When water and wheat are not at hand, eat our love and drink our tears...
There are mourning scarves for poets. A row of marble statues will lift our voice.
An urn to keep the dust of time away from our souls. Roses for us and against us.
(From the poem "We Journey towards a Home," in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, poems of Mahmoud Darwish, edited and translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein, published 2003 by University of California Press.)
Much of Darwish's poetry moves with epic sweep and reach, as in the passages quotes above. In some poems, his voice becomes quieter and more intimate, speaking as a person to another in a room, embracing the details of daily life. From the poem "In My Mother's House" (in The Butterfly's Burden, poems of Darwish translated by Fady Joudah, published 2007 by Copper Canyon Press):
In my mother's house my photo gazes at me
and doesn't cease asking:
Are you, my dear guest, me?
Were you once twenty of my years,
without medical glasses,
and without suitcases?
A hole in the wall was enough
for the stars to teach you the hobby of staring
into the eternal...
(What's the eternal? I said to myself)
And my dear guest...are you me as we once were?
Which one of us renounced his features?
In Darwish's poems, commonplace mystery and mythology move through day and night as routinely as people and the turning of the earth. From the poem "Now, When You Awaken, Remember" (in The Butterfly's Burden):
Now, when you awaken, remember the swan's last
dance. Did you dance with cherubs while
you were dreaming? Did the butterfly illuminate you
when it burned with the eternal light of the rose? Did
the phoenix appear to you clearly...and did it call you
by name? Did you see the dawn rise
out of your beloved's fingers? And did you touch the dream
by hand, or did you let the dream dream alone,
when you became aware of your absence suddenly?
Mahmoud Darwish is a native of Galilee in what was then Palestine. His family fled to Lebanon in 1948 when he was six years old, and did not return in time to for Darwish to be regarded as a legal permanent resident under Israeli laws. Long active in the Palestine resistance, he has spent time in prison in Israel, and has lived over the years in Russia, Egypt, Lebanon, Greece, Cyprus, Tunisia, and France, among other places. Memory for Forgetfulness (published in English translation in 1995 by University of California Press) is Darwish's prose account, variously lyrical and impressionistic and harrowing, of his experience living in Beirut in August, 1982, when the city was under siege by the Israeli military.
I know no Arabic and can't speak with authority on the quality or accuracy of the translations as such. All seem to me to move well in English, for the most part. The Butterfly's Burden and Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? both include the original Arabic side by side with the English translations; Unfortunately, It Was Paradise has the English translations only, not the original Arabic. The Butterfly's Burden has the most in-depth introduction, and particularly useful endnotes that illuminate the many literary, historical, and mythological references in Darwish's poems. All of the collections are essential and compelling.
In Ismael's 'oud the Sumerian wedding rises up
to the ends of the sword. There's neither existence there
nor nothingness. A lust for creation touches us:
From one string water flows. From two strings flame
ignites. From three, woman / being / revelation
radiate. Sing, Ismael, to meaning, and a bird will hover
over Athens between two histories at sunset...
Sing a requiem on a feast day!
Everything will begin anew
(From the poem "Ismael's 'Oud, in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? An 'oud is a string instrument, from which the European lute is a descendent.)