Last week Saudi Arabia banned the works of poet Mahmoud Darwish from the Riyadh Book Fair for being ‘blasphemous’. Darwish, who died in 2008, was perhaps the most important Arab poet of his generation. He was born in 1942 in the village of al-Birwa to the north of what is now Israel. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it was occupied by Israeli forces, its inhabitants forced to flee (many, like Darwish’s family, to nearby Lebanon), and the village itself destroyed the following year to make way for two kibbutz. The ghosts of al-Bira continued to haunt Darwish’s work throughout his life. Palestine became for him ‘a metaphor for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and exile’, as Adam Shatz has put it. ‘I am the Adam of two Edens, I lost them twice’, Darwish writes in his poem ‘Eleven Planets at the End of the Andalusian Scene’.
Darwish was also defiantly secular. He was a member of the Israeli Communist Party, though he was later to say sardonically of his experience of the Soviet Union, ‘For a young communist, Moscow is the Vatican, but I discovered it’s not heaven’. In 1973 he joined the Palestine Liberation Organization, an act which led Israel to ban him, forcing him once more into exile (he eventually returned to Ramallah on the West Bank, where he lived for the last decade of his life). The inextricability of Palestinian nationalism and secularism in Darwish’s life and work inevitably drew hostility from both Israeli authorities and conservative Muslims. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye said of Darwish that his is ‘an utterly necessary voice’, the ‘eloquent witness of exile and belonging’.
Here are three of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. The first, ‘In Her Absence I Created Her Image’, among the last of his works, comes from his 2008 collection The Butterfly’s Burden. The second, ‘I Have Behind the Sky, a Sky’ is part of a long sequence, ‘Eleven Planets at the End of the Andalusian Scene’ that Darwish wrote in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Arabs and Jews from Spain. The final poem, ‘My God Why Have You Forsaken Me?’ is from his 1986 collection Fewer Roses.
In Her Absence I Created Her Image
In her absence I created her image: out of the earthly
the hidden heavenly commences. I am here weighing
the expanse with the Jahili odes … and absence
is the guide, it is the guide. For each rhyme a tent
is pitched. And for each thing blowing in the wind
a rhyme. Absence teaches me its lesson: If it weren’t
for the mirage you wouldn’t have been steadfast …
Then in the emptiness, I disassembled a letter from one
of the ancient alphabets, and I leaned on absence. So who am I
after the visitation? A bird, or a passerby amid the symbols
and the memory vendors? As if I were an antique piece,
as if I were a ghost sneaking in from Yabous, telling myself:
Let’s go to the seven hills. Then I placed
my mask on a stone, and walked as the sleepless
walk, led by my dream. And from one moon
to another I leapt. There is enough of unconsciousness
to liberate things from their history. And there
is enough of history to liberate unconsciousness
from its ascension. Take me to our early
years—my first girlfriend says. Leave
the windows open for the house sparrow to enter
your dream—I say … then I awaken, and no city is in
the city. No ‘here’ except ‘there’. And no there
but here. If it weren’t for the mirage
I wouldn’t have walked to the seven hills …
if it weren’t for the mirage!
I Have Behind the Sky a Sky
I have behind the sky a sky for my return, but I
am still polishing the metal of this place, and living
an hour that foresees the unknown. I know time
will not be my ally twice, and I know I will exit
my banner as a bird that does not alight on trees in the garden.
I will exit all of my skin, and my language.
And some talk about love will descend in
Lorca poems that will live in my bedroom
and see what I have seen of the bedouin moon. I will exit
the almond trees as cotton on the brine of the sea. The stranger passed
carrying seven hundred years of horses. The stranger passed
right here, for the stranger to pass over there. I will soon exit
the wrinkles of my time as a stranger to Syria and the Andalus.
This earth is not my sky, yet this sky is my evening
and the keys are mine, the minarets are mine, the lanterns are mine, and I
am also mine. I am the Adam of two Edens, I lost them twice.
So expel me slowly,
and kill me quickly,
beneath my olive tree,
with Lorca . . .
My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
My god, my god, why have you forsaken me? Why did you wed Mary?
Why did you promise the soldiers my only orchard, why? I am the widow.
I am the daughter of this quiet, I am the daughter of your neglected utterance
Why have you forsaken me my god. My god. . . Why did you wed Mary?
You were revealed in me as words. You brought down two people from a spike of grain, and you wed
me to an idea, so I obeyed. I fully obeyed your coming wisdom
Have you divorced me? Or have you gone to heal an other from the guillotine?
Does one like me have the right to marry God and to ask him:
My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?
Why did you wed me, O my god, why? Why did you wed Mary?
The paintings are by Koorosh Shishegaran (Untitled), Tayseer Barkat (Sorry) and Samia Halaby (Water).