Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I wish I were a stone

Saqi Books has just published an English translation of a ‘diary’ by the acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died last year. The book - A River Dies of Thirst - is less a traditional diary and more a collection of poetry and jottings written in Ramallah during the summer of 2006, in a period when Israel was attacking Gaza and Lebanon.

Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of al-Birweh in Galilee, Palestine. With the establishment of Israel his family fled to Lebanon in 1948, but returned a year later to the Acre area in north Israel. He was educated at school in Kafr Yasif, and eventually moved to Haifa. He studied at the University of Moscow for a year, then lived in Egypt and Lebanon again. He joined the PLO in 1973 and was banned from re-entering Israel. It was more than 20 years before, in 1995, he was allowed to return and to settle in Ramallah, West Bank.

Darwish wrote over thirty books of poetry and several books of essays, many of which were widely translated. He won several international prizes such as the Lenin Peace Prize, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the Prince Claus Award. He died in Houston, US, in 2008, but his body was returned to Ramallah, where he was given the equivalent of a state funeral. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning.

Wikipedia gives a good biography and a generous list of links to other websites offering more information and lots of his poems. Some biographical information can also be found at The Palestine Chronicle, a US-based website, and at the International Middle East Media Centre.

Darwish’s last book to be published in Arabic came out just before his death, but has only just been published in English as A River Dies of Thirst, with the subtitle A Diary. The publisher, Saqi Books, which is now 25 years old, specialises in books on the Middle East. It says: ‘Mahmoud Darwish is one of the most acclaimed contemporary poets in the Arab world, and is often cited as the poetic voice of the Palestinian people. . . [He] writes of love, loss and the pain of exile in bittersweet poems leavened with hope and joy.’ (It also says, like many other websites, that Darwish was born in 1942 not 1941.)

I can only find one review of the book online - by Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet, for The Guardian. He says it is ‘at times a chaotic combination of journal entries, prose poems, poetic fragments, broken ideas, brilliant meditations and fully worked poems.’

‘Throughout the book’ Joudah says, ‘Darwish delights in prose narratives or poem fragments that came to him between sleep and wakefulness, dream and imagination. These diaries are also writings about writing, and we stroll gently with him on his private walks, where his imagination becomes one of his other selves, ‘a faithful hunting dog’, as young girls throw pistachios at him and call him ‘uncle’. While ‘he sees himself as absent . . . to lighten the burden of the place,’ he observes his surroundings with a revelatory clarity: clouds are a silk shawl caught in the branches of a tree, or like soap bubbles in the kitchen sink that dissolve into forgotten words. A ‘rustling’ is ‘a feeling searching for someone to feel it’. And ‘jasmine is a message of longing from nobody to nobody.’ ’

A little more information about Darwish’s diary can be found, perhaps, on a website called Words Without Borders. It said, in 2006, ‘Mahmoud Darwish has recently begun a diary: a daily record of reflections, observations, and intimate personal commentary on the ordinary life of Palestinians today. The following sections were among fourteen published in the Summer/Winter 2006 edition of Al Karmel, the Palestinian literary journal Darwish edits.’ And it gives several poems from this ‘diary’ translated from the Arabic by John Berger and Tania Tamari Nasir. Here is one of them.

I Wish I Were a Stone

I do not long for anything
No yesterday passes
No tomorrow arrives
My today neither ebbs nor flows.
Neither happens to me.
I said I wish I were a stone
Any stone to be lapped by water
to become green or yellow
to be put on a plinth in a room
as a piece of sculpture
or a demonstration of carving
or a tool for extricating the necessary from what is absolutely not.
I wish I were a stone
then I could long for anything.

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