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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.

Published Aug 21, 2008   Copyright 2008 Hosam Aboul-Ela

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