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Review by Andre Naffis-Sahely The Times Literary Supplement

“Who does Jerusalem belong to, you or them?” Derek Walcott asks at the end of “In Cordoba.” Mahmoud Darwish does not answer; “It’s a hurtful question,” he says. When pressed on what he thought of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, Darwish replied: “We write about the same place . . . so we compete: who loves it more? Who writes it better?” A River Dies of Thirst: journals, a late offering, alternates between the existential monologues of its prose poems and the lyric heights of its verse. In Catherine Cobham’s translation, we see French cafés, Lutheran churches, and Spanish gardens — but the senses retain their Arab sparseness: “The smell of bread mixes with the smell of coffee in the mornings, awakening in me the desire for a fresh life.” This (as Mourid Barghouti recalled in his obituary of Darwish, who died in 2008) from a poet whose most famous line is “I miss my mother’s bread.” With his “uncitizen” papers firmly in his pocket, Darwish’s cosmopolitan observations are enticing — in “Two Travellers to a River,” for example, he imparts his delight at seeing a French boy and a Japanese girl in the grip of first love in an airport’s departure lounge. The gems in this book are undoubtedly in the prose; Cobham’s handling of the syntax in the lyrics leaves something to be desired, and some of her lines are awkward. Her far more masterful handling of the prose reminds the reader of her success in translating Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels.

What is most appealing about these diaries is that for all the dream-like sequences and surrealist imagery, Darwish did not invent — he experienced. Twice divorced, childless and uncomfortable with the rising cronyism in Palestinian politics, he led a peripatetic existence that took him from central Italy to Paris, Stockholm, Morocco, Beirut and Egypt. Renowned for his shyness, he guarded his privacy jealously — and with humour. As with Cavafy, Robinson Jeffers,  and Robert Lowell, Darwish’s fascination with the dark undersides of both nature and history allowed him to glimpse the future over the terrible history of the past century, one shoulder slightly dropped so as to sneak a glance at Eden, Palestine, the homeland. History often got in the way of that. “What comes after history?” Darwish asks in “Right of Return to Paradise:” “The only smooth road is the road to the abyss, until further notice . . . until the issuing of a divine pardon.” Two further volumes complete the publication of Darwish’s later works: Mural offers John Berger and Rema Hammami’s co-translation of the poem which Darwish considered his magnum opus; the second, If I Were Another, translated by Fady Joudah, is a collection of epics spanning the poet’s final two decades. The former volume, illustrated by Berger, juxtaposes “Mural” — a Lorca-esque dramatic sequence on the subjects of art and mortality — with “The Dice Player,” its shorter, more light-hearted sibling. It is with slight regret that, opening the book to Berger’s foreword, one finds him immediately fixating rather opaquely on the political, leading one to suspect that the translators were more concerned with Darwish as a symbol than as a craftsman. Their lines suffer from a clipped, didactic tone and fail to sustain the flow of philosophical questioning and lyric sensuousness in the original. Unlike Joudah, Berger in his introduction provides no exegesis of the poems, no clear sign of appreciation beyond a perfunctory kind of respect he feels for the voice “raised in protest.” Yet as Joudah reminds us, Darwish was quite clear on the issue: “The Palestinian is not a profession or a slogan.”

If I Were Another, which includes Joudah’s own version of “Mural”, is a supremely commendable effort. (His previous volume of translations, The Butterfly’s Burden, was awarded the Banipal Prize in 2008.) Joudah is adept in his handling of both the syntax and Darwish’s satirical humour: “In each wind a woman toys with her poet: / Take the direction you gave me, / the one that broke, / and bring back my femininity: / nothing remains for me outside pondering / the lake’s wrinkles.” (Berger and Hammami give “In every breeze a woman mocks her poet.”) Joudah’s willingness to forsake a crippling adherence to transliteration frees him to focus on the language and tone of the original. This “Late Selected” skilfully unsheathes the sheer playfulness of Darwish’s reflections, the interplay between “we” and “I”: “we may get rescued / from our story together: you are so much yourself . . . and I am / so much other than myself.”

Despite the disparities in translation, it is good to see Mahmoud Darwish’s works become widely available in both Britain and the United States. There is no finer Arab poet for English readers to start with. By harnessing the mass appeal of poetry in the Arab world in his continual efforts to “humanize the enemy,” Darwish was invaluable in establishing a Palestinian literature in the second half of the twentieth century, one in which his troubled land was seen in the perspective of the wider human condition.

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