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A Wave in the Sea: Najwan Darwish on “Exhausted on the Cross”

By Kareem James Abu-Zeid

Born in Jerusalem, Najwan Darwish published his first poetry collection in 2000. He has since become one of the foremost contemporary Arab poets, and one of the most powerful poetic voices to emerge from Palestine in the modern era. His first book to appear in English was Nothing More to Lose (NYRB Poets, 2014), which was listed by NPR as one of the best books of the year. Now, with the publication of his second major collection in English, Exhausted on the Cross, Najwan has become the first poet in any language to have two books in the NYRB Poets series. I spoke with Najwan about his new book—and about life, death, musical obsessions, insomnia, and other things—on December 23, 2020, over Skype.


Kareem James Abu-Zeid (KJAZ): Let’s talk about translation first. You and I work quite closely together. I'll usually give you the first draft of a translation, then you'll tell me what's wrong with it and what's right with it and everything in between. So because of the way we work together, and because you speak and read English so well, there's some quality control that you do. But your work has been translated into over twenty languages at this point, and I know there are Albanian and Italian translations being done as we speak. So I was wondering: With these other languages, or even just in general, what do you look for in a translator? What do you look for in the translation of your poetry?

ND: You look for a good reflection. What you look for is to be you, to keep something from you, or the good parts of you, in the translations. It's impossible to be the same person in the translation, because poetry itself is a kind of translation. Things in poetry start at the emotional level, and the visual level, and the sound level, and then you transform them into language. This transformation is a kind of translation. And when a translator translates the poem, they do something similar. And here is the mastery and the gift of the translator, because translators are poets themselves. And the better they are, the better the version of you they can create. Or they can even sometimes make a better version of you, if they’re a genius. And your translator is your luck. I think that in most cases, I’ve been quite lucky.


KJAZ: Do you feel like that with all the languages you’ve been translated into?

ND: Relatively, yes. In some languages, I can’t really judge. But I have the feeling that most of the translations are really good, and that I’ve been lucky to meet and work with very sensitive and gifted translators. Mostly they're also very good humans. To create a good translation, you need to be a good human—you need to put part of your humanity into the translation. Those who don’t have humanity can’t translate literature. They should translate military books or commercial books instead. But when it comes to literature, and to poetry, you need more than just skill with language; you also need to put the human into the translation, so it can reach the reader. This is also what the poet does: they put their humanity—their sensitivity to the human experience and the human condition—into the work.

“Every poet has to have a relation with their ancestors.”

KJAZ: When I’m reading your poetry, sometimes it feels very much like I’m reading a Palestinian poet. And other times it feels like I'm reading more of an international poet. Is there a tension between these two for you?

ND: As you know, tension is the inner mechanism of poetry. But I have to clarify that I don’t look at myself as “a Palestinian,” or as either “local” or “international.” These kinds of articulations are outside of my awareness. For me, being Palestinian means being everyone and everything, thanks to the ongoing tragedy. Of course, you could say that I’m a Palestinian citizen (though we’re one of the few nations still living under a colonial occupation), and that I’m Arab culturally. I may be a committed citizen, but as a poet (I don’t usually dare to call myself a poet) my identity is more complex and much broader, and contains several layers of histories, civilizations, and identities. These different layers may seem contradictory in the eyes of common modern perception, but for me they actually complement each other. I can see, for example, how Islamic civilizations incorporated the Byzantine civilizations. And on an emotional level, I belong to the struggle of Latin America’s peoples, just as l belong to the struggle of the Arab world.

A writer or poet shouldn't accept labels and roles; his work is to question them. Otherwise he becomes a superficial performer. I don't need to perform who I am—I try my best not to accept roles and social or political norms. I claim that I write poetry without an agenda, except for depicting my nightmares and the very few dreams or dream-like visions I have. I don’t have expectations outside myself. What I mean is, I’m not trying to please anyone—a public, a reader, any kind of authority, or even a literary taste or trend. I think writers should always keep a distance. The only person I’m trying to satisfy is myself as a writer. I want to write something new and fresh to me, something that will compensate me as an artist or a human. The compensation I find in poetry as a human is what others may find later when they read it.


KJAZ: Several poems in Exhausted on the Cross reference the Classical Arabic poetic tradition. Can you talk about your relationship to your poetic ancestors?

ND: Every poet has to have a relation with their ancestors, whether in his/her own language or in other languages. As you know, I belong to, and am in dialogue with, several poetic traditions. And as someone who writes in Arabic, I’m obviously connected to the long tradition of Arabic poetry, and I’m continuing that tradition somehow. Even if some of my work might seem to break with the tradition, there’s still a continuity there. I’m aware of that continuity, but I’m also aware that I’m just a wave in the sea—the sea of Arabic poetry.


KJAZ: Who are you reading right now?

ND: Most recently, I've started reading some Ottoman poetry—poets who wrote in the Ottoman language, but who are nowadays inaccessible even to Turkish readers because the alphabet changed, and because many of them haven’t been translated. I’m interested in the destinies of those poets, their subjects, forms, and perceptions of the world, and in the interaction between Arabic poetry and Ottoman Turkish poetry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was part of a broader network of Oriental literary interactions, from Persia to India, including present-day Afghanistan. It’s a huge forgotten history, even in places that were part of that history.


KJAZ: There are several poems in Exhausted on the Cross about female singers—Umm Kulthum, Warda al-Jazairia, Amália Rodrigues. And even when I call you on Skype, I often hear you turn down the volume on Umm Kulthum so we can speak. Can you talk about your obsession with female singers and how this appears in your poetry?

ND: I'll tell you something: I also consider myself a singer! Not out of a notion that I can sing; unfortunately, I don't have a good singing voice. But I do have a sensitivity to the kinship between singing and writing, and I view singers as poets. I see them as embodying the idea of the poet. The singer is a poet in her highest moment. The poet reaches these highest moments very rarely, and only in writing, whereas the singer reaches them physically, with sound and vibration, with their body. I’m also connected to different singing traditions: I belong to them, and I think my work is very influenced by singing. Many singers from different languages and traditions are embodied in my work, and when I say “singers” I’m also including composers and musicians, especially from around the Mediterranean, starting from the early twentieth century or even before then.

Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve followed the music and biographies of hundreds of singers, and they’ve had an effect on my work. Readers and critics don’t usually see such influences, because critics always search for the influence of texts. No one thinks about the role of sounds and singing traditions. Actually, one critic from Lebanon noticed this recently. A few days ago, one of my new collections was released in Arabic, and this critic mentioned that some of the work is composed according to the structure of Western classical music. For example, she mentioned the crescendo structure in some of my poetry (including Exhausted on the Cross). She asked me if I was aware of or intended this composition in my writing. My answer was, “Of course not.” For about ten or fifteen years, I listened to Western classical music every day, and even fell asleep to classical music stations on the radio. Thousands of hours of listening should certainly leave something behind, and this may enter the texture of my writing. But intending that or being aware of it—that’s not the nature of a poet or an artist.

I’m not a big fan of artists who include such concepts deliberately and with a high level of awareness. I think this is the work of the researcher, not the artist or poet. As a poet, you should live things, and then you can turn them into art. You need to be both an expert and spontaneous at the same time, sophisticated but unprompted. If you try to make reproductions without fully living an experience or a culture or a genre, then you have a kind of artificial and fake production, which we see a lot of. A poet who reads a few books about a subject (instead of living a concrete experience) and then writes a collection about it—I'm not sure if that ever really works. Or a poet who arrives in a place as a tourist and then starts writing about it without knowledge and experience—that won’t work either. Of course, you don't have to live your whole life somewhere to write about it. But the involvement, the amount of your involvement—is it a matter of life and death? Or is it a kind of touristic interest?

“It's so difficult to be normal when you inherit that kind of trauma.”

KJAZ: By my count, you now have eight poetry collections in Arabic. How is Exhausted on the Cross different from the others?

ND: In general, I’m not the right person to talk about my work. I usually lose interest after it’s printed. But what I can say is this: Exhausted on the Cross is part of a dark experience in a dark era, which is the era we’re living through now in the world, and in Palestine, and in the region. There’s a lot of darkness in it, and I guess some beauty as well. I don't know how beauty can still survive in such a dark and bitter era, but somehow it does.


KJAZ: One moment in the collection really grabbed my attention—the poem titled “Enough.” In the note at the back of the book, we learn that the text is about the Danish Palestinian poet Yahya Hassan, who died in 2020 at the age of twenty-four. You wrote the poem while he was alive, but you seemed to see that an early death might be coming for him. Could you say something about your relationship to him, and where that poem came from?

ND: First, I should say that Yahya Hassan is both Palestinian and Danish. He’s Palestinian because he was born to a Palestinian family in Denmark; he’s Danish because he was one of the best poets to write in the Danish language, even though he passed away at a very young age. I met him a long time ago, right after he published his first collection, which went on to sell more copies in Denmark than any other book of Danish poetry—well over 100,000 copies. I remember walking with him through the streets of Copenhagen, and some of the bookstores had only his book on display—it was literally the only book in the whole window. Back then, we were holding events for a Danish Palestinian writers’ project. This involved a few writers from Palestine—myself, Nathalie Handal, Kamal Boullata, and Yahya—and four Danish writers. That’s where I first met Yahya. His story was tragic—the story of a deeply wounded Palestinian refugee. His family is from a village called Lubya near Tabariyya [Tiberias], which was occupied in 1948, and they later became refugees in Lebanon, and from there they sought refuge in Denmark. Yahya was born there, and within him he had all the atrocities that refugees inherit. I know this very well.


KJAZ: The trauma.

ND: Yes, the trauma. It's so difficult to be normal when you inherit that kind of trauma. The pillars that are supposed to protect you have been damaged by a bigger power. A colonial one in our case, which can create a conflicted relationship with the world, especially for a child who grew up with the kind of prejudices that can exist in a country such as Denmark: even though he received attention and some love from the Danish people as a poet, he was quite unlucky, as the media and right-wing politics never stopped meddling in his life. From the beginning, I saw someone who was running to his death, and in that poem, I was begging him not to do it. I was saying that I have enough dead friends, that I need a friend who will stay alive, that I want to be the one to die this time around. But unfortunately, what I saw is what happened around seven years later. He was twenty-four years old when he passed away. That unusually famous poet and public figure was just a kid. For me, he will always remain my little brother, the one I couldn’t save.


KJAZ: We've worked together for almost a decade now, and we’ve had so many conversations about individual poems, but we really haven't talked much about some of the larger issues we're talking about now.

ND: It’s true, we talk much less than we work. I’ve never expressed to you, for example, your effect on my writing, and how I think that sometimes you act like a reflection for me. What you select and decide to translate from my work is always my best side. It’s a kind of encouragement over the years, to work with someone who’s so sensitive to poetry, who’s a good critic. You remember, I always used to tell you, “Kareem, there’s something wrong. I don’t think someone can translate poetry without being a poet, but that’s what you’re doing.” Until one day I caught you publishing three poems in a magazine—I found out you are a poet, but you don't like to acknowledge it. It's difficult for someone who isn’t a poet to translate poetry. A poet could be someone who spends their life writing and publishing poems, or they could be someone who does it differently. Usually, when they’re translators, they do it through what they translate. They put their poetic content into that work. So the books you’ve translated, Kareem—I think your poetry is in that poetry. And you know that when I talk about the books in English, I never say “my” book but always “our” book. Because it's also yours as a poet-translator.


KJAZ: One last question: Here in Santa Fe, it's about 5:45 pm. You're in Istanbul for a few months, and over there it’s the middle of the night—almost morning, in fact. When do you sleep, Najwan?

ND: You know I have this curse of insomnia. For many years I couldn’t sleep at night. I’d sleep in the morning, when I was completely exhausted. I don't advise anyone to do this—it’s not good for health, but so far it has been good for my writing. I’ve written most of my best poetry in those hellish nights when the whole city is sleeping and I seem to be the only one awake.

Najwan Darwish (b. 1978) is one of the foremost contemporary Arab poets. Since the publication of his first collection in 2000, his poetry has been hailed across the Arab world and beyond as a singular expression of the Palestinian struggle. He has published eight books in Arabic, and his work has been translated into more than twenty languages. NYRB Poets published Darwish’s Nothing More to Lose, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, in 2014, which was picked as one of the best books of the year by NPR and nominated for several awards. Darwish lives between Haifa and his birthplace, Jerusalem.

Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Kareem James Abu-Zeid

New Palestinian Writing

The City and the Writer: In Nablus with Isabella Hammad

Published Feb 23, 2021   Copyright 2021 Kareem James Abu-Zeid

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