Mahmoud Darwish discovered that his poetry could wield great political power at the age of twelve. That year, during the Israeli Independence Day celebration in his village, he read an original poem reflecting on his situation as an Arab forced to pay tribute to the Israeli state. The next day the military governor summoned him to his office and scolded him for writing such verses. Later, Darwish remembered the governor as his “first literary critic”: “The incident made me wonder: The strong and mighty state of Israel gets upset by a poem I wrote! This must mean that poetry is a serious business.”
He accepted his newfound authority with zeal. By his thirties he had been repeatedly imprisoned, then finally banned, from Israel for his work and political activities. He had made his name as the Palestinian National Poet. His readings attracted cheering crowds of thousands which overflowed theaters and football stadiums across the Arab world. Palestinians felt his writing had given them a voice, helped bring a national consciousness into being. During the first Intifada, as a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Darwish helped draft the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. But he had begun to question his role as a “poet on the executive council”:
The creative Palestinian is prohibited from the luxury of vacated and dedicated time for the sake of creativity, because this is bound to a direct cessation from patriotic activity. Yet prisoners grow flowers in their prison yards….The creative person must create his flexible margin between the patriotic, the political, the daily, the cultural, and the literary. But what am I to do? What does a poet do in the executive council? Will I be able to write a book of love when color falls on the ground in autumn?
The question was not just whether he could write such a book—a book of personal rather than collective emotion, beholden only to his private visions. The question was whether his audience, who had perhaps grown to expect political expediency from his work, would want to receive it.
Reading Darwish as an American with no Palestinian heritage—and in the beginning, with no knowledge of Arabic poetry at large—I have wrestled with another iteration of this quandary: what, if anything, stands between Darwish’s “book of love” and Western readers?
My grandmother gave me a copy of Darwish’s If I Were Another when I was a junior in high school. I had just finished writing a paper about the so-called “burqa ban” in France, realizing the deep irony of a law that claims to protect secularism and democracy by violating Muslim women’s personal rights and dignity. More than that, I realized how embarrassingly little I myself knew about Arab and Muslim perspectives. I was a writer at an arts high school and couldn’t name a single Arab poet—the burqa ban proved how dangerous that kind of ignorance is.
So even before I opened Darwish’s book, I had a use for it. A political use. I went to him because I loved poetry, yes, but I also wanted to fall in love with him as a representative of a foreign culture, which would prove my theory that poetry could serve as a kind of diplomacy. On one level, there’s nothing wrong with this; of course we turn to literature to familiarize the other, to understand worlds not our own. But it’s a risky business, asking a book of poetry to perform the role of ambassador or executive councilor, in charge of drafting a charter for peace between nations.
Western publishing and readership have a long history of politicizing Arabic in more or less egregious ways. In a 1990 essay, Edward Said tells the story of suggesting a list of books for translation in a new series, only to be informed by the supposedly progressive publisher that none of the proposed Arabic translations would be undertaken. Arabic, he was told, was a “controversial language.” Today, there are more and better English translations available of vital contemporary books (at least, so my professors in the Comparative Literature department tell me) but the idea that Arabic is somehow a language useful only for conducting political relations is alive and well. Reading Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua this quarter, I was struck by the cheerfully marketable cover blurb, which called the Arab-Israeli author “a brilliant, funny, humane writer who effortlessly overturns any and all preconceptions about the Middle East.” The implication is that Americans will not want to read an Arab novel just because it’s a good novel. Kashua’s book has to speak for an entire region. It has to cater not just to artistic standards, but to the Western imagination.
Considering this, a phrase from an H. D. poem has been stuck in my head, which Adrienne Rich uses as the epigraph for her book entitled (appropriately enough) The Dream of a Common Language: “I go where I love and where I am loved,/into the snow;/I go to the things I love/with no thought of duty or pity.” Reading a poet like Darwish shouldn’t be some kind of cultural chore. It shouldn’t be done out of pity for underrepresented writers or even duty to an ideal of coexistence. It should be done out of love for the work.
But all of this has become clear only in hindsight—because to be honest, I did read Darwish at first for all of those wrong reasons. It wasn’t even love at first sight, even when I did finally crack the spine and read the first few poems. As will always be true of translated poetry, it is impossible to exactly replicate the original brilliance of rhythm and meaning. It took some time for me to become acclimated to the world Darwish created.
Maybe the turning point was memorizing one of his poems, in Arabic. There’s something intimate and surprising about hearing an author’s voice for the first time, headphones pressed up against your ears. Then learning to speak the same words, adopting their original cadences, even in a language you only half understand. In that musical moment, the distance between the two of you shrinks, the possibilities of language expand:
If I were another on the road, I would have said
to the guitar: Teach me an extra string!
Because the house is farther, and the road to it prettier—
that’s what my new song would say. Whenever
the road lengthens the meaning renews, and I become two
on this road: I…and another!
It’s difficult to dehumanize a poet who deliberately reaches out to his other, inviting them to “Delay our tomorrow so our road/may extend…and we may get rescued/from our story together”.
“I very seriously advocate our right to be frivolous,” Darwish told an interviewer in 2002. “The sad truth is that in order to reach that stage of being frivolous we would have to achieve victory over the impediments that stand in the way of our enjoying such a right.” He and his interlocutor were sitting in his house in Ramallah, taking advantage of a brief suspension of the Israeli-instituted military curfew. What can poetry do for us, then, in moments of curtailed freedom? As Darwish put it in State of Seige, written in the same year as that conversation:
I wrote twenty lines about love
has withdrawn twenty meters!…
By the time he wrote these lines, Darwish had changed his mind about his youthful idealism and decided that “poetry does nothing,” changes nothing but the way people feel. I say that’s a pretty big change. Even if the siege only withdraws in imagination, that’s something. The siege on Arabic literature, in fact on all literature, retreats with every poem we read. Even prisoners grow flowers in their jailhouse yard, and even besieged poets write about not only soldiers and bombs, but also
coffee cups. And birds. And the green trees
with blue shadows. And the sun leaping from
one wall to another like a gazelle…
and the water in clouds with endless shapes
in what is left to us of sky,
and other things of postponed memory