If I Were Another
by Mahmoud Darwish and Fady Joudah
Reviewed by Erica Goss
Recently, I heard Arabic poetry read out loud for the first time. Though I didn’t understand a word, the emotional and musical qualities of the language moved me in unexpected ways. Fady Joudah’s translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s last collection, If I Were Another, creates an experience for the reader that disturbs the emotions and unsettles the mind. Darwish describes the dilemma of the victims of forced removal in the most poignant and devastating terms. This book disrupts as it instructs, changing and deepening the reader’s understanding of exile’s impact on the human psyche.
Reading Darwish’s poems feels like a cross between engaging in a conversation with a deeply philosophical friend and hearing distant music. The poet evokes exile, longing, and displacement as gracefully as he writes about love and family. These themes wind themselves in and out of his poems seamlessly. In “Take Care of the Stags, Father” (p. 9), the political and the personal underscore the relationship between the grandfather, father and son. This heartbreaking poem revolves around the personal theme of a son’s disappointment with his father, and the larger theme of a citizen’s disillusionment with his country. “Explain your distant beginning for me, Father,” and “Birth is a riddle, Father,” writes Darwish, repeating “Father” throughout the poem until it becomes an accusation:
You have brought me near
the distant star of futility, Father. Why didn’t you for once in your life
call me: Son!
-- “Take Care of the Stags, Father,” p. 10
The estrangement between father and son foreshadows the political betrayal: “Land! Why am I your strange visitor,” and “Land, I’ve never asked you whether the place has already left the place behind.” Exile begins at home, the poet tells us; it ruptures the family, poisoning the relationship between parent and child. Removed from his country, longing still for the approval of his father, Darwish writes, “You have often set your life aside... promised / to live for tomorrow but never lived at all.”
Darwish’s exile began early. Born in a village in the Galilee, he and his family were forced to flee from their home in Palestine to avoid the ongoing massacres by the Israeli army, which destroyed Al Birweh, their village. Returning a year later, the family received the status of “present-absent aliens.” This status marked the poet for the rest of his life. In “Water, Be a String to My Guitar” (p. 64), he writes “The new conquerors have arrived / and the old ones have gone. It’s difficult to remember my face.” Son of a contested land, a place so many have fought bloody battles over, Darwish accepts his identity as the voice of the exiled: “nations... renovate their days / in the rubble of transformation... I will know that I perished here and left my best / behind me: my past.” A homeland for one people means the removal of another, or at the very least, their marginalization. Darwish lost a physical homeland, but found his art within that loss. “Isn’t exile one of the sources of literary creation throughout history?” he asked. “The man who is in harmony with his society, his culture, with himself, cannot be a creator.”
Perhaps the most personal, and most moving, of the poems in this collection is the book-length “Mural” (pp. 99-145), which Darwish wrote about his hospitalization for surgery in 1998. It is a monologue with himself, Death, and the nurse who cares for him. Ironic, poignant and often humorous, “Mural” captures his signature blending of hard reality with dream-like images. “I was alone in whiteness, / alone... / Nothing hurts me at Resurrection’s door.” In this section, he repeats the line, “One day I will become what I want,” -- an idea, a bird, a poet, a vineyard. Helpless in his hospital bed, the poet’s imagination ranges freely over an internal landscape. The plight of the poet, as well as his responsibility, is evident in the lines “I am the stranger, with all of what I was given / of my language.” He bargains with Death, asking for a little more time: “Death! Wait for me outside the earth, / in your country, until I finish / some passing talk with what remains of my life.” Later, as he regains his strength, he tells Death to “go home alone, safe and sound, / I am free here in no here and no there.”
The book’s final section, “Exile,” contains four long poems more intimate and reflective in tone than “Mural.” Darwish asks probing questions: “Can a thing be known by its opposite?” (p. 160) and “Who are those who disturb the others / when they laugh?” (p. 163). He seems resigned to his outsider status in these long works; he continues to speak the truth of the displaced, yet from a position of authority as a popular, often expropriated poet (Darwish’s lyrics are frequently set to music). History, mythology, and politics intertwine, forming a dense amalgamation: “And it seems like poetry: over the hill / a cloud deceives me, knits its identity around me, / and bequeaths me an orbit I never lose” (p. 175).
Mahmoud Darwish died in a Texas hospital in 2008. His books have sold millions of copies around the world. The loyalty of such a large audience elevates these poems into a realm beyond the private pleasure of reading transformative verse: these poems speak for nations of the displaced. Translated into twenty-two languages, countless people have read, and continue to read, his poems. The visceral and imaginative impact of his work moves it out of the personal and into the universal realm. These poems upset; they create disorder through the medium of language, the only homeland Mahmoud Darwish fully inhabited. Erica Goss’ poems, reviews and essays have appeared in many literary journals, most recently Pearl, Ekphrasis, Café Review, Perigee, Dash Literary Journal, Blood Lotus, Caveat Lector and Zoland Poetry. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she received the first Edwin Markham Prize for poetry. A contributing editor for Cerise Press, she writes and teaches in Los Gatos, California.
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.