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Issa J. Boullata in World Literature in Review — a review of Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?

The question in this book’s title is the one that six-year-old Mahmoud Darwish asked his father when he and his family were fleeing their village in Galilee to take refuge in Lebanon across the border, as the Jewish forces were advancing on Arab lands in Palestine in 1948 to form the state of Israel. His father answered: To keep the house company, my son.

Houses dies when their inhabitants are gone…

The family returned to their beloved home clandestinely a year later, and Darwish grew up in Israel to become the poetic voice of his uprooted people, seeking freedom and Arab identity. Unhappy with restrictions on his public life, he finally left Israel in 1971. After brief stays in other countries, he now lives in Ramallah in the West Bank, having published twenty collections of poetry and several books of essays, and he continues to be one of the leading poets of the Arab world.

Darwish’s poems in this bilingual collection under review are a kind of autobiography of his soul and a map of his memory. They don’t give details of relevant dates and place-names but abound with cultural, historical, and literary allusions as they paint with lyrical imagery the tragedy of modern Palestinians. For example, his poem “From the Byzantine Odes of Abu Firas al-Hamdani” recalls the plaintive odes of al-Hamdani (d. 968 AD) who, as a four-year captive of the Byzantines, sent odes to his cousin, Arab ruler of Aleppo, to redeem himself; but it actually refers to Darwish’s experience of Israeli prisons and his continuous poetic appeal to Arab cousins to redeem Palestine. Other allusions can be drawn from his poem “Bertolt Brecht’s Testimony before a Military Court (1967),” referring to events in his life, and from other poems except perhaps those addressed to his mother, Huriyya, or to the Arabic language he loves. Brief, unobtrusive endnotes would have enhanced the translation’s associations of meaning to unsuspecting English readers.

Jeffrey Sacks’s felicitous translation captures the passion and elegance of the rich Arabic. Yet a careful editor would have corrected “Tiberius” to read “Tiberias” since the Galilean city is meant and not the Roman emperor; and “lightening” to “lightning” since the flash in the sky is meant and the preceding word shadow evokes it…

Nevertheless, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? is a good overall addition to the growing library of modern Arabic poetry in English translation.

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