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Volume 59, Number 6November/December 2008

In This Issue

Remembering Mahmoud Darwish - Written by Fady Joudah

Mahmoud Darwish, 1942–2008, photographed in Ramallah, 2006

by Fady Joudah

My relationship with Mahmoud Darwish began when I was seven years old, in Libya, memorizing his poems for small change my father or uncle would hand me after a correct recitation. Later, when I returned to the United States for college, I pulled out of the deep well in my mind the poetry that had introduced me to the lyric world. Stunned by Darwish’s absence in English translation, I was determined that one day I would help establish him for who he was: Not just the “national poet of Palestine,” or even an “Arab poet,” but a world poet—a universal, timeless voice.

In 2004, I phoned him to tell him about my plans for translation. I remember what he said: “Translation is anyone’s right.” Our relationship continued that way, by telephone, until I met him in the last week of his life for a long, beautiful afternoon in Houston. Despite his fame, he was a shy, even transparent man, like one of the almond blossoms that bloom in March, the month of his birth in the Galilee he loved so much.

His life paralleled that of the post–World War II Palestinian collective: Displacement, dispossession, liberation, occupation, despair and hope were the themes he lived. His mother’s coffee, which he longed for in his famous poem To My Mother, written from an Israeli jail while he was in his 20’s, became the metaphorical coffee of thousands. Similarly, his ruined hometown, forever present and absent, has become the hometown of millions of refugees, exiles and displaced people around the world. Whenever he wrote his most personal feelings, they echoed in the plural.

He realized that Palestine was a metaphor for a larger state of exile which transcends boundaries, ethnicities and histories. In his later years he developed this sensibility to encompass the specificity of dialogue between the Self (the “I”) and its Others, but, unlike many “nationalist” poets, Darwish never shied from including Others—especially Jews and Israelis—in love and in dialogue, in reproach and in truthfulness.

Mahmoud Darwish was as particularly Galilean as he was a citizen of this Earth. He was one of the rare, timeless voices that spoke and sang for the better traits of humanity. He always aimed at countering the dark, wherever it might be, whichever name it might bear. By eulogizing life, he immortalized his own.

Fady Joudah is a Palestinian–American physician with field experience with Doctors Without Borders in 2002 and 2005. His poetry collection, The Earth in the Attic, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007. In 2008, his translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden was short-listed for PEN’s award for poetry in translation, and won the Saif Ghobash Banipal prize for Arabic translation by the Society of Authors in the UK. He lives in Houston.
Read More of Darwish's Poetry

by Carolyn Forché

On a winter night in Beirut 22 years ago, a physician working among Palestinians in southern Lebanon whispered to me that I had arrived too late, that the poets had left Beirut the year before, Mahmoud Darwish among them. In the darkness of a blackout, he spoke of how unsettling it was for the people to know that the poets were no longer there, most especially Darwish, whose work was beloved by millions in the Arab world and beyond, whose lyrics were sung by heart, set to the music of their ancient ‘ud, whose poetry readings filled stadiums. Having survived a life of imprisonment, house arrest and exile, he wrote of love, survival and our common humanity. Now Mahmoud Darwish is no longer among us, this poet who made of his language a homeland, who dwelled in exilic being—this solitary, private man who became the voice of a people, and who, in a language of fig trees, olives and flute music, exile and longing, rebuilt in poetry the 417 invisible villages of Palestine, such as Al-Birweh—which he was forced to flee as a boy—the village to which his empty, symbolic coffin was carried to be set among the stones of what may have once been his house, near a prickly pear bush, in a dry wind. At that same moment in Ramallah, tens of thousands attended his state funeral and laid him to rest on a hillside with Jerusalem visible in the distance. Those who carried the second coffin to Al-Birweh knew that their poet had to be buried twice, once for his presence and once for his absence.

Almost 20 years after Beirut, I came to know Mahmoud Darwish as one of his collaborative translators and then as his friend, and would come to understand why the people of that besieged city were so bereft at his loss. No other poet of his time gave voice to an entire people, no other poet was so beloved, and yet he also cleaved to his art, and carried within himself the solitude it demanded. He seemed to know and accept his destiny, and desired only to finish the work under his pen. A year before his death, we were together at Struga in Macedonia, the oldest poetry festival in the world, and as he stood on a bridge over the River Drim, he read his poems to the thousands who crowded its banks and drew their flotilla of boats as close as they could to him beneath the bridge. During the festival, the sky flowered with fireworks in his honor, torches were lit, songs sung, and he was presented with the Golden Wreath Award, one of the highest honors given to a poet. A few days later, we were taken by boat across a spring-fed pool near Lake Ohrid. There was no sound but that of the oar rising and falling. Mahmoud was pensive as he leaned over to touch the water, while telling me very quietly that his heart was giving way. I didn’t understand at the time that he was saying goodbye, and now I must say goodbye to him, who realized his wish to be a candle in the darkness of the times in which he lived, and by whose poetry, memory and light we must now find our way.

Carolyn Forché holds the Lannan Chair in Poetry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her four poetry books include Blue Hour, a 2003 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (1993, W.W. Norton & Co.) includes poetry by Mahmoud Darwish.

This article appeared on pages 42-43 of the November/December 2008 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 2008 images.