The Life and Times of Mahmoud Darwish

I want to sing. I want a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness, to what power there is in us to overcome this cosmic isolation…I’m screaming at a moment when screams can go nowhere. And it strikes me that language must force itself into a battle in which the voices are not equal.
– Mahmoud Darwish

Last night I attended another Arabic Weekender event: a poetry evening celebrating the life and work of  Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, presented by Arts for Palestine at the Al- Ghazali Centre on Earle Road. The Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah who was a friend of Darwish introduced his work and read his poems in Arabic, followed by English translations.  Nouri al-Jarrah was born in Damascus in 1956, lived in Beirut in the early 1980s, and now works in London as a journalist. He established Al-Katiba [The Woman Writer] literary magazine and has published seven collections of poetry. He read one poem he had written to Darwish.

Darwish has written:

“Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down… I always humanise the other. I even humanised the Israeli soldier,” which he did in poems such as A Soldier Who Dreams of White Lilies, written just after the 1967 war. Many Arabs criticised the poem, but he says: “I will continue to humanise even the enemy…The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.”

The poems read included an extract from The Dice Player, an extract from Mural,  And We Have Countries… and  The Exiles Don’t Look Back…

The Dice Player (extract)

Who am I to say to you
What I say to you?
I’m not a stone
Polished by water
To become a face
Nor am I a stick of cane
With holes made by the wind
To become a flute ….
I’m a dice player
I win sometimes
I lose sometimes
I’m like you
Or a little bit less than you
I was born beside the well
Beside the three lonely trees
As lonely as nuns
I was born with no celebration or midwife
I was given my name just by chance
I belonged to a family
By chance
I inherited their features, habits,
And sickness.

I could have not existed
My father could have not married my mother
By chance
I could have been like my sister
Who screamed and died
Not knowing
That she had lived only one hour
Not knowing who gave her birth.

Who am I to say to you
What I say to you
At the door of the church?
I’m nothing but a dice throw
Between predator and prey
I gained more awareness
Not to be happy with my moonlit night
But to witness the massacre
I survived by chance:
I was smaller than a military target
And bigger than a bee
Flying among the flowers over the fence
I worried a lot about my brothers and my father
I worried about a time made of glass
I worried about my cat and my rabbit
About a charming moon over the high minaret of the mosque.

I could have not been a swallow
If the wind had wished it so
The wind is the traveller’s luck
I went north, east, west
But the south was too hard for me
Too far from me
Because the south is my country
I became a metaphor of a swallow
Floating over my debris
In the spring, in the autumn
Baptizing my feathers with the clouds of the lake
Prolonging my greeting
Unto the Nassiri who never dies
Because in him is the spirit of God
And God is the prophets’ luck
It is my fortune that I am the neighbor of Godhead

[…]

It is my misfortune that the cross
Is the eternal ladder to our tomorrow!
Who am I to say to you
What I say to you
Who am I?
I could have not been inspired
Inspiration is the luck of the lonely souls
“The poem is a dice throw”
On a board of darkness
That may or may not glow
Words fall
Like feathers on the sand
I did not plan the poem
I only obeyed its rhythm

To life I say: slow down, wait for me
Till in my cup drunkenness has dried
There are flowers in the garden, flowers to all
The air cannot escape the flower
Wait for me
So that the nightingales don’t escape me
And I don’t break the rhythm
The singers stretch the cords of their lutes in the square
Ready for the song of farewell
Slow down
Long live life!

[…]

I don’t say: Life over there is real
and has imaginary places . . .
I say: Life, here, is possible
and only by chance
did the land become holy:
its lakes and hills and trees
aren’t a replica of a higher paradise,
but a prophet set foot there
and when he prayed on a rock it wept
and the mount fell prostrate in piety
then unconscious

And by chance the field’s slope in a land became
a museum for the void . . .
thousands of soldiers perished there,
from either side, defending two leaders
who say: Charge! Two leaders who wait inside two
silken tents for the loot of either side . . .
Soldiers repeatedly die but never know
which side triumphed!

And by chance, some narrators survived and said:
If those had triumphed over these
our human history would have different addresses

O land “I love you green”, green. An apple
waving in light and water. Green. Your night
Green. Your dawn, green. So plant me gently,
with a mother’s kindness, in a fistful of air.
I am one of your seeds, green . . .

and this poem has more than one poet
and did not need to be lyrical

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you,
I could have not been who I am
I could have not been here

The plane could have crashed
with me on board that morning
but it’s my good fortune that I sleep in

I could have not seen Damascus or Cairo
the Louvre or the magical towns

And had I been a slow walker
a rifle might have severed
my shadow from the sleepless cedar

And had I been a fast walker
I might have become shrapnel
and a passing whim

And had I been an excessive dreamer
I could have lost my memory

It’s my good fortune that I sleep alone
and that I listen to my body
and believe my talent in discovering
pain in time to call the doctor
ten minutes before dying . . .
ten minutes, enough for me to live by chance
and disappoint the void

Who am I to disappoint the void
who am I, who am I?

Mural (extract)

‘A stunning duel with death, fierce, moving and immaculately paced, it is a defiant hymn to loss, a brilliant outcry at having little but language to uphold a sense of continuity…’ (Charles Bainbridge, Guardian)

This is your name,she said
And vanished into the spiral corridor…
I see a heaven within reach. A white pigeon’s wing lifts me toward
another childhood. I didn’t dream that I had been
dreaming-everything is real.
Clearly , I laid myself to rest and flew.

[…]

One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a thought that no sword
nor any book will bear to the wasteland.
A thought like rain on a mountain opened by a blade of grass.
There will be no victor, neither might nor justice, that fugitive!
One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a bird, and will snatch my being out of my nothingness.

[…]

O my name, you will grow when I grow.
You will carry me and I will carry you.
Strangers are also brothers.
We’ll enchant the woman with the weak letter dedicated to the flute.
O my name, where are we now? Tell me:
What is now and what is tomorrow?
What is time and what is space?
What is old and what is new?
One day, we’ll be what we want to be.

[…]
We were good and pious without Christ’s teachings
and stronger than grass at summer’s end
You are my truth and I your question
We have inherited nothing but our names.

[…]

I want to live… I have work to do aboard the ship.
Not the work of rescuing the bird from our hunger or seasickness
but to be eyewitness to the flood: what comes next?
What are the survivors to do with the old land?
Will they repeat the story?
What is the beginning? What is the end?
No one came back from the dead to tell us the truth.

Death, wait for me beyond this earth, in your kingdom.
Wait, while beside your tent I say a few words to what’s left of my life.
I want to read all Tarafah, so give me time.
The existentialists tempt me to exhaust every moment
With freedom, justice, and the wine of gods.
Death, give me time to arrange my funeral.
Give me time in this fleeting new spring.
I was born in spring to keep the orators from endlessly speaking
about this heartbreaking country,
about the immortality of fig and olive trees in the face of time and its armies.

[…]

Death, wait while I pack my bag: a tooth brush, soap, a razor, cologne
and clothes.
Is the weather mild there?
Does the weather in white eternity change?
Does it stay as it is in both autumn and winter?
Will one book be enough for me
to kill no-time, or will I need a full library?
What language do they speak there,
common colloquial or classical Arabic?

The collection, The Rhythm’s Passion, is composed serially in 47 passages. It evokes a poetics of presence-absence, written on the edge of identity, where loneliness is empathic and tender, and persists through the lyrical density of the work – and the lyrical instability brought about by the continual redrawing of its “map of absence.”

The Rhythm’s Passion enacts the drama of being in a radically unsettled place, looking for something to be at home with. The passages that follow are from this poem.

And We Have Countries…

And we have countries without borders, like our idea
of the unknown, narrow and wide – countries whose maps
narrow to a gray tunnel as we walk in them and cry out
in their labyrinths: “And still we love you.”
Our love is an inherited disease. Countries that grow
by tossing us into the unknown. Their willows
and portrayals grow, their grasses and blue mountains.
A lake widens north of the soul. Wheat spikes
spring up south of the soul. The lemon shines like a lamp
in an emigrant’s night. Geography emits sacred texts.
And the ascending chain of hills reaches higher
and higher. The exile tells himself: “If I were a bird
I would burn my wings.” The smells of autumn
become the image of one I love, soft rain seeps
into the dry heart and imagination opens to its source
and becomes reality’s terrain, the only true place.
Everything distant becomes rural and primitive,
as if the earth were still gathering itself to meet Adam
descending from his paradise. I say: These are the countries
that bear us…so when were we born?
Did Adam take two wives? Or will we be born again
to forget sin?

The Exiles Don’t Look Back…

The exiles don’t look back when leaving
one place of exile – for more exile
lies ahead, they’ve become familiar
with the circular road, nothing to the front
or to the rear, no north or south.
They emigrate from the fence to the garden,
leaving behind a will with each step across the yard
of the house:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life.”

They travel from the soft silk of morning to midday dust,
bearing a coffin filled with artifacts of absence:
an identity card and a letter to one beloved, address unknown:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life.”

With a wounded gesture of victory
they journey from the house to the street,
telling those who see them:
“We’re still alive, so remove us from memory.”

They emerge from their story to breathe and to bask
in the sun, think of flying higher…
and higher. They rise and fall. They come and go.
They jump from an ancient ceramic tile to a star.
And they come back to a story…
there’s no end to the beginning.

They flee from somnolence to an angel of sleep,
pale and red-eyed from thinking of the blood
that’s been shed:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life…”

He is quiet and so am I…

He is quiet and so am I.
He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee.
That’s the difference between us.
Like me, he wears a wide, striped shirt,
and like him, I read the evening paper.
He doesn’t see my secret glance.
I don’t see his secret glance.
He’s quiet and so am I.
He asks the waiter something.
I ask the waiter something…
A black cat walks between us.
I feel the midnight of its fur
and he feels the midnight of its fur…
I don’t say to him: The sky today
is clear and blue.
He doesn’t say to me: The sky today is clear.
He’s watched and the one watching
and I’m watched and the one watching.
I move my left foot.
He moves his right foot.
I hum the melody of a song
and he hums the melody of a similar song.
I wonder: Is he the mirror in which I see myself?
And turn to look in his eyes…but I don’t see him.
I hurry from the café.
I think: Maybe he’s a killer…
or maybe a passerby who thinks
I am a killer.
He’s afraid…and so am I.

A Soldier Dreams Of White Lilies

Written in 1967 and inspired by a conversation that Darwish had with an Israeli soldier. The poem humanises the Israeli soldier, which caused controversy at the time of writing.

He dreams of white lilies, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blossom.
He dreams of a bird, he tells me, of lemon flowers.
He does not intellectualize about his dream. He understands things as he
senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he tells me, is to drink my mother’s coffee, to return
at nightfall.
And the land? I don’t know the land, he said.
I don’t feel it in my flesh and blood, as they say in the poems.
Suddenly I saw the land as one sees a grocery store, a street, newspapers.
I asked him, but don’t you love the land? My love is a picnic, he said, a glass
of wine, a love affair.
– Would you die for the land?
– No!
All my attachment to the land is no more than a story or a fiery speech!
They taught me to love it, but I never felt it in my heart.
I never knew its roots and branches, or the scent of its grass.
– And what about its love? Did it burn like suns and desire?
He looked straight at me and said: I love it with my gun.
And by unearthing feasts in the garbage of the past
and a deaf-mute idol whose age and meaning are unknown.
He told me about the moment of departure, how his mother
silently wept when they led him to the front,
how her anguished voice gave birth to a new hope in his flesh
that doves might flock through the Ministry of War.
He drew on his cigarette. He said, as if fleeing from a swamp of blood,
I dreamt of white lilies, an olive branch, a bird embracing the dawn in a
lemon tree.
– And what did you see?
– I saw what I did:
a blood-red boxthorn.
I blasted them in the sand…in their chests…in their bellies.
– How many did you kill?
– It’s impossible to tell. I only got one medal.
Pained, I asked him to tell me about one of the dead.
He shifted in his seat, fiddled with the folded newspaper,
then said, as if breaking into song:
He collapsed like a tent on stones, embracing shattered planets.
His high forehead was crowned with blood. His chest was empty of medals.
He was not a well-trained fighter, but seemed instead to be a peasant, a
worker or a peddler.
Like a tent he collapsed and died, his arms stretched out like dry creek-beds.
When I searched his pockets for a name, I found two photographs, one of his
wife, the other of his daughter.
Did you feel sad? I asked.
Cutting me off, he said, Mahmoud, my friend,
sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.
I was there like a machine spitting hellfire and death,
turning space into a black bird.
He told me about his first love, and later, about distant streets,
about reactions to the war in the heroic radio and the press.
As he hid a cough in his handkerchief I asked him:
Shall we meet again?
Yes, but in a city far away.
When I filled his fourth glass, I asked jokingly:
Are you off? What about the homeland?
Give me a break, he replied.
I dream of white lilies, streets of song, a house of light.
I need a kind heart, not a bullet.
I need a bright day, not a mad, fascist moment of triumph.
I need a child to cherish a day of laughter, not a weapon of war.
I came to live for rising suns, not to witness their setting.
He said goodbye and went looking for white lilies,
a bird welcoming the dawn on an olive branch.
He understands things only as he senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he said, is to drink my mother’s coffee, to return safely,
at nightfall

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