Mahmoud Darwish died 13 years ago today, but his words are immortal

One of the artists to whom Leila Marshy refers in her novel The Philistine, which I recently reviewed, is the world-famous, much lauded Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish (Arabic: محمود درويش‎).
That’s him in the header image of this post.
He died 13 years ago today, on August 9, 2008,
of complications from heart surgery. Darwish is regarded by many as the National Poet of Palestine. He used Palestine as a metaphor for the loss of paradise, for birth and resurrection, and for the anguish of dispossession and exile.

You want one name from hundreds…seriously?!

I once asked a colleague of mine who was born in Iran; Which musician would you recommend, if I want to learn to listen to Persian music, but know nothing about it? He looked as nonplussed as I would have been if someone had asked me; Which English author should I start with, if I’ve never read a novel written in English? Where do you begin in such a huge field? How do you choose? He thought a bit and recommended the work of master singer and composer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, who died in 2020, and I duly got on with it.

This is how I approach the work of poets, like Mahmoud Darwish, who are new to me, especially those whose work has been translated into English: In one word – slo-o-o-o-owly.
Slowly – one poet at a time, and one poem at a time, just like one piece of music at a time.
Read, absorb, repeat. It could take a lifetime.

To start with: Three poems by Darwish

In case you’ve never read any of his poems, here are three by Mahmoud Darwish – a thoughtful one, a loving one, and a sad one.

Of the three, the one called “To My Mother” is the most touching one to me, from the first line about the bread, but especially the last verse. Those are so exactly the words I carry with me, all the time these days:

I am old
Give me back the stars of childhood
That I may chart the homeward quest
Back with the migrant birds,
Back to your awaiting nest.

Isn’t it strange that a Palestinian poet from far away, who wrote in Arabic, and who died thirteen years ago, could express the feelings felt by someone like me, here and now.

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

To My Mother

By Mahmoud Darwish
Translated by A.Z. Forman

Dearly I yearn for my mother’s bread,
My mother’s coffee,
Mother’s brushing touch.
Childhood is raised in me,
Day upon day in me.
And I so cherish life
Because if I died
My mother’s tears would shame me.

Set me, if I return one day,
As a shawl on your eyelashes, let your hand
Spread grass out over my bones,
Christened by your immaculate footsteps
As on holy land.

Fasten us with a lock of hair,
With thread strung from the back of your dress.
I could grow into godhood
Commend my spirit into godhood
If I but touch your heart’s deep breadth.

Set me, if ever I return,
In your oven as fuel to help you cook,
On your roof as a clothesline stretched in your hands.
Weak without your daily prayers,
I can no longer stand.

I am old
Give me back the stars of childhood
That I may chart the homeward quest
Back with the migrant birds,
Back to your awaiting nest.

From a selection by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan, in Medium.com, rtrvd. 15-03-2021

Photo by Alexandr Nikulin from Pexels

I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theater

By Mahmoud Dawish
Translated by Fady Joudah

I have a seat in the abandoned theater
in Beirut. I might forget, and I might recall
the final act without longing ... not because of anything
other than that the play was not written
skillfully ...
as in the war days of those in despair, and an autobiography
of the spectators’ impulse. The actors were tearing up their scripts
and searching for the author among us, we the witnesses
sitting in our seats
I tell my neighbor the artist: Don’t draw your weapon,
and wait, unless you’re the author!
Then he asks me: And you are you the author?
So we sit scared. I say: Be a neutral
hero to escape from an obvious fate
He says: No hero dies revered in the second
scene. I will wait for the rest. Maybe I would
revise one of the acts. And maybe I would mend
what the iron has done to my brothers
So I say: It is you then?
He responds: You and I are two masked authors and two masked
I say: How is this my concern? I’m a spectator
He says: No spectators at chasm’s door ... and no
one is neutral here. And you must choose
your part in the end
So I say: I’m missing the beginning, what’s the beginning?

Mahmoud Darwish, “I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theater” from The Butterfly’s Burden. Copyright©2008 by Mahmoud Darwish, English translation by Fady Joudah. Reprinted in Poetry Foundation by permission of Copper Canyon Press. http://www.coppercanyonpress.org. Source: The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)

The Poem of the Land

By Mahmoud Darwish

A small evening
A neglected village
Two sleeping eyes
Thirty years
Five wars
I witness that time hides for me
An ear of wheat
The singer sings
Of fire and strangers
Evening was evening
The singer was singing

And they question him why do you sing?
He answers to them as they seize him
Because I sing
And they searched him
In his breast only his heart
In his heart only his people
In his voice only his sorrow.

Quoted in The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel, by Ilan Pappé (Yale Books, 2011, pp. 132 – 133)

Homage to Mahmoud Darwish (1979)
by Mona Saudi, in the British Museum Lines from Darwish’s poem, “The Poem of the Land”, are inscribed in Saudi’s own hand around the drawing. (Source: Google Arts & Culture online publication, British Museum: Poetry and Exile
Contemporary art from the Middle East

I have given you a lead. Now it’s up to you to discover Darwish’s poetry. Enjoy!

Where to find Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry

Many of his collections have been translated into English and published. There are a couple on Poetry Foundation, and on Poets.org. On some websites the translated texts have grammar and spelling errors and I would be cautious of those versions.

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