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from the October 2009 issue

The Tragedy of Narcissus The Comedy of Silver

They returned…
from the end of the long tunnel to their mirrors…they returned
when they recovered their brothers' salt, single or in groups, they returned
from the myths of defending citadels to what is simple in speech.
They won't need to raise their hands or banners to miracles anymore, if they choose.
They returned to celebrate the water of their existence, to organize this air
and wed their sons to their daughters; to make a body hidden in marble dance
and to hang from their ceilings onions, okra, and garlic for winter,
to milk their goats and the clouds that flow from the pigeons' feathers.
They returned on the tips of their obsession to the geography of divine magic
and to the banana leaf mat in the land of ancient topography:
a mountain upon a sea;
            two lakes behind the memories,
                  a coast for the prophets –
and a street for the scent of lemon. No harm befell the land.
The horse winds blew, the Hyksos blew, and the Tatars blew, masked
or unveiled. All immortalized their names with spear or mangonel . . . and departed.
None of them deprived April of its habits: the flowering out of stones
or the bells of lemon blossoms; no harm befell the sand—
no harm, not a harm after they left. And land, like language, is inherited.
The horse winds blew in and blew out, and the wheat burst from the wheat.
It was their choice to return and recover the fire in their flute,
so the far came from afar, bloodied with their clothes
and the fragile crystal, and the anthem rose—
above distance and absence. What kind of weapon impedes the soul
from its soaring? In each of their exiles there's a land that wasn't harmed . . .
They made their myth as they wished and pitched for the pebbles
the radiance of birds. And whenever they passed a river . . . they tore it,
burned it with longing . . . whenever they passed a lily
they cried and wondered: Are we a people or a wine for the new altar?

           Anthem! Take all the elements
           and take us higher
           slope by slope
           then descend to the valleys—
           Come anthem
           you know the place better
           you know the time better
           and how strong the things within us are . . .

           They never went and never arrived; their hearts are almond seeds in the streets. The plazas were more spacious than a sky that couldn't cover them. The sea used to forget them. And they used to know their north and south, send the pigeons of memory to their first towers, and hunt, out of their martyrs, stars that march them to the beast of childhood. Whenever they said: We arrived . . . the first of them fell at the arch of beginning: O hero, stay far from us so we can walk in you toward another ending, the beginning is damned. Hero, bloodied with long beginnings, tell us: how many times will our journey be the beginning? Shrouded hero, above wheat bread and almond wool, we will mummify the wound that absorbs your soul: with dew; with a sleepless night's milk; with the lemon blossom and the bloodied stone; with anthem—our anthem; with a feather plucked from the phoenix—

           And land, like language, is inherited!

           Their anthem is a stone scratching the sun.
They were kind and full of satire and
didn't know dancing or the mizmar
except in the funerals of immigrant friends.
They used to love women the way they loved fruit and cats and principles.
They used to count the years by the ages of their dead, and migrate
to their obsessions: What did we do with the carnation to become its distance?
What did we make of the seagulls to become the residents
of wharves and of the saltiness of dry air: welcoming as we bid farewell?
           They used to be the proclivity of each river not looking for a constant.
They used to dash in life hoping for a path that saves them from scattering . . .
and because they knew from life only life as it gave
itself, they didn't ask what is after their fates and their graves.
And why should they be concerned with Resurrection?
Why should they care whether Ishmael or Isaac was a ram to the Lord?
This hell is the Hell. They became used to planting their mint in their shirts
and learned to plant lablab ivy around their tents; used
to memorizing the violets in their songs and in the flower pots of their dead . . .
but no harm befell the plants, no harm, when longing embodied the plants.
And they returned before their sunset; to their names
and to the clarity of time in the swallow's travel.

           As for places of exile, they are places and times that change their kin
they are the evenings that dangle from windows that look upon no one
they are the arrivals to coasts aboard a ship that has lost its horses
they are the birds that exceed the eulogy of their songs . . . and the land
that belongs to the throne, and abbreviates nature in a body.
           But they returned from exile, and if they had left their horses behind
it's because they broke their myths with their hands, to leak out and liberate
themselves and think with their hearts. They returned
from the grand myth to remember their days and their speech.
They returned to the familiar among them as it walks
on the pavement, aimlessly chewing sweet laziness and time,
seeing flowers the way people see them . . . without story
the lemon blossom is born out of the lemon blossom, and in the dark it opens
the windows of ancient houses to the vastness . . . and to the family salaam.
           And it seems they have returned.
Because there's enough time for the caravan to return from India's
distant journey. They repaired their carriages and stepped ahead of speech,
and lit up the star of memory in the windows of middle Asia, they returned,
it seems they have returned.
They returned from Syria's north, they returned
from small islands in the generous ocean, returned
from countless conquests and countless captivities, returned
like a minaret to the muezzin's voice at sunset.
The roads didn't mock them as a stranger mocks a stranger.
The river became their obsession, if it stuttered or advanced, receded or flooded.
And a fortune-teller hung the willow banner on what gold flows from the moon.
           And they have their story. Adam, their migration's grandfather, cried
in regret, and emigrated to the desert. The prophets were dispersed in every land,
and civilization and palm trees emigrated
but they returned
           as caravans
                      or vision
                                 or idea
                                            or memory
and saw in the old images enough sedition or affliction to describe the end.
Was the desert enough for the Adamic wandering? Adam poured the honey
of the first desire in the uterus, and the apple witnessed. Adam resisted
his death. He lived to worship his high lord, and he worshiped his high lord to live.
Was Cain—the first murderer—aware his brother's sleep was death?
Was he aware Abel hadn't yet learned the names or language?
Was the first woman, the one covered with the berry shirt, a map?
There is no sun under the sun other than the light of these hearts piercing
the shadows. How many epochs have passed to find the answer to the question?
And what is the question if not an answer that has no question?
Those were the questions of sand to sand. A prophecy of what is seen or unseen.
An ignorance claiming prophecy. And the sand is the sand. And the Sufi
sneaks away from a woman to weave the wool
of his darkness with his beard, then ascends as a crystal body and asks:
Does the soul have buttocks and a waist and a shadow?
           In captivity, there is room for the sun of doubt
they are drunkards at the door—their freedom
is what has fallen out of the absolute broken space around their tents:
helmets, tin, blueness, a pitcher of water, weapons,
human remains, a crow, a sand hourglass, and grass covering a massacre.
Can we build our temple on a meter of this earth . . . to worship
the creator of insects, names, enemies, and the secret concealed in a fly?
Can we bring back the past to our present's periphery, to kneel
on our rock to those who have written time in the book without a writing?
Can we sing a song on a heavenly stone to withstand
the myths that we could alter only by interpreting clouds?
Can our aquatic mail reach us on a hoopoe's beak
and bring back our letter from Sheba, to believe in the strange and the legendary?
           In wandering there is room for horses to blaze from the slopes to the heights
then drop from the slopes to the bottom; room for horsemen who prod the night
and the night is all night. And death at night is murder.
           Anthem! Take all the elements
           and take us higher
           one era at a time
           to see of man's narrative what would bring us back
           from absurdity's long journey to the place—our place,
           take us higher on the spearheads to overlook the city—
           you know the place better
           and how strong the things within us are,
           and you know the time better . . .

Take me to a stone—
           to sit near the distant guitar
take me to a moon—
           to know what remains of my wandering
take me to a string—
           that pulls the sea to the fugitive land
take me to a journey—
           whose death is small in the artery of oud
take me to a rain—
           on the roof tiles of our lonely house
take me to me so I can belong to my funeral on my festival day
take me to my festival like a martyr in the violet of the martyr . . .
they returned, but I did not . . .
take me there, to there, from the jugular to the jugular.

           They returned to what was in them of homes, and they recovered
the silken foot upon the luminous lakes, recovered
what was lost of their dictionary: the olives of Rome in the imagination of soldiers,
the buried Torah of Canaan under the temple ruins between Jerusalem and Tyre,
the incense road to Quraish blowing from the Syria of roses,
the gazelle of eternity paraded for the Nile's northerly ascension,
paraded for the virility of the savage Tigris that parades Sumer to immortality.
           They were together.
They were warring with one another, conquering and conquered.
They were together.
Marrying and begetting the progeny of antithesis or of madness.
They were together.
Allies against the north, building across hell
the crossing bridge out of hell to the victory of the soul in each of them.
And they recurred in the battle over the mind:
Whoever has no mind in his faith has no soul . . .
Are we able to incarnate creativity from Gilgamesh
who was the dispossessed of immortality herbs,
and from Athena after him? Where are we now!
The Romans must locate my existence
in marble, return to Rome the point of the world, and give
birth to my ancestors out of their superior swords.
But there is that of Athena within us which makes the ancient sea our anthem.
Our anthem is a stone scratching the sun within us,
a stone radiating our mystery. Extreme clarity is a mystery.
How can we realize what we have forgotten?
Christ returned to supper, as we had wished, and Mary returned to him
on her long braids to blanket the Roman theater within us.
Was there enough meaning in the olives . . . to fill Christ's palms
with serenity, his wounds with basil, and pour our souls over him as radiance?

           Anthem, take all the elements
           and take us higher wound by wound.
           Bandage forgetfulness
           and take us as high as you can to the human
           around his first tent
           he shines the dome of the copper horizon
           to see
           what he does not see
           of his heart.
           And take us higher before you descend
           with us to the place,
           you know the place better
           and the time.

           And in the passageways they prepared for the siege.
Their camels were thirsty as they milked the mirage
to drink the milk of prophecy from the imagination of the south.
And in every exile, and for their sage plants, there was a citadel with broken gates,
and for every gate a desert completing the narrative
of the long journey from war to war.
And for each boxthorn in the desert there was a Hagar migrating south.
They passed by their chiseled names over the metals and pebbles
but didn't recognize their names . . . victims don't believe their intuition . . .
they didn't recognize their names . . .
names that were erased by sand at times, or covered by the foliage of sunset.
Our history is their history.
And aside from the differences between the birds in the banners,
the nations would have united
the roads of their thoughts. Our beginning is our end . . .
and land
like language
is inherited . . .
and if the two-horned king had one horn,
and if the world were larger, the easterner
would have become easterly in his tablets,
the westerner more estranged.
And if Caesar had been a philosopher
the little earth would have become Caesar's home.
Our history is our history . . .
           and the bedouin may extend his palm tree toward the Atlantic
on the Damascus Road so we can heal from the fatal thirst for a cloud.
Our history is their history.
Their history is our history
           had it not been for the conflict over the timing of Resurrection!
Who united the stubborn land without a sword adorned with valor?
No one . . .
Who returned from the journey to the basil of childhood?
No one . . .
Who fashioned his narrative far from the rise of its antithesis and heroism?
No one . . .
There must be an exile to lay the eggs of memory and abridge eternity
in a moment that encompasses time . . .
perhaps all they did was to rewrite their names
and recall, in the silver of olives, the first poet who shrouded their sky:
Aegean Sea! bring us back . . . our family dogs have barked
to lead us back to where our wind once blew . . . because victory is a death.
And death is a victory in Hercules . . . and the martyr's stride is a home.
We are the ones who have come to become victorious . . . the oracles cast us
in the north of our estrangement without asking about our wives.
Those who died are dead,
and those who remember their homes kill more of the elderly and the young girls
and toss the city's children from their beds
into the steep valley to return, before time could, from the Troy of the devil;
or did we betray the government of our conscience
for our wives to betray us?
The solid conscience was our crossing bridge,
it was a ship that carried incense to our women, and beautiful perfume to Helen.
And victory, like defeat, is a death, and crime might lead to virtue.
Ancient Sea! adorn the murdered with their murderer, and return us
to the barking of our dogs in our first land. But proceed without us
to the adventures of searching for what was lost of our fleet . . . the ancient
fishing boats, and the men who have become coral trees in the depths,
we want to return, from the wars of defending the bed's throne,
to our women's sheets, and to the poplar fabric
that is green in the ashes and in our poets' visions . . .
There must be a land where we can dock our steps and the hazelnut of our houses—
the light, this light, is not enough for us to pluck the berries of our home.

           They used to be in dialogue with the waves to mimic those who are coming
back from the battles beneath the arch of triumph. Our exile was not in vain at
all, and we didn't go into exile in vain. Their dead will die without regretting a
thing. And the living can bequeath the calm wind, learn to open the windows, see
what the past makes of their present, and weep slowly and patiently lest the enemies hear the broken ceramics within them. Martyrs, you were right, the road to
the house is more beautiful than the house, despite the flowers' betrayal, but the
windows don't look out on the sky of the heart . . . and exile is exile, here or there.
We did not go into exile in vain at all, and our exile wasn't in vain.

And land
like language
is inherited!

           And they didn't resemble the captives, and didn't impersonate the freedom
of martyrs. They weren't rid of the summer of their desolation. Yet they flamed
the faraway mountain with their desolation, then turned absent when they
couldn't find roads out of their slopes that dispersed them among the wadis. The
first shepherds might reach the echo. They might discover the remnants of their
clothes and voices, discover the time of their weapon: their winding flute. From
each people they intimated a legend to mimic its heroes, and in each war one
of their gallant horsemen died, but the rivers have their directions. And yesterday is no longer a yesterday for them to inhabit a place a little higher than the
riverhead . . .

           Their guitars are a mare and an Andalus upon my foot
girl of the wind tap us upon needles of pine
and we will love our lives
tap the air with sandalwood
tap us to soften the soul within
and we will leave
the harbor to itself
tap us with the cadence of wine
on the blackness of secret amid
the two whites rid us now of the corals
of your big wadi teach us
the work of joy armed with gypsy blood
tap us with your high heels tap what looks out
of the hearts and the nations
will turn around and notice
the beginning of their wars: a man
searching the prairie for his serenity
resides in a woman.

And on desert and sea waves, they raised an island for their existence.
They returned, and their poet said:
I defend my journey to my destiny as I defend my anthem
among the palm trees and their punctured shadow. Out of my void I will walk
toward being anew, and I will walk away from the bridge—abandon it
to the faraway and to the lemon blossom—the bridge
of the blue that is broken with rain.
So, chanters, cross, if you are able to return
the neighing to the horses, cross.
The horses pant after my heart as it leaps out of my hands toward the dams.
We are who we are, so who will change us? We return and don't return
and march within ourselves,
and when a single morning without death
and a night without dream come,
we will reach the harbor, scorched by the final roses . . .
And it seems they have returned.
The sea descends from their fingers and from the edge of the bed . . .
they used to see their houses behind the clouds
and hear their goats bleat, they used
to palpate the antlers of the gazelles of narrative
and kindle the fire on the hill. They used
to exchange cardamom. Bake the pies of the happy feast.
Do you remember
our estrangement's days over there? They used to dance on the suitcases mocking
the narrative of exile and the countries longing will abandon:
Do you remember the last siege of Carthage?
Do you remember the fall of Tyre
and of the kingdom of the Franks on the Syrian coast, the grand death
in Tigris when ashes flooded the city and the ages?
"Behold, Saladin, we have returned . . ."
so look now for new children.
They used to repeat the story from its end to the age of comedy.
Tragedy might enter comedy one day
and comedy might enter tragedy one day . . .
and in the narcissus of tragedy they mocked
the silver of comedy, and they used to ask and ask:
Of what will we dream when we realize Mary was a woman?
They used to smell the herbs in the walls that commenced their spring
and their wounds, the herbs that brought them back from every exile.
The honeycomb sting resembles a snakebite, and the basil scent
is the coffee of exile . . . a walkway for emotions in their homes . . .
We have arrived!
They clapped for their dogs, for the houses of their return, the grandfathers
of the story, the ancient plows, and the friction of the sea with the onions
that hang on antique weapons. Bygones are bygones.
And the husbands teased the wives of funerals:
We are through with the tears of dancing, lamenting, and weeping,
let's narrate the hearts that gallop with horses to the rising wind of memories,
let's narrate the steadfast Hercules in his final blood and in the mothers' madness,
and let's be him, the Ulysses
of paradox if the sea wished it so, dear women,
let's narrate and narrate, when we narrate, the calling of the Kurd commander
to the hesitant Arab: Give me a sword
and take from me the blessings upon the prophet, his disciples and women,
and keep the alms . . .
           They laughed a lot:
Perhaps prison is prettier than the gardens of exile.
And they saw their windows looking out on their humor
and firing up the roses around the riverbanks.
Bygones are bygones. They will leap unto ladders;
           they will open the safes of memories
                      the chests of clothes
                                 polish the door handles
                                 and count their rings;
their fingers had grown bigger with the days and their eye sockets had swelled.
They couldn't find their faces on the rust of mirrors or glass.
That's fine!
The garden will expand when they arrive in a little while before the anthem.
And they will look back:
We are still who we are, who will send us back to the desert?

           We will teach our enemies a lesson in agriculture and in the bursting of water from stone . . . we will plant peppers in the soldier's helmet . . . plant wheat on
every slope, wheat is larger than the borders of the reckless empire of any age. We
will follow the habits of our dead and wash off the rust of the years from the silver
of trees . . .

Our country is that it becomes our country
our country is that we become its country
its vegetation, its birds, and its inanimate things
and our country is our birth
our grandfathers
our grandchildren
our livers walking upon intaba or grouse feathers
and our country is that we make a fence of violets for its fire and ashes
it is that it becomes our country
it is that we become its country
a paradise
or an affliction
one and the same—

           We will teach our enemies the homing of pigeons, if we can teach them.
And we will sleep in the afternoon under the shade of a grapevine trellis, while
the cats around us sleep on the drizzle of light. And the horses sleep on their fugitive bending. And the cows sleep and chew grass. Though the rooster is sleepless
because of chickens in his life. We will sleep in the afternoon under the shade of
a grapevine trellis. We have had enough . . . we have tired of the sea air and of the

           They used to return
and dream they had arrived
because the sea was descending from their fingers and from the shoulders
of their dead. They used to witness things suddenly:
the sweet basil upon the shrouded hero's final step:
Does he die here with his gun and silk brocade and his final threshold?

Does he die here? Here and now under the noon sun?
It was just now his victory fingers shook
the gate of the old house, and the walls of the island.
Just now he guided the last steps toward the target . . . and concluded the journey
with the return of our dead. Then the sea slept under the windows of small homes.
           O Sea! we weren't often wrong . . .
don't give us more than the others . . . we know
the victims within you are countless. And water is a cloud.
           They used to be as they used to be.
They used to return and ask the gloom of destiny: Must there be a hero who dies
to enlarge the vision and add one more star to our banner?
They weren't able to add a rose to the ending,
to change the path of ancient myths:
           the anthem is the anthem:
           there must be a hero who falls on the victory fence
           in the height of anthem.
O hero within us . . . don't rush!
Live one more night for us to reach the end of a life adorned
with incomplete beginning; another night
for us to complete the journey of the bloodied dream,
O crown of our thorns; twilight of the myth that is crowned
with an endless beginning. O hero within us . . . don't rush!
Live another hour
for us to begin the dance of divine victory.
We are not victorious yet, so wait, hero, wait.
Why do you depart
an hour before arrival?
O hero
within us

           There remains of the exile in them the autumn of confession
there remains in them a street that leads to exile . . .
and rivers that flow without banks
there remains in them a soft narcissus that fears the drought
there remains in them what changes them if they return and do not find:
the same anemones
the same stubborn quince fuzz
the same daisy
the same loquat
the same long ears of wheat
the same elderberry
the same dried garlic braids
the same holm oak
the same alphabet
. . . they were on the verge of descent to the air of their houses . . .
but from which dream should they dream?
With what thing should they enter the garden of doors
while exile remains exile?
           And they used to know the road to its end and to dream.
They came from tomorrow to their present . . . and they used to know
what would happen to the songs in their throats . . . they used to dream

of the carnation of their new exile on the house's fence, they used to know
what would happen to the hawks if they settled in palaces, they used to dream
of the conflict of their narcissus with paradise when paradise becomes their exile,
and they used to know what would happen to the swallow
when spring burns it, they used to dream of the spring
of their obsession, whether it came or not, they used to know
what would happen when the dream arrives from a dream
and knows it was dreaming;

           they used to know, and dream, and return, and dream, and know, and return,
and return, and dream, and dream, and return.

Excerpted from If I Were Another by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah, to be published in November by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. English language translation copyright 2009 by Fady Joudah. All rights reserved.

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