George Fragopoulos On Mahmoud Darwish

a-river-dies-of-thirst-mahmoud-darwishOne of the better essays on the work of Mahmoud Darwish in this country was recently published in The Quarterly Conversation on-line magazine. I am reproducing a section of the essay below; you can read the full essay here.

Tracing Mahmoud Darwish’s Map

Essay by George Fragopoulos — Published on December 7, 2009
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Books discussed in this essay:
The Adam of Two EdensMahmoud Darwish. Syracuse University Press. 203 pp., $19.95.
Almond Blossoms and BeyondMahmoud Darwish (trans. Mohammad Shaheen). Interlink Books. 96 pp., $25.00.
Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982Mahmoud Darwish (trans. Ibrahim Muhawi). University of California Press. 182 pp., $21.95.
MuralMahmoud Darwish (trans. John Berger and Rema Hammami). Verso Books. 69 pp., $19.95.
A River Dies of Thirst: journalsMahmoud Darwish (trans. Catherine Cobham). Archipelago Books. 160 pp., $16.00.
Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?Mahmoud Darwish (trans. Jeffrey Sacks). Archipelago Books. 230 pp., $18.00.


Reading Darwish’s work in translation and outside of its own context can be a discomfiting experience, if only for the simple reason that it makes one that much more aware of missing out on an wealth of meaning. Scholar Ibrahim Muhawi explained in a recent talk titled “Contexts of Language in Mahmoud Darwish” just how much is missing when Darwish is read in translation. Writing on the dialectical aspects of Darwish’s use of sounds and rhythms in Arabic, Muhawi states:

If you rub two dark flints against each other, you will get a spark. And if you rub two dark thoughts against each other, a new meaning will result. This is Darwish’s ironic way of proposing a new kind of dialectics in which an obscure thesis rubs against an obscure antithesis, resulting in a luminous synthesis.

There is in the poetry the use of language as “metaphorically . . . having materiality,” and this materiality brings with it a “musicality” that Darwish reveled in. The dialectic that Muhawi speaks of is something inherent in the language itself, and something impossible to bring into English. The poems, therefore, frequently present challenges that a reader of the translations must be willing to accept, keeping in mind that failure to grasp the complex picture will be the order of the day; and while I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the translations, all of the work under review here does read exceptionally well in English. (One major problem, however, with the Archipelago releases under review is that they lack any critical apparatus that would make approaching the poems easier. There are no endnotes, glossaries, introductions, or even footnotes, though credit should be given for the decision to present the Arabic originals side-by-side with the English translations in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? Such important critical work would have helped readers to resist the urge to universalize Darwish’s poetry, which poses a great threat to the historical specificity and urgency of the work at hand. Almond Blossoms and Beyond, fortunately, does have an excellent introduction and some notes. Mural—which contains the title poem and another long poem, “The Dice Player”—includes a couple of end notes, and a very personal and beautiful, if not overtly critical and far too brief, introduction by John Berger, along with beautiful drawings by Berger that were inspired by Darwish’s life and works.) Context is of exceptional importance in reading Darwish’s poetry. Poet, scholar, translator Ammiel Alcalay wrote in an essay titled “Who’s Afraid of Mahmoud Darwish?” “Darwish . . . comes from the tradition of political exile embodied by poets like Cesar Vallejo, Nazim Hikmet, or Yannis Ritsos” and that his work, therefore, “is truly an effort for those weaned on bourgeois Anglo-American and European literature. For such exiles, there is no such thing as a pure, objectified art; no ‘engaged or disengaged’ writing: their work is simply one part of the very condition of those who do not rest on some vague laurels or operate within the apparatus of assumptions that power, in the larger sense, can provide.”

The goal of Darwish’s work has been to express in a language beyond language the suffering, loss, and plight of the Palestinian people. Darwish was uneasy about the title “resistance poet,” but did not shy away from being described as the national poet of his people. Echoing the thoughts of Anton Shammas, Darwish’s poems seek to reclaim a map in language that has been lost in reality—echoes, again, of the connection between the material and language. Akash states, that Darwish, like Paul Celan, asks the question of how one can “write or think about a disaster that defies speech and compels silence, burns books, and shatters meaning?” In Darwish’s work the questioning of language as language is a constant theme, part of the exploration of what poetry can possibly say in an age as barbaric as ours.

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