Mahmound Darwish: If I Were Another?

… For the Palestinian people, and for many throughout the Arab world, Darwish’s role is clear: warrior, leader, conscience.


“I am the Adam of two Edens,” writes Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “I lost them twice.” The line is from Darwish’s Eleven Planets (1992) collected, along with three other books – I See What I Want (1990), Mural (2000), and Exile (2005) – in If I Were Another, recently published by FSG, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah. Darwish’s recent death, in 2008, at the age of 67, due to complications from heart surgery, made front-page news throughout the Arab world. It might be hard for American and European readers to relate to Darwish’s vast popular appeal (each new book is treated more like a Harry Potter than a John Ashbery release), which is to say nothing of his very real political capital. (Imagine one of our poets with actual political capital – it almost seems ridiculous.) Just to give a sense of scale: In 2000, the Israeli Education Minister suggested that Darwish’s poetry appear in the Israeli high school curriculum, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak denied the motion saying Israel was, “Not ready.” Which is only to say it’s important to remember that when Darwish writes, “I am the Adam of two Edens,” he isn’t necessarily trying to be poetic and he isn’t even just speaking for himself, but for a nation of people who have, since the founding of Israel, in 1948, found themselves dispossessed.

Darwish appears, as himself, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique (2004) and, during an interview, asks the fictional Israeli reporter, “Is poetry a sign or is it an instrument of power?” It’s an apt question concerning this poet for whom it is practically impossible to separate the political from the poetic. “Can a people be strong without having its own poetry?” he continues. Though neither he nor the fictional reporter respond to his query, the answer seems clear enough: Poetry is, in fact, a sign of power and, no, a people cannot be strong without its own poetry. Bearing this in mind, for the Palestinian people, and for many throughout the Arab world, Darwish’s role is clear: warrior, leader, conscience.

I’d like to propose, for those of us less familiar with Darwish’s work, that in order to better understand his poetry, we must first accept the not insignificant caveat that our current military conflict – being played out in the dual theater of Iraq and Afghanistan – is not, in fact, a political struggle between Liberal Democracy and Islamic Fundamentalism but, rather, a continuation of the age-old clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. For these are the bold terms, and this is the grand scale in which Darwish-as-poet, Darwish-as-prophet, Darwish-as-journalist, Darwish-as-elegist represents the world. Granted, this may be no small caveat to many of us convinced that the United States is, in fact, a highly enlightened, technologically-advanced, secular society simply wishing to spread democracy and freedom (and all the values, beliefs and practices inherent in it) throughout the world. However, we as readers fail Darwish if we deny him his narrative (whether or not we believe him), for we (ironically) limit the power of his poetics to being merely literary if we simply consider his work through the lens of rhetoric and the mechanics of poetic language.


Eleven Planets (1992), the second book in If I Were Another, is an excellent entry point for those who have never read Darwish. The first poem, “Eleven Planets at the End of the Andalusian Scene”, comprised of eleven one-page prose poems, approximately twenty lines each, constitutes a kind of personal, poetic, spiritual, and political cosmology. In part IV Darwish writes, “And I am one of the kings of the end.” And further down, “…there is no earth / in this earth since time around me broke into shrapnel….” Though the poems in this book are shorter, more succinct than most of the poems in this collection, you don’t get the impression that Darwish wrote them with painstaking precision; many of the poems read as if they were dashed off in a fit of caffeine-fueled morning inspiration. When he closes part VI with the lines, “I hear the keys rattle / in our history’s golden door, farewell to our history. Or am I the one / to shut the sky’s last door? I am the Arab’s last exhalation,” there is a rush of euphoria (like in much of his poetry) that picks you up and carries you away in it’s passionate vision, regardless of how carefully crafted each line may or may not be.

Readers of highly modulated, thoroughly crafted poetry may very well be turned off by Darwish’s often hyperbolic, sweeping, broad stroke style but, again, to judge Darwish simply by, more-or-less, standard poetic aesthetics would, I think, kind of be missing the point. The fact is, to much of the Arab world, Darwish is the Arab’s last exhalation; he is the voice of a people, chronicler of exile (so much so that even to call him the chronicler of exile is a cliché). I believe Darwish when he writes these words, which is undeniably part of his appeal to me, that I can read him and know that his poetics are derived from actual belief, from actual meaning and not the other way around.

The implicit critique here, of course, is that contemporary American poetry, for the most part (if you’ll pardon me this gross generalization), derives its poetics, not from actual beliefs or meaning, but from the abstraction of poetic language itself: poetics qua poetics. It should come as no surprise then that it is practically impossible to imagine an American poet today with any amount of political capital whatsoever (what does this say about out culture?) since, with few exceptions, contemporary American poetry acts as if the political sphere is inherently meaningless and/or corrupt and therefore exists below the higher, more elegant dream-work of poetry; that or contemporary American poetry has become so lost in its own self-referentiality that it can no longer see the political realm from its academic ghetto, let alone intelligently critique it. Or who knows? A possible third scenario might be that contemporary American poetry sees itself, in its self-referential linguistic abstraction, as subverting the dominant paradigm, i.e. global free market capitalism, by speaking its own, private, nearly indecipherable language, a language that cannot in any way ever hope to be commodified. In which case: Congratulations!

“Who am I after the stranger’s night?” Darwish writes, in part VI from Eleven Planets at the End of the Andalusian Scene, “I used to walk to the self along with others, and here I am / losing the self and others.” These seem to be the insistent questions posed throughout much of Darwish’s work: What becomes of the dispossessed? What life does one live when one has been forced from one’s home, forced never to return? In the poem We Will Choose Sophocles, also from Eleven Planets (2004), Darwish suggests an answer: “We used to see / what we felt, we cracked our hazelnut on the berries / the night had in it no night, and we had one moon for speech. / We were the storytellers before the invaders reached our tomorrow…/ How we wish we were trees in songs to become a door to a hut, a ceiling / to a house, a table for the supper of lovers, and a seat for noon.” These are the desperate thoughts of a man, and of a people, on the precipice of defeat, looking back on a glorious past, now gone, faced with a nearly hopeless future, in which reincarnation as a door or a table is the most one could hope for.

Again, if we simply read Darwish’s poetics as poetics using contemporary literary standards (of the entirely de-politicized and, thus, I would argue, disenfranchised American academy), we would be committing two wrongs: 1) We deny Darwish’s poetry the very active reality and very current world view (whether we agree with it or not) that it represents and, by doing so, we deny even the possibility of disagreeing with it, subverting any and all potential for intellectual exchange, all in the name of Literature, and 2) By strictly reading Darwish in the terms and language of contemporary American literary criticism we are, whether we know it or not, reinforcing the dominant political narrative that current American interests in the middle-east are, not only purely political (i.e. essentially altruistic and non-ideological), but entirely secular – a narrative that, ironically, the Left continues to want to hear (because, I imagine, it can’t stand to think of itself as anything other than technologically advanced, progressive, and non-Christian), a narrative that ensures the Left’s continued political irrelevance, making wars, like the two we are now currently fighting (wars that are entirely ideological), even more likely. Which is only a very long-winded way of saying: American poets take notice! We could learn a few things from Darwish, if not stylistically, then as conscious, as witness.


In the second poem in Eleven Planets (1992), The “Red Indians” Penultimate Speech to the White Man, Darwish explicitly uses the American military domination of the Indians as a way of framing today’s conflicts. He begins with an epigraph from Duwamish Chief Seattle: “Did I say, The Dead? / There is no Death here, / there is only a change of worlds,” again touching on the reincarnation motif, the defeated man’s last best hope, a kind of spirituality-as-political necessity. Who do the dominated become once they’ve been dominated? Who are you when you are no longer allowed to be yourself? Quintessential Darwish questions that pack an undeniable political punch.

The “Red Indians” Penultimate Speech to the White Man begins with an undoubtedly provocative disclaimer: “…The white master will not understand the ancient words / here…because Columbus the free has the right to find India in any sea /…But he doesn’t believe / humans are equal like air and water outside the map’s kingdom!” The suggestion is that we (the inherently Christian American west) are still sailing into the New World, still looking for new territory (both literally and figuratively) to conquer and settle. If we are to believe Darwish that – for all our talk of secularism, the Death of God, scientific positivism, etc. – we are and continue to be a, fundamentally, Christian society, what do we risk by persisting in our mission?

“You have your faith and we have ours,” Darwish writes, “So do not bury God in books that promised you a land in our land / as you claim, and do not make your god a chamberlain in the royal court! / Take the roses of our dreams to see what we see of joy! / And sleep in the shadow of our willows to fly like pigeons / as our kind ancestors flew and returned in peace. / You will lack, white ones, the memory of departure from the Mediterranean / you will lack eternity’s solitude in a forest that doesn’t look upon the chasm…you will lack an hour of meditation in anything that might ripen in you / a necessary sky for the soil / you will lack an hour of hesitation between one path / and another, you will lack Euripides one day, the Canaanite and the Babylonian / poems…so take your time / to kill God….” Surely, Darwish suggests, there must be other perspectives, an alternative relationship to the Other, and, surely, there must be risk for a civilization which takes as its raison d’etre the domination of others.

The “Red Indians” Penultimate Speech to the White Man, as for much of Darwish’s poetry, is not so much angry at what he describes as the domineering Christian West as it is a lament for a passing civilization, a lament for a time, a place, a mythology that is in its final throes. Darwish doesn’t show disdain or disregard for the technologically advanced west (after all, he lived in Paris for many years and died in a hospital in Houston, TX) but his critique is an important one. Considered in the context of a traditional male-female relationship, for instance, Christianity’s relationship to Islam is a kind of dance, a two-way relationship for which both parties are deeply and irreversibly altered. No matter how the relationship plays out, each partner inevitably has much to learn from the other, and this is precisely why: A) Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry must be first considered in its appropriate political context and B) Mahmoud Darwish is an indispensable contemporary poet who should be read and taken seriously in the United States. Wouldn’t we be foolish to not listen to the Other’s perspective? Aren’t we curious to know how we are viewed from the outside? Or are we so vain that we believe there’s nothing we can learn about ourselves that we don’t already know?

“Where, master of white ones, do you take my people…and your people?” Darwish asks, “To what abyss does this robot loaded with planes and plane carriers / take the earth, to what spacious abyss do you ascend? / You have what you desire: the new Rome, the Sparta of technology / and the ideology / of madness, / but as for us, we will escape from an age we haven’t yet prepared our anxieties for.” At what price our technological domination, Darwish seems to be asking, At what price our rapid scientific advance?


“Vanity, vanity of vanities…everything / on the face of the earth is a vanishing,” goes the refrain in Darwish’s book-length poem Mural (2000) which he wrote after a near-fatal medical complication in 1999. Mural, a fifty-page prose poem (which he himself described as his one great masterpiece) is a stark, truly secular portrait of the afterlife. “I was alone in the corners of this / eternal whiteness,” he writes, “I came before my time and not / one angel appeared to ask me: / “What did you do, there, in life?” / And I didn’t hear the chants of the virtuous / or the sinner’s moans, I was alone in whiteness, / alone….”

He goes on, like a confused traveler in a strange land: “I found no one to ask: / Where is my “where” now? Where is the city / of the dead, and where am I? There is no void / in non-place, in non-time, / or in non-being….”

Throughout Mural there are breaks, indented sections with little fragments, broken off, giving the text an ethereal, almost ancient feel, as if it might be a long lost pre-Socratic treasure, only been recently discovered. Consider these Heraclitus-worthy fragments: “…time / and natural death, synonyms for life?”; “…everything that exceeds its limit / becomes its own opposite one day. / And life on earth is a shadow / we don’t see”; “The height / of man / is an abyss”; “Everything is vain, win / your life for what it is, a brief impregnated / moment whose fluid drips / grass blood.”; “Because immortality is reproduction in being.”

Just as Darwish’s more overtly political poetry concerns itself with displaced persons and the ever-turning relationship between conqueror and conquered, he suggests, in the beautiful vision of Mural, that we all, finally – regardless of our denomination or nationality (or even whether or not we have a nationality) – find ourselves in the great chasm of nothingness, whose imperial white vastness makes the difference between Christianity and Islam seem miniscule. He writes: “I am who I was and who I will be, / the endless vast space makes me / and destroys me….” And later: “All pronouns / dissolve. He is in ‘I’ and in ‘you.’…”

In Mural, Darwish takes us on a journey through his memories and visions as he contemplates his fate in a short, descriptive, repetitious mode, not unlike the exalted mode found in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Ginsberg’s Howl: “I saw my French doctor / open my cell / and beat me with a stick…”; “I saw my father coming back / from Hajj, unconscious…”; “I saw Moroccan youth / playing soccer / and stoning me…”; “I saw Rene Char / sitting with Heidegger / two meters from me, / they were drinking wine / not looking for poetry…”; “I saw my three friends weeping / while weaving / with gold threads / a coffin for me”; “I saw al-Ma’arri kick his critics out / of his poem: I am not blind / to see what you see, / vision is a light that leads / to void…or madness.”

If Mural feels like a major work by a major world writer that’s because it is. By the time we reach Mural‘s final lines it should come as no surprise that it feels that we are reading a poem that is at once as classic and familiar as Frost’s The Road Not Taken while extending itself into a new realm of poetic, and thus spiritual (and political), possibility: “…and History mocks its victims / and its heroes… / it glances at them then passes… / and this sea is mine, / this humid air is mine, / and my name, / even if I mispell it on the coffin, / is mine. / But I, / now that I have become filled / with all the reasons of departure, / I am not mine / I am not mine / I am not mine….”


There is undeniable pleasure in reading Mahmoud Darwish in that it feels like we are looking back on our present day from several thousand years in the future. But this effect also produces a kind of cultural-historical vertigo in which today’s world (which many in the West like to think of as belonging to an ever newer, better, improved era of history, an era blessed and, no doubt, sanitized by the perfect scientific godlessness of Progress (the non-ideological ideology par excellence)) is really no different than any other point in our deeply intertwined world history. A disconcerting thought, no doubt, to those of us who would like to believe we’ve left our barbarism and inhumanity long behind; a disconcerting thought, too, to those of us for whom it would be easier to believe that the ancient struggles depicted in the Bible were nothing but ancient history, rather than living, breathing reality. But this is precisely what makes Darwish such an important and inherently political writer. He frames the contemporary world – its beliefs, its peoples, its struggles – not in an indulgent way (in which the present is considered more privileged than any other point, more enlightened, etc.) but from a great distance in which our actions – with, for and against each other – can be seen in a continuous, unified world narrative.

Again, this is why I suggested at the outset that, in order to better understand Darwish as a poet, we accept the caveat that we (the United States) are, in fact, a Christian society waging war on Islam. Granted, it’s not a small or easily digestible caveat but without it Darwish comes off as being nothing more than a modern mythologist, which would be to totally deny his very real political potency as voice, not only of the Palestinian people (or of dispossessed Arabs everywhere), but of dispossessed, stateless people around the world, including those innumerable illegal immigrants now living in the United States, a denial which forces a fundamental misreading of one of the world’s major contemporary poets.

Darwish tells the fictional Israeli reporter in Godard’s Notre Musique (2004): “There’s more inspiration and humanity in defeat than there is in victory.” “Are you sure?” she replies.“In defeat, there’s also deep romanticism,” he says, “There could be deeper romanticism in defeat. If I belonged to the victor’s camp I’d demonstrate my support for the victims.”

I don’t mean, here, to over-sentimentalize Darwish’s poetry or his politics, or to fall victim to the romance of the defeated (after all, I’m well aware that in France, during the French occupation of Algeria in the 1960s, there was a spike in popular and academic interest in North African poets, if for no other reason than as a funnel through which to criticize the unpopular politics of the French government, a move that was seen by some as a purely tactical and therefore cynical gesture) but I do mean to demonstrate my support for the dispossessed (aren’t we all dispossessed, one way or another, either as citizens, individuals, consumers?) whose plight Darwish so powerfully sings.

I can’t help but feel that Darwish was addressing me, or perhaps someone like me (re: affluent, educated, American) when, in the poem Tuesday and the Weather is Clear from Exile (2005), the narrator takes an afternoon stroll with himself, his mind turning this way and that, voices passing through him, by him, around him: “If the canary doesn’t sing / to you, my friend…know that / you are the warden in your prison, / if the canary doesn’t sing to you.” And I can’t help but feel that Darwish is that canary. If we, as victors, choose not to listen to that canary, that voice of the Other, in what peril will we find ourselves? To what prison, to what fate will we unknowingly condemn ourselves?

Darwish reminds us, regardless of who conquers whom (and it does seem as if someone is always conquering someone else), the poet’s voice is forever indispensable. “…no matter how often the narrator’s religion changes,” he writes, there must be a poet / who searches in the crowd for a bird that scratches the face of marble / and opens, above the slopes, the passages of gods who have passed through here / and spread the sky’s land over the earth. There must be a memory / so we can forget and forgive, whenever the final peace between us… there must be a memory / so we can choose Sophocles, at the end of the matter, and he would break the cycle.

Which is to say: let’s look back on our shared humanity rather than into our own distorted reflections in the digital screens now so prevalent in our everyday life – smart phones and laptops and iPads – which we use like pocket mirrors, vainly and dimly gazing at ourselves. Darwish’s warning is clear: When we willfully turn our backs on our shared world history we subject ourselves to the unblinking, uncaring eye of the screen and to the technological whims of chance. The poet of exile, the Adam of two Edens reminds us that we too are in exodus. We too are at risk of losing our Eden. Can we not also learn from the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish – personally, politically, spiritually – when he writes:

If the canary doesn’t sing,
my friend,
blame only yourself.
If the canary doesn’t sing
to you, my friend,
then sing to it… sing to it. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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