Friday, 30 March 2012

The tragedy of being Mahmoud Darwish

            Mahmoud Darwish may be the person who most exemplifies the word “poet” in modern Arab culture, in image, in voice, in meaning and expectation. But in Arab culture, the word “poet” itself, in all its light and beauty, can harm whomever stares into it blindly. “Poet,” in the positive sense, means a god who creates language or destroys it. It means a prophet with a message that he will live and die for. It means a voice for a voiceless nation or a mystic who teaches the cruel to love. It means visionary, philosopher, a bringer of tidings both good and bad. (The reader may find the above definitions of the word “poet” in many articles on Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis in particular). “Poet” is grammatically singular, but when properly realized, may indicate a plural, exactly like the words “nation” or “army.”  
            Darwish is thus one of our greatest modern poets, and one generally adds to this that he is a “historical poet,” not simply because he was the voice for one of the ugliest historical tragedies of the twentieth century (which he remained loyal to, and whenever he tried to escape it, the people and the continuation of tragedy brought him back), nor because he sometimes fought against the tragedy he was representing (and this produced some of his most beautiful poetry), nor because his poetry has become a part of his culture, its memory and its future (it had done so years before his death), but because he belongs to a historical moment – a tragedy. Over the course of time, he became this moment's witness and its representative to the extent that his poetry became the voice for both its dreams and its failures at the same time, and all this whether he himself consented or not (he sometimes accepted being loved for his connection with the cause, and sometimes complained about this harsh love), and whether we ourselves wanted to read him or not (some of us love him as a poet of “resistance,” while some of us only love his poetry when it remains distant from anything that could be called “resistance”).
Darwish's historical status was not granted him by the reality of the tragedy, but rather by his anxious search for an aesthetic that belonged to it, an aesthetic that could free his voice from its gravity (of course not every great poet is backed by a tragedy, nor is everyone backed by a tragedy able to find an aesthetic for it. Thus, I do not exaggerate when I say that Darwish continued to develop the aesthetics of his poetry to the greatest extent possible for a poet imprisoned in his historical situation.
            What is the historical position is be Mahmoud Darwish, to be a poet backed by a tragedy, received and loved because he is its voice? What kind of tragedy it is to be a poet who, for more than forty years, is the voice for a tragedy that can't move in any direction without becoming more tragic? What kind of dilemma is it to be poet who is talented, intelligent, handsome, charismatic, humane, individualistic, destitute and in love with life, and despite all this be the representative of a people, a history, an exiled identity and occasionally a power without a land on which to exercise its authority? What kind of absurdity is it for a poet to be the victim of a tragedy, and that it be a part of his glory that  he is the voice of victimhood, while his audiences themselves are all victims?
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Portrait by Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout 1971
            Of course, I'm not eulogizing Mahmoud Darwish. I'm just thinking about him once again for the simple reason that he has died. I think of him not as a father, but as an old love. I had thought about him many times before: as a teenager who would memorize his poetry and hang his picture up in her room, the way others hang up pictures of singers; as a young poet swept far from his world, and believing that there must be some way out of his poems since, and despite the fact that, there was no way out of the tragedy behind them. I may not have thought of him for years, and I may have sympathized with him when he attacked prose poetry, as this was evidence that time is cruel. But I started thinking about him again two years ago. He perplexed me as I taught poems of his, translated to English, to students who new nothing of his position in Arab culture, and very little about the tragedy. The students were – and I'm using a hateful word here – foreign, and I saw some of them get teary-eyed, while others asked questions I didn't know how to answer. Some wanted to read his other poems, while others wanted to know more about the tragedy. Darwish perplexed me because I saw his voice reaching people foreign to him, foreigners who know neither his music, nor the rolling of his voice, nor his presence on the stage. They don't know how a culture can be – with all its poets – can be imprisoned by a historical moment, a tragedy. And I found myself lost in class. I didn't know how to talk about his poems. I didn't know how to interpret or critique them. I stood there asking myself if Mahmoud Darwish really was nothing more to me then an old love.
            Mahmoud Darwish's belonging to the tragedy of a historical moment does not make him lucky. What we should mourn is the fact that many great poems possible for a great talent like his were never written because he belonged to this particular moment, belonged to this tragedy. What kind of absurdity is it to imagine oneself in the position of the historical Darwish? What kind of nightmare? Perhaps if I were a child banished from his village, and returned to find it had disappeared, I would have continued to search for absence. Perhaps if I there were those who doubted my existence, the existence of my people, I would have written something like “Register Me as Arab.” Perhaps if I were a young, clever, intellectual, and a poet, I would have found the best of my options to be joining the communist party. Perhaps if I was all those things and lost faith in justice, I would have left the communist party. Perhaps if I were exiled from one country to another, I would have dreamt about perpetual longing. Perhaps if I were there at the end of the nineties I would have joined the PLO. Perhaps if I had the overwhelming talent, the tragedy, the crowds that want to weep and remember their stolen childhood and their lost land, that want to rage and revolt, achieve victory and liberation, in a single evening, I would have sung to those like me, building a nation out of words, and I wouldn't have retired from my position as poet of the cause for the sake of what I would not later write. Perhaps if I didn't know how talented I was, how loved I was, how much humanity I had that deserved to be listened to, I would have accepted all those prizes from all those governments. Perhaps if I had run away and hidden from the eyes those I was representing, wherever they were, only then would I have written what I had never written. Perhaps if I had written what I had never written, I would have had absolutely no need for your ears, and would have told you: “Read me, because what I have never written doesn't suit a crowd.” Perhaps if I my pain were less, and my love for my pain more, I wouldn't have torn my heart apart in this way. Perhaps if I had lived all those years speaking in your name, then saw you killing each other in Gaza and elsewhere, I would have decided to die. 

 Published in Arabic in Akhbar Aladab August 2008
Trans by Fady Joudah