On Mahmoud Darwish

By Hosam Aboul-Ela

In an earlier post, I raised the issue of the dearth of translations done of intellectual and critical writing from Arabic (and most of the other languages of the world). The translation of poetry also presents special problems. Poetry is central to literary culture in Arabic and has been so since Arabic literature has existed, and thus, those who read Arabic literature in translation must have access to quality translations of poetry in order to have anything close to a complete picture. Yet the translation of Arabic poetry demands that the translator be able to cross over vast differences in structure, history, and language registers. The sad passing on the 9th of this month of the Arab world's most important contemporary poet, Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, calls attention to the evolution of Arabic literary translation into English.

Darwish was first introduced to the English-speaking world via a slim volume of selected poems entitled The Music of Human Flesh, translated by Arabic literary translation's eminence gris, Denys Johnson-Davies. Today, Darwish's work appears in at least a half dozen volumes that include the work of perhaps twelve or fifteen different translators. The most recent to appear is Fady Joudah's monumental and award-winning The Butterfly's Burden, published just last year. Johnson-Davies's volume appeared in a series for Arabic writers in translation, while Joudah's was published by an American specialty press that targets connoisseurs of poetry. Whereas Johnson-Davies picked about twenty poems he liked out of several collections of Darwish's early work, Joudah translated every word of his three most recent volumes. The earlier volume presents Darwish as the embodiment of a movement, the latter as a mature and complicated, yet still very moral, poet's poet. The English-speaking world owes Johnson-Davies an enormous debt, but it would be a tragedy if thirty-five years passed without the arrival of a volume as sophisticated as Joudah's Butterfly's Burden.

By coincidence, Mahmoud Darwish died about two miles from the spot where I am writing this post. Less coincidental is my relationship to Darwish's poetry, for its music and intellect is in the ether, infiltrating the very being of generations of consumers and citizens in the Arab world. I first heard him read at the Cairo International Bookfair in January 1995. All of Cairo seemed crammed into a large tent. At a dais in front of the overflowing crowd sat Darwish, a moderator, and three other poets. The first two poets did their best to read over the din that the massive crowd emitted involuntarily. Incredibly, Darwish created perfect silence in the hall merely by standing and walking to the microphone. By then I'd studied poetry pretty extensively in university classrooms, but observing firsthand a person hold such a huge audience in thrall made me understand something new about the nature of poetry.

A transition was already taking place in Darwish's work at that time. The young poet's work could make the most hardened Palestinian burst into tears, as I discovered when a schoolmarmish Arabic teacher I once had choked up, unexpectedly and to the embarrassment of her American students, while trying to recite one of his poems to illustrate a language point. But Darwish's later poetry became increasingly complex in its allusions and bold in the diversity of poetic genres it employed. The raw feeling of his early poetry became increasingly subordinated to a thorough, unrestrained engagement with aesthetics. Darwish had used his fame to challenge his public to take a more sophisticated look at poetry itself.

With the death of Darwish, the Arab world has lost four towering figures in the last five years. In order of their passing, literary critic/advocate in the West Edward Said (September 25, 2003), novelist Naguib Mahfouz (August 30, 2006), filmmaker Yusuf Chahine (also this summer, on July 27, 2008), and Darwish were each the most prominent practitioner of their genre without question. Each of these four evolved to create multiple legacies over the course of their careers; they must each be studied in stages. Each of them became a household name in the Arab world and inspired simultaneously fanatical followers, polite detractors, and vociferous, even violent, antagonists. There is no serious consumer of contemporary Arab culture that does not have a vivid memory of discovering the work of one of these four for the first time, experiencing one of their masterworks and being invigorated, or having the good fortune to meet one of them in person.

No serious consumer of contemporary Arab culture can reflect on what the four of them accomplished without feeling a physical shudder. Combined, they've left bodies of work that we might build upon, react to, and argue against for generations. With their passing, contemporary Arabic culture passes into a new phase, which will not be characterized by new great individual avatars, but rather by increased attention (hopefully outside the Arab world, as well as in) to forms, movements, concepts—to the matter of art and ideas. Their final rest affords an opportunity, an opportunity for our restlessness.



It is indeed intriguing, and exciting despite the sadness of loss, to think about the words and ideas that will fill the void left by Darwish, Mahfouz, Said, and Chahine.  I wonder what your predictions are for the different ways the giant silence will gain new voice, how the voices will differ.


I have thought a lot about the death of Pablo Neruda when reading about the response of the Arab worlds to Darwish’s death.  Not so much because of specifics, but because of the outpouring of grief, because of the degree to which a wide range of ordinary readers and listeners felt the poets to be almost familial presences in their lives, because both Darwish and Neruda turned from the poems that knit them so intimately to their readers. Their translations of yearnings into words hit upon some kind of magic it’s easy to forget exists, even when I read other contemporary poets that I love.
COMMENT: I have followed Darwish’s career since I was a graduate student at San Francisco State College. In 1976, I found a slim volume of poetry: A Lover From Palestine, which included poems by Darwish. Since then, whenever I go to used bookstores, I seek his poetry and have been fortunate to find Human Music, Psalms, Splinters of Bone, Adam of Two Edens, Unfortunately It was Paradise, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone, and, of course, The Butterfly’s Burden, along with some other poems in Salma Jayyusi’s magnificent anthology of Palestinian literature.


Darwish is one of the great poets not only of our time but of all time. That ne did not receive the Nobel Prize for Literature is laughable, and definitely political( as is the cases with another astonishing poet- Adonis of Lebanon).


I also had the good fortune to see him read in several short films, including one shown here in Northampton during a Palestinian Film Festival several years ago.


Exiled, Darwish never left home, but sank his roots deeper and deeper. To read Darwish is to not only understand why Israel will NEVER drive the Palestinians out of Palestine/Israel, but it is much much much more. It is to see a poet continually containing the courage to change and explore and become a newer fresher poet, operating on so many levels, challenging readers to join him on deeper paths. The love of the land is always there, the love of a people is always there, but more- he was a magician with images, one of the greatest imagist poets ever.


For me, although he died physically, he will live forever as do all the great poet



2 Poems For Darwish



Darwish’s ironies seared


The flesh of the land.


Call it Israel.


Call it Palestine.


The entire homeland sizzles


With his everlasting signature.






How can death be a loss


When he gave us so much?


How can the roads be closed


When, finding new paths,


he led us so far,


How can the singing stop


When so many cherish each note?


How can the beauty end


When we’re all still gasping?
COMMENT: The 12th Poetry Africa festival will partake in the programme of the Worldwide readings in memory of Mahmoud Darwish on 5 October 2008



see http://www.literaturfestival.com/news1_3_2_1800.html



The Berlin International Literature Festival is still appealing for a this worldwide reading of Mahmoud Darwish. The call has received a response from most ‘corners’ of the globe, but perhaps you can do one in your area if you arent close to one already?



BTW Berlinale Literature festival has a focus on Africa this year and quite a line-up.
COMMENT: Please take a look at my blog for an entry on Mr. Darwish.



- moazzam
DATE: 09/22/2008 11:13:28 AM

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