by Peter Byrne
Darwish, Mahmoud: A River Dies Of Thirst, Diaries, translation from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham, preface by Ruth Padel, Saqi Books, London, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-86356-634-9, pages 165, 10.99 pounds UK.
"The Palestinians do not exist."
—Golda Meir"What has the child done wrong?" They answered: "He will grow up and frighten the frightened man's son." "What has the woman done wrong?" They said: "She will give birth to a memory." (Page 56)
(Swans - October 5, 2009) Exile is as wide and varied as the world. Young James Joyce, whistling in the dark, announced that he would use "silence, exile and cunning" to forge "the uncreated conscience of my race." In the event he would escape Dublin's gabby mediocrity and take Irish letters with him into modernity. But the Irish conscience would remain stubbornly what it had always been. If, musing for a moment, we set Joyce's writing beside the work of Mahmoud Darwish, the Irishman's spectacular achievement savors of artifice and the drawing room. Darwish, generally accepted as the national poet of Palestine, would in fact create something very like a Palestinian consciousness. He wrote A River Dies Of Thirst in Ramallah during the summer of 2006 while Israel again brought war to Gaza and Lebanon. A poet's diary of poems, it was his last book, and now published posthumously. He died August 10, 2008.
Darwish had exile thrust upon him when he was six. In 1948 his family fled their native village of al-Birweh in western Galilee before the arrival of Israeli forces. Eventually two hundred and twenty-four houses were razed and the new village of Ahihud built on their ruins. The kibbutz Yasur -- of left-wing inspiration! -- was set up on the Darwish land. Israeli law said that resident Arabs not physically present during the onslaught had become "present-absent aliens," henceforth "internal refugees." The Darwish family went to live in another village where like all Arabs they were subject to the "military regime" that would last for fifteen years. Each time young Mahmoud was found to have left the village confines without permission he was put in prison. When he wrote poems like Identity Card of 1964 he was accused of incitement and held without trial in "administrative detention."
Joyce in Trieste and Paris could refer back to the all too real city on the Liffey, exploring its byways and the divagations of its rooted citizens. Darwish's home, like his Palestine, was no more. It had become Israel. He was an exile from a country that had been plowed under.
Oh past! Don't change as we move away from you. (Page 155)
Joyce embroiders on a real place whose unchanging nature he wryly delights in and teases from afar. Darwish's imagination is as homeless as his body that he often declares already dead as it drifts to Lebanon, the Soviet Union, Egypt, Cyprus, Tunisia, Jordan, and France.
I dreamt I was alive. (Page 99)
It's no wonder that so many Darwish poems are set not on the earth at all but in the firmament.
Azure space, high and wide and washed with light. (Page 63)
Nor is it surprising that what he lost at six was nothing less than his identity. No poet has ever been so unsure of who he was or even whether he actually existed. Darwish constantly seeks himself in the eyes of others. It's this sentiment of being robbed of self that has drawn Palestinians to him as representative of themselves. Unlike Joyce's Dubliners, they are exiles one and all.
He says to me, tucking his notebook under his arm
entangled in his poetic way of talking:
"This is all that's left of the wreckage of my identity." (Page 120)
This feeling of fragility preserves Darwish from bravado.
He was afraid. He said in a loud voice: "I'm afraid." (Page 50)
He claims to be no more than a hunter of parallel feelings. Joking with the poet Derek Walcott, he accepts the description of their being "metaphor thieves." (Page 113)
His aesthetic theory is perturbation.
A poem needs some kind of cunning flaw so that we believe the poet when he lies and writes about the spiritual confusion provoked by a clear sky and a green garden. For why do we need poetry if the poet says the sky is clear and the garden is green? (Page 128)
That thousands gathered to hear him recite only increased his diffidence.
[...] I lack the narrative skill and daring required to write pornography. (Page 68)
But Darwish, though strapped into a political position by the disaster of his childhood, is not primarily a militant poet.
All beautiful poetry is an act of resistance. (Page 130)
He was not given to poeticizing a party line and his taste for slogans didn't last. Nor did his daily existence incline him to make demons of non-Arabs. His poem A Soldier Dreams of White Tulips, written in the wake of the 1967 war, showed understanding of an Israeli soldier's predicament. The poem angered many Arabs. (It can be found in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, Selected Poems.)
The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair of my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. I didn't see Jews as devils or angels, but as human beings. I always humanize the other. I will continue to humanize the enemy. (Guardian interview, June 8, 2002.)
In his book Memory For Forgetfulness, August, Beirut, 1982, he recounts his experience in that city during the Israeli siege. (Translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, University of California Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-520-08768-2, 182 pages. $18.95) It's an overwhelming story and Darwish was certainly overwhelmed by what he lived through. Only in 1985 would he sequester himself in Paris and write it all down in ninety days.
A River Dies of Thirst, on the contrary, is poised and meditative. It distills his work, each page a poem or paragraph of prose poetry, each page with a dominant idea or feeling. Memory for Forgetfulness is an overflowing, midlife book recording the destruction of Beirut as collateral damage when the Israelis bombarded it steadily for two months. The ostensible aim was to dislodge the Palestinians. Darwish's own workroom was burnt out as he bore witness to the drama of his countrymen being driven to yet another exile.
It all tumbles forth in a jumble of time and space: Diving F-16 jets, brewing coffee, ironic comment on politics, death in the doorway. There are passages on soccer, on Beirut as a unique city, and on the solitude of lovers. Darwish drinks beer in a bar while eyeing a woman's legs and recalling the first love of his childhood. Flesh is his only ballast in the turmoil.
Oh, spontaneity! Harder than metal and stronger than proof. (Page 163)
Memory prepares us to understand A River Dies of Thirst and to see Darwish as more than the proponent of a tribal grievance. On page 73 he tells a friend:
It's my good fortune I'm not a playwright, or I'd have to show the other side of the picture. Do you realize that the eye of the writer is negative, just like the ear of the leader?
If his friend thought hard on those words, he would understand how Darwish could assume a political role that went against his temperament, draft the Declaration of Statehood, 1988, and then break with Yasser Arafat in 1993 over dissatisfaction with the Oslo Peace Accord. He would understand how poems of love set the tone of his last book.
It was not only because of his restless innovation that the lyricist who pleased both field workers and intellectuals would lose some of his mass audience. Admirers wanted him to be a constant propagandist -- (and why shouldn't the Palestinians, too, have propagandists?) but that isn't how Darwish conceived of his role. The poet with a cause did not limit himself to re-stating his cause in poetry.
And if we complain of the general inability to perfect a language of the people in creative expression, that should not prevent us from insisting on speaking for them until the moment arrives when literature can celebrate its great wedding, when the private voice and the public voice become one. (Al-Karmel, no. 5, 1982).
He believed he overcame the fear of his public that he'd betrayed them and told Maya Jaggi in the Guardian interview of 2002:
The biggest achievement of my life is winning the audience's trust. We fought before: whenever I changed my style, they were shocked and wanted to hear the old poems. Now they expect me to change; they demand that I give not answers but more questions.
In this his last book Darwish is still feeling his way. But it's the groping of a master.
What is meaning? I don't know, but I may know what its opposite is: thinking that nothingness is easy to bear. (Page 130)
And yet what a distance he has come. The absent olive trees could no longer be counted and a sea of blood now covered the primordial uprooting of 1948. In the 1960s he had moved away from the fussy meters of classic Arab verse and written short, direct poems meant for performance. Of thin verbal texture, their bite, which could be considerable, came from the ironic situations portrayed. Thus the famous Identity Card, which began,
Write it down!
I'm an Arab.
Card number, fifty thousand.
I have eight children
and the ninth is due after the summer.
So, are you angry?
Write it down!
I'm an Arab.
I work with comrades in the quarry.
I have eight children.
I break their bread
and clothes and notebooks
from the rocks.
However, it was more than continual war and exile that brought Darwish the maturity to write the long poem Mural in 2000. (In Darwish, Mahmoud: Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, Selected Poems, translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché, University of California Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0-520-23754-4, pages 191, $19.95) His technical prowess had increased apace and -- shades of James Joyce -- his work was now as complicated in its way as that of the literary conventions he had left behind. He had long since moved into free verse. But there was something more that powered Mural. We might call it the poet's universal vision.
This had never stopped smoldering beneath his entanglement in what seemed to the world a parochial conflict of the Middle East. Darwish learned Hebrew as a boy and his knowledge of the language was judged "excellent" by the Israeli author Haim Gouri. Israeli censorship restricted Arab books. Darwish became acquainted with Neruda, Lorca, Nazim Hikmet and, for that matter, the European classics, first of all in Hebrew. He appreciated the Israeli national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik. He also studied and thought highly of the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. But he was careful to point out that the conflict in Palestine was a struggle "between two memories" and that Amichai would only admit the existence of one. Darwish insisted that each side tell its narrative freely so that a dialogue would result.
In Darwish's last years he let these wide cultural interests emerge in his poetry. He saw Palestine as the summation of influences: Canaanites, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks, British. He wished to fit the experience of the Palestine of his time into a larger hidden history of the defeated. To some, like Robyn Creswell, these historical excursions laced with metaphysics were not the best direction for Darwish's poetry. (Creswell's Unbeliever in the Impossible, from Harper's of February 2009, is the best article written in English on the poet.)
Ill-advised or not, it's good to see the poet shake the earth from his feet and take wing into history. The eons of backdrop he grants himself seem to put him at ease. Mural is the longest of these late poems. It would be true but misleading to say Mural was about the al-Aqsa intifada. Mohammad al Dura, the twelve-year-old boy shot by an Israeli soldier on September 30, 2000, does fleet through the forty-three dense pages. He becomes young Jesus Christ as the author invokes the many cultural components of his Palestine. The mistake would be to let the factual situation drown out the poem's insistent voice, which is that of a dying man wanting to know who he is. The answer that he's a poet, "I am he who talks to himself and tames memory," isn't enough for him. He wants to know who he is in relation to life, death, and time as he hovers on the threshold of the afterlife. He wants to shed every duality. He wants his language finally to "be a metaphor for a metaphor." The thirst for identity has forsaken the stony, buff terrain of Palestine and entered a pearly white metaphysical empyrean.
In a famous summing up, Edward Said wrote that Darwish's "considerable work amounts to an epic effort to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return" (Reflections on Exile, 2001, page 179). A River Dies of Thirst, Darwish's final collection, bears this out. What strikes us now, however, is that the "considerable work," an entire life of labor as a poet, has made exile seem, in the end, more than a loss of homeland. It's a wound that can't be staunched, afflicting all men.
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