Long before his death in 2008, Mahmoud Darwish was recognised as one of the great, if not the greatest, Arab poets of the 20th century. Although always intertwined with Palestine and faithful to the struggle of its people, his poetry, in the last few decades of his life, had transcended his Palestinian and Arab milieu to reach a global audience that savoured his genius in many languages and in poems that speak to universals rather than particulars.
But Darwish contained multitudes and was more than just a master poet. He was also a great prose writer. He started out as a journalist in Haifa in the 1960s and continued to write in exile in Cairo and Beirut, where he edited the prestigious cultural journal, Al Karmil, as he continued to do until his death. In addition to a collection of his late essays, Hayrat al A'id (The Perplexity of the Returnee, 2007), Darwish published three major works of prose which form a trilogy of sorts. The first of these, Yawmiyyat al Huzn al Adi (Journal of an Ordinary Grief), was published in Arabic in 1973 and reprinted in 1994 by Riyad el Rayyes Books. It now appears in English thanks to Ibrahim Muhawi, who had translated Darwish's second prose work, Memory of Forgetfulness, a stunningly beautiful account of one day during the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. The last book in the trilogy, In the Presence of Absence, was written when Darwish knew that his death was imminent and thus is a self-eulogy. Darwish thought that In the Presence of Absence would be his last book, but he lived to publish one more collection during his life.
Darwish's perennial concern throughout his career was not to sacrifice the aesthetic and subjugate it to the political. Yet there was never a doubt in his mind that the two were inseparable, and that living up to one's aesthetic demands could only empower the political implications and effects of one's writing. Early on in this work he writes that the purpose of writing his journal is "so that this ordinary grief may stop being acceptable".
The grief here is that of surviving daily life in a nation-state whose founding myth is premised on the erasure and denial of one's own existence and collective history. The heart of Darwish's grief, like that of any Palestinian, is the Nakba of 1948: the catastrophic destruction of Palestinian lives and society and the dispossession and depopulation of more than 400 villages. One of these was Al Birweh in the Galilee, Darwish's place of birth, where he spent the first six years of his childhood. Darwish sketches his memory of that fateful night of departure when "the moon was our companion on a road that I later understood was the road of exile".
Darwish's family fled to Lebanon to live as refugees, returning later to find their village razed and a kibbutz established there. The new state branded them present-absentees, a category that encapsulates the discursive violence of the colonial-settler state and extends the Nakba's legacy of erasure and denial of being. Darwish wonders "which was more painful, to be a refugee in someone else's country or a refugee in your own?"
Like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, his family was denied the right of return to their land and his only recourse becomes memory and words. Words establish an equally powerful and indestructible bond with lost space and history: "Rocks possess the power of living language" and "trees are not just trees; they are the ribs of childhood." He makes his first public stance during his first year of elementary school by reciting a poem brimming with a precocious child's grievances and sense of injustice. He is also made aware early on of the price he might have to pay for his courageous words. A military officer threatens to revoke his father's work permit.
Some of what would later become Darwish's favourite themes are already present here. The variations and ruminations about the notion of return or the impossibility thereof are beautifully foreshadowed in an account of an attempt to return to Al Birweh. There is a poignant section about a love affair with an Israeli soldier, probably the inspiration for his famous poem, Rita. One finds the imagined nocturnal trip to Jerusalem where "homeland is this alienation that preys upon you". The dialogue between the self and its others and between conqueror and conquered is rehearsed. The statements of perpetrator and victim are identical, but their moral and historical truths are different.
Darwish's individual trajectory inside Israel is bound to that of the Palestinian collective. The search for equality and justice as a citizen in the new state approaches absurdity as he is repeatedly imprisoned, or placed under house arrest. "How innocent we were to think the law is a vessel for rights and justice... I have been in this country even before the state that negates my existence came into being." Darwish's biting sarcasm is always present. As his various petitions to secure permits to visit this or that place outside Haifa are denied, he asks "for a permit to live in the wind". On the day a human lands on the moon, Darwish finds himself writing an emotional letter to the Israeli police asking for a permit to visit his family.
The violence and discrimination enshrined in the law is made viscerally clear when Darwish recalls the massacre of Kufr Qasim. Forty-nine Arabs returning to their village from work were shot dead for supposedly violating a curfew. The Israeli ministry of defence allotted 100,000 Israeli pounds for the lives of those murdered. There were light sentences, which were later reduced through pardons. One of the perpetrators is released on parole and offered a civilian job in charge of Arab affairs in Ramle. Colonel Shadami, who gave the orders, was found to have committed a technical error and was fined one Israeli piaster.
Three decades before the War on Terror became a global dogma, Darwish's incisive critique still holds true. "Such is the world, always: most admiring of collective killing and most critical of individual killing. The state has a right to kill its own people and those belonging to other nations, but the individual does not have a right to fight for the sake of freedom."
Journal of Ordinary Grief is not an ordinary autobiographical work. It revisits seminal moments in the trajectory of Palestinian consciousness: shock, trauma, the struggle to gain equality and national rights, armed resistance, and Arab betrayals. Darwish brilliantly crystallises the hollowness of official Arab discourse about Palestine and the complicity of Arab regimes with the practices of Israel: "The condition of undeclared peace in Arab practice, and the condition of declared war in the Arabic sentence."
The ordinary grief Darwish wrote about more than three decades ago is still visceral in the lives of Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The dynamics have not changed. The state still treats the indigenous inhabitants as a threat to its existence and enacts laws that deprive them of their rights. The expropriation of land continues and the violence, discursive and material, has not ceased. But resistance, too, has never ceased, and Darwish's words have always been and will always be its driving power. "They put Palestine in the pockets of military uniforms, yet Palestine remains your homeland, be it a map, a massacre, a land, or an idea. It is your homeland indeed."
Darwish is not here, but his words still speak for him and for Palestine as if he were. His prose has the power of his poetry and the vision that made him one of the greatest voices to ever emerge from the Arab world in the last century. I first read this book in Arabic as a young man in Baghdad in the early 1980s. Now, many wars later, it strikes me as ever relevant and timely (the section entitled "Silence for the Sake of Gaza" reads as if it were written yesterday).
Darwish told a few of his friends in his last years that he was planning to write a major work of prose. Alas, he departed before doing so. We will never read it, but reading his other prose works, one could imagine and one realises yet again that he left too early and had many masterpieces left in him. This pristine translation allows one of Darwish's prose masterpieces to retain its unique qualities and to flow in beautiful English.
Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi poet and novelist. His translation of Darwish's In the Presence of Absence is forthcoming in 2011.