The Palestinian poet known the world over is Mahmoud Darwish. Among the major poetic voices of our times, it is in his work that the sorrows and affliction of a tempest-torn land have found their expression but then, as a poet and artist, his work is more than any litany of the many and myriad afflictions suffered by the poet and his people. Darwish commanded a phenomenal following and, today, many years after his death, his name is cited with great respect. In Pakistan, many of his poems have been translated and he continues to be the best-known poet from his part of the world. Reading some of his work again, I am reminded of the many lessons that readers of today can best acquire from him.
Palestine as Metaphor is the title of the recently published collection of five detailed conversations with the poet, edited and translated by Amira El-Zein and Carolyn Forche. This is the first English-language appearance of these interviews that had been published in Paris in 1996, translated from Arabic and Hebrew. Beautifully crafted, these interviews will astonish and delight those who admire Darwish’s style. Even the titles of some of the interviews sound like his poems: ‘The One Who Imposes His Story Inherits the Earth of the Story’ and ‘The House is More Beautiful than the Road to it’.
Forche, a well-known American poet, is one of the two translators and she places these interviews in the larger context of the poet’s works: “in these five conversations, Darwish speaks philosophically and intimately, with passion and candour, to questions concerning his life and art, his poetry, prosody and the vicissitudes of history and fate. When he tells his own story, he inescapably tells the story of Palestine: destiny has ordained that his personal history would be read as collective, and his people recognise themselves in his voice.” The conversations range from the pensive to the poetic, and some portions read like poetry. Not always the definitive response or a judgement of the poet on a particular matter, the answers nevertheless cover wide periods of his own life story, such as when he talks of his father, his artistic credo and the issues he encountered in his literary expression, such as the link between his vocabulary and Arab classicist poetry.
Describing Darwish’s strength, Forche touches upon a point that must have rubbed him wrong in his own lifetime too. The Palestinian identity seems to have become a cross for him to bear — a cross he wore all his life with grace and dignity. To be recognised as the collective voice of an entire people can sometimes dilute the overall poetic affect; for a poet who was a voracious reader and craved solitude, such a reputation was a blessing as well as a burden. According to Forche, “to write in a state of continual emergency without respite, his art subjected to the impress of exile and to his own demand to remain true to himself, despite all pressures bearing upon him, aesthetic and political.”
Darwish dwells on how the Israeli perspective is about exclusivity. Israelis claim they are the only victims, the only ones to have known genocide. They want a Jewish state, for Jews only, in Eretz Yisrael? — the biblical ‘Land of Israel’. For Darwish, to be Palestinian is to be open to others. He reminds us that the land of Palestine is an ancient crossroads of the civilisations that have inhabited it.
Against all odds, Darwish has carried this burden well, as borne out by his creativity, which makes his expression renew itself rather than cover the same ground in a predictable manner. One can see how Darwish has fiercely maintained his independence while donning a public face to speak on collective matters with the authority of a poet. He traverses this path with great poise, like a tightrope walker balancing a load on his head. This is one of the vital lessons to be learned from his poetic practice and Darwish continues to be relevant as a greater public role is demanded from poetry and, at the same time, there is growing indifference towards its finer qualities.
The interview with the Israeli poet Helit Yeshurun makes for remarkable reading. Darwish responds to all questions and comments with discernible ease and patience. Free of any traces of hostility or vehemence, the conversation is well-paced in its flow and the coverage of diverse issues. The importance of this interview is highlighted in the introduction by one of the two translators: “Darwish dwells on how the Israeli perspective is about exclusivity. Israelis claim they are the only victims, the only ones to have known genocide. They want a Jewish state, for Jews only, in Eretz Yisrael? — the biblical ‘Land of Israel’. For Darwish, to be Palestinian is to be open to others. He reminds us that the land of Palestine is an ancient crossroads of the civilisations that have inhabited it. He avows, ‘This land is mine, with its multiple cultures: Canaanite, Hebraic, Greek, Roman, Persian, Egyptian and Arab.’ The Palestinian perspective is the opposite of exclusivity. It’s about being more than one thing, and reflects a readiness to accept the other.”
This conversation has so much to offer the world and lessons for a world bogged down by binaries, with hatred fortifying divisions. In our times, I wonder if such a conversation is possible now between a Pakistani poet and an Indian journalist, or a Pakistani journalist speaking to a poet from across the border. Our time and day breeds suspicion to such a degree that even the verses of a reputed ‘modern classic’ as Faiz Ahmed Faiz arouse suspicions of hatred, requiring a committee to probe a question which should have been obvious from the start. Poetry is easily subject to suspicions of treason, but hardly amenable to committees.
The columnist is a fiction writer and critic. He teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 12th, 2020