~~If Mahmoud Darwish were alive, he would be 74 years old today. That is the best beginning for a blog about Darwish on the occasion of his day of birth. As the platitude goes, Darwish lives in his poems, but it is a platitude worth repeating on this day when the website ArabLit (in English) is devoting the day to translations –old and new–of Darwish’s living body of work: the the infinite possibilities his writings offer for return, for re-translation, for renewal. But also for mourning because Darwish’s life encapsulated the history of the Palestinian people, all of it sustained (if that is a word we can use in this context) by perpetual expulsion, dispersion, exile. His poetry is an encounter with all the major themes spawned by the collective fate of the Palestinians and beyond– resistance, lament, remembrance, and, in the author’s final phase, transcendent love.
Darwish in the original Arabic is a privileged pleasure, but it is also an educational one: like reading any great writer in the original, reading Darwish in Arabic has taught me much about the densities and textures of Arabic, about its immense suppleness at the hands of a master craftsman like Darwish, about its capacities for absorbing the codes and usages of other languages, about its generosity toward the purely sonorous qualities of language. All this and more I have learned by reading and re-reading (and occasionally translating) Darwish.
The labor of translating a great poet is a task fraught with difficulty, exasperation, obsession and joy. I have worked with two translators–the Tania Tamari Nasir in Ramallah, and Christopher Millis in Boston from whom I have learned much about the ways in which detail and possibility, attention and flight collaborate in the passage of words from one language to another. The hours we have spent on a line, or even a single word, have been some of the most gratifying times for me. Likewise, with a Pal Fest seminar I conducted in 2011 in Nablus, at Al-Najah University, where each student translated seven lines from Darwish’s Under Siege (see below), and then we compared our translations, arguing about meaning, assumptions, syntax, word choice, and voice. Those hours, too, were some of the most memorable for me.
Darwish is for the generations. He lives in his poetry, in our return to his poetry–from exile.
If you were not the rain, my love, then be the tree
Saturated and bountiful, be the tree.
And if you were not the tree, my love, then be the stone
Saturated and moist, be the stone.
And if you were not the stone, my love, then be the moon
In the dream of the loved one, be the moon.
This is what a woman said to her son at his funeral.
(Excerpt from Under Siege, by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis)
I Remember al-Sayyab*
(Translated by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis, London Review of Books, June 24, 2004)
I remember al-Sayyab, his futile cries across the Gulf:
‘Iraq, Iraq, nothing but Iraq,’
And nothing answers but an echo.
I remember al-Sayyab under these same Sumerian skies
Where a woman surmounted the void
To make us heirs to earth and exile.
I remember al-Sayyab . . . Poetry is born in Iraq,
So belong to Iraq—become a poet, my friend!
I remember al-Sayyab did not find the life
He’d imagined between the Tigris and Euphrates,
And did not think like Gilgamesh of the leaves of immortality,
And did not think of resurrection and beyond . . .
I remember al-Sayyab lifted from Hamurabi
A legal code to hold against his shame.
I remember al-Sayyab when I’m feverish
Or worse: My brothers are making dinner
For General Hulagu’s army—no other servants but my brothers!
I remember al-Sayyab, how either of us ever imagined
Nectar the bees might not merit,
Or that it would take more than two small hands
To reach our absence.
I remember al-Sayyab. Dead ironsmiths rise up
From the ground to fashion us shackles.
I remember al-Sayyab. Poetry is desire and exile,
Twins. We wanted no more
Than a life and death to call our own.
Nothing but Iraq . . .
*The Iraqi poet Bad Shaker al-Sayyab, who died in Kuweit in 1964, was a pioneer of the free verse movement in modern Arabic literature.
Requiem for Mohamad al-Dura, translated by Tania Tamari Nasir and Christopher Millis, London Review of Books, November 30, 2000 is available for free for 24 hours from the LRB website.