Feb/Mar 2010

Exile's Return

Death and displacement in the lyrics of the Palestinian national poet

Eric Ormsby

In "Fame," one of the prose poems from A River Dies of Thirst, the last collection he published before his death in 2008, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish noted sardonically that "fame is the humiliation of a person deprived of secrets." Darwish knew fame well; he had been acclaimed from the moment his poems first appeared, in 1960, when he was only nineteen. For the rest of his life, he would be celebrated as "the Palestinian national poet" and "the voice of his people." One of the ironies, if not the humiliations, of such a role is that the poet whose words promise liberation may find himself ever more narrowly constrained. Awakened expectations can build the strongest of cages.

Darwish baffled those expectations as often as he satisfied them. His 1998 collection, The Stranger's Bed, published after his return from exile, disappointed his readers; no rallying cry, it presented an impassioned sequence of love lyrics, including six magnificent sonnets, a form seldom used in Arabic. His later work evinces a pronounced inward turn. Darwish may have felt humiliated by fame, but he was hardly "deprived of secrets." His last books transcend lifelong political allegiances to confront a higher politics: the secrets of life and death, including what early Sufis—a surprising influence—called "God's secrets."

Darwish rightly considered Mural, his long poem of 2000, his masterpiece. This stubborn interrogation of himself—or rather, of an unknown and perhaps unknowable self, as obdurate as it is elusive—strikes me as one of the few genuinely great poems of recent decades. Strangely reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, Mural displays a restless meditative energy throughout. Eliot's influence on Darwish is quite conspicuous, not only here but in Exile (2005), another masterpiece, arranged in four "quartets." (Arabic translations of The Waste Land—as, later, of Four Quartets—had a tremendous impact on Arab poets, especially the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, another major influence on Darwish.)

Mural now appears in two very different English versions. It and Exile are two of four late collections included in If I Were Another, translated by Faty Joudah. In The Butterfly's Burden of 2006, Joudah presented translations of three other late works; taken together, his two volumes offer the best introduction to this remarkable poet. Rema Hammami and John Berger, by contrast, focus almost exclusively on Mural (though they also include "The Dice Player," Darwish's last published poem). Theirs is an exquisitely designed book, enhanced by several of Berger's evocative drawings and marred only by Berger's strident, grandstanding introduction. Both versions, despite a few stumbles, read well. Hammami and Berger are much freer in their translation, sometimes too much so; Joudah, a fine poet himself, sticks to the Arabic original, though, again, sometimes too much so. If Joudah's translation of Mural seems to me superior, it's not only because he's more faithful to the Arabic but also because he consistently conveys the fierce spiritual urgency of the work.

This isn't an obvious matter. In State of Siege of 2002, Darwish's lyric "journal" of the second intifada, written in Ramallah (and translated by Joudah in The Butterfly's Burden), Darwish offered the injunction "Besiege your siege!" The phrase became celebrated; it's not often noted, however, that the words were prefaced by the parenthetical statement "(to poetry:)." Much of Darwish's later work could be read as a secret siege on poetry, or at least on a certain type of poetry, the defiant and declamatory public verse that he himself so prominently extolled. This self-lacerating ambivalence comes through in Joudah's versions.

I don't mean to suggest that Darwish had somehow mellowed or modified his convictions, but rather that he suddenly found himself struggling against a different order of enemy, a new and irreversible state of exile. In 1984 and again in 1998, he suffered a severe heart attack and underwent an emergency operation; his death, on August 9, 2008, in Houston, came three days after yet another surgical procedure. Mural, set in the intensive-care unit of an unnamed hospital, represents Darwish's response to his own mortality. Here his recurrent themes—the lost earth of home, the pain of exile, the yearning for "return"—take on transcendent overtones. They no longer refer solely to the tragedy of his compatriots; they refer to us all. Questions of identity prompted by statelessness and dislocation are now addressed as bearing on the human predicament at large. "Self, who are you?" he asks, but the reply (in Joudah's translation) only complicates the puzzle:

On the road
we are two, and in Resurrection one.
Take me to the light of vanishing to see
what becomes of me in my other image.

Later in the poem he declares, "I am me, / nothing else," and yet this "me," along with his very name, eludes him. Mural opens with a nurse reminding him of his name (again in Joudah's version):

This is your name
a woman said
and disappeared in the spiralling corridor

Hammami and Berger render this as:

Here is your name
said the woman
and vanished in the corridor

By omitting spiralling (the beautiful word lawlabi in Arabic), the latter pair of translators achieve momentum at the expense of nuance. For Mural is a spiralling and circuitous poem, alive with swerves and sly twists, moving along corridors that dead-end only to open out unexpectedly into detours and hidden passageways. That single adjective, conspicuous in Darwish's spare style, presages the very structure of Mural. In the original, there is a backslash at the end of the first line that all three translators omit (though Joudah preserved it in an earlier online version). This might seem trivial, but in fact, Darwish was meticulous about such details: His backslash forms a little leaning wall of punctuation along which the "mural" will be painted. Though their version reads smoothly, Hammami and Berger occasionally misunderstand the original. Darwish was master of a clear, pure Arabic diction, subtly inflected, and though his lines appear jagged on the page, they are driven by classical (rather than colloquial) cadences; paradoxically enough, this makes his enigmatic passages—and there are many in Muraleven more recondite. In one such phrasing, he writes (in the Hammami-Berger translation):

I am the stranger from all I was given by my language
And if I've given my affections to Arabic
They have surrendered me to the feminine participle

Joudah, more literally, if also more mystifyingly, translates it:

I am the stranger, with all of what I was given
of my language. If I submit my emotion to the Dhd,
my emotion submits me to the Ya'.

What to make of this? Neither translation offers much help. Berger and Hammami provide only two notes—one of them incorrect—to the poem; Joudah annotates more extensively but often garbles Arabic names (for example, referring to the great sixth-century poet Imru' al-Qays, to whom Darwish frequently alludes, as "Imru' el-Qyss"). Like many classical Arabic poets, Darwish was something of a letter mystic. His fascination with the occult significance of individual Arabic letters was rooted in a tradition that originated in the Koran itself, with its "mysterious letters" at the beginning of many suras, and was cultivated by Sufis from time immemorial. When Darwish mentions the fifteenth letter of the Arabic alphabet— correctly transliterated as Dd (with a subscript dot), not Dhd, as Joudah has it—he uses it as a synecdoche for Arabic itself; to this extent, Hammami and Berger are right to translate it simply as "Arabic." The letter, a palatalized d unique to Arabic, came to stand for "Arabic speakers"; they were the ahl al-Dd, perhaps best rendered as "the people (who pronounce) the letter Dd." But the letter Y, the final letter in the alphabet, is not "the feminine participle," as Hammami and Berger bizarrely have it. It is exclamatory, like "O!" in English, or vocative ("O you!"). The puzzling lines draw a contrast between language as an inalienable interior possession and as a medium of public exhortation and harangue, the very conflict between the poet's "secrets" and his "fame" I mentioned at the outset. Elsewhere, Hammami and Berger again display a penchant for injecting "the feminine" where it doesn't belong. During his great colloquy with death, perhaps the most remarkable section of Mural, Darwish says, in their version:

Dissolve me I'd say in all the femininity of the letter "nuun"
Let me gulp down the Sura of the Merciful in the Qur'an

These lines have nothing to do with femininity (any more than does the letter Nn, or n, in Arabic). Had Hammami and Berger glanced at the sura in question—the fifty-fifth sura, known as Surat al-Rahman—they would have seen that it rhymes throughout in the letter n; furthermore, it's the only Koranic sura that employs a refrain. Hammami and Berger (as well as Joudah) also misconstrue the line. Darwish writes not "let me gulp down the Sura," as they render it (or "my soul gulps Surat al-Rahman," as Joudah has it), but "where Surat al-Rahman gulps down my spirit." The text "gulps" down the poet, not the reverse.

Though the Prophet Muhammad condemned poets, here, for once, he exploited an ancient poetic form. The sura probably appealed to Darwish as much for its incantatory refrain as for its content. And it represented a subtle touchstone. In A River Dies of Thirst, Darwish combines lyrics, prose poems, and aphorisms, in rather disjointed fashion; though beautifully translated by Catherine Cobham, it's a lesser work, revealing mainly for the light it casts on Darwish himself. There, he writes, "We will become a people, if we want to, when the singer is allowed to chant a verse of Surat al-Rahman at a mixed wedding reception." That sovereign compassion, which enabled Darwish to hear "Resurrection hissing in a grain of sand," as he put it in Exile, isn't the possession of one people but is open to all. Only that realization may enable us to become, in his words, "worthy of the scent of bread."

Eric Ormsby's latest book is Ghazali: The Revival of Islam (Oneworld, 2008).


March 27, 2010
1:15 pm

Enjoyed the article. However, I'd like to point out that Prophet Muhammad didn't exploit the poetic form in question, since he didn't write the Quran.

Comments are open to registered bookforum.com users only. Please login to post.
Don't have an account yet? Please click here to register for a free account.