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David L. Ulin on Mahmoud Darwish

December 12, 2010 |  8:07 am

Darwish_2007 There’s no easy way to assess Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet and activist who died in 2008 at the age of 67. On the one side, Darwish is a voice of conscience, his aesthetic that of exile, of resistance, in which language becomes the only passage to a homeland that must be reimagined, reanimated, before it can be repossessed. On the other, he is derided as a friend of terrorists, a one-time member of the PLO whose writing is meant to function as a social, or political, accelerant.

Darwish’s 1973 prose meditation “Journal of an Ordinary Grief” (Archipelago: 178 pp., $16 paper) -- newly translated into English by Ibrahim Muhawi -- won’t reconcile these perspectives, but if this remarkable collection has anything to tell us, it’s that such duality may be entirely beside the point. Yes, Darwish is angry, a Palestinian who sees the state as his enemy, but he is also a man beset by loss and longing, looking for a place that he and his people can call their own.

The book comes broken into a series of impressionistic essays, many of which adapt the form of dialogues. It’s an ingenious strategy, weaving a push-and-pull, a sense of intractability, directly into the structure of the book itself. In one part of the extended title piece, an Israeli and a Palestinian agree to write a play together in alternating chapters. Here is the first: “In exile my father didn’t teach me despair or suicide, and he didn’t teach me to forgo my Jewish identity. He brought me up to believe I was born to be pursued. Yet, even so, he did teach me how to live.” And the second: “In exile my father didn’t teach me despair or suicide, and he didn’t teach me to forgo my Palestinian identity. He brought me up to believe I was born to be pursued. Yet, even so, he did teach me how to live.”

What Darwish is doing is setting up a commonality, a recognition that the struggle -- any struggle -- cannot help but be shared. He makes the point explicit later in the same essay, calling out the Arabs who “used to laugh in mockery” at “the Zionist dream” of David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizman for not being sufficiently committed to the pursuit of their identity. “[R]emember,” he scolds, “the writer who said to you, ‘This is the difference between you and me. I’m not simply a Jew: I have chosen to be one.”

The key word, of course, is “chosen,” which echoes the trope of the chosen people even as it undermines the notion of birthright, framing it, rather, as a matter of commitment and hard work. “Will you laugh again, as the Arabs laughed fifty years ago,” he concludes, “or will you hand down your dreams to the children born under the bayonets of the Occupation?”

For a lot of readers, the idea of Israel as occupier is irreconcilable. Darwish is adamant on the subject, harshly critical of Israeli policies and Israeli nationhood. At the same time, he is after something bigger, a more nuanced point of view.

His project is to merge substance and metaphor, to talk about political realities with the language of the poet. In “He Who Kills Fifty Arabs Loses One Piaster,” he frames the 1956 killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in the village of Kufr Qasem through the filter of the fine assessed the colonel who gave the orders; the resulting image is far more effective than mere outrage, a powerful reminder, regardless of where you stand, of just how little a human life can be worth.

“[Y]ou leave the question hanging,” Darwish writes, “for poetry is your form of expression, and poetic language avoids facing murderous questions. Poetry has something to say, and it has nothing to say. Poetry speaks truth, but does not announce it.”

— David L. Ulin

Photo: Mahmoud Darwish reads at the Arab book fair in Beirut in 2007. Credit: Haitham Mussawi /AFP/Getty Images