memorializing mahmoud darwish

It always amazes me when I am able to get inside Palestine one more time. I always feel like I have to treat it as if it were my last time. It seemed eerily easier this time aside from the incessant questions, particularly about whether or not I’m carrying any weapons. But the odd thing was they said that when they scanned my suitcases that there was a problem (apparently books and clothes are scanned as problems in their high-tech x-ray equipment). I had thought that I could leave and then they made me wait so they could check my luggage. But when the luggage was not placed aside with the other bags to check I was just asked more questions about “what I’m going to be doing in Israel” (like nails on a chalkboard) and whether or not I was carrying weapons. And then they let me go without checking inside. Very strange.

The border was packed today and my bus was completely full crossing over the bridge. I took the above picture from the bus, which is a bit hard to see, but it shows how the first thing you see is a set of Israeli flags once you cross over. I cannot express in words how violent in feels to see these flags on this land that is not theirs. It felt odd to be crossing today of all days, the day after the death of Mahmoud Darwish. He died in the U.S., and I arrived in his country.

As soon as I got to Ramallah I received a text message that there would be a candlelight vigil for Darwish this evening. I called a friend to see if he wanted to come, but he was so angry that he died in the U.S. and not here in Palestine that he was hesitant to join me. In the end he came to the vigil as did hundreds of people. His body has not returned yet, but people are so moved by his death that it was necessary for people to come together to mourn this great loss of an important resistance poet. Apparently he will be returning to Ramallah to be buried tomorrow, and not to his home village of Al Birwa in 1948 Palestine, much to his mother’s dismay. This reminds me of the way Palestinian resistance fighters were returned to Lebanon without the consent of their families who seem to universally have preferred that their sons and daughters would remain buried in their land.

The candlelight vigil began in Ramallah at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center. There were people of all ages there and I suspect that if I had asked any of the children there–or anyone for that matter–if they knew any of Darwish’s poems, they would have recited one from memory. They handed out candles to the people and we sat around in silence and a few people read poems in Arabic and English. But then one man recited the poem “الجدارية” from memory and with so much passion that it moved people to tears. Here is an excerpt from that poem:

This is your name —
a woman said,
and vanished through the winding corridor
There I see heaven within reach.
The wing of a white dove carries me
towards another childhood. And I never dreamt
that I was dreaming. Everything is real.
I knew I was casting myself aside . . .
and flew. I shall become what I will
in the final sphere. And everything
is white . The sea suspended
upon a roof of white clouds. Nothingness is white
in the white heaven of the absolute.
I was and was not. In this eternity’s white regions,
I’m alone. I came before I was due;
no angel appeared to tell me:
“What did you do back there, in the world?”
I didn’t hear the pious call out,
nor the sinners moan for I’m alone
in the whiteness. I’m alone.
Nothing hurts at the door of doom.
Neither time nor emotion. I don’t feel
the lightness of things, or the weight
of apprehensions. I couldn’t find
anyone to ask: Where is my where now?
Where is the city of the dead,
and where am I? Here
in this no-here, in this no-time,
there’s no being, nor nothingness.
As if I had died once before,
I know this epiphany, and know
I’m on my way towards what I don’t know.
Perhaps I’m still alive somewhere else,
and know what I want.
One day I shall become what I want.
One day I shall become a thought,
taken to the wasteland
neither by the sword or the book
as if it were rain falling on a mountain
split by a burgeoning blade of grass,
where neither might will triumph,
nor justice the fugitive.
One day I shall become what I want.
One day I shall become a bird,
and wrest my being from my non-being.
The longer my wings will burn,
the closer I am to the truth, risen from the ashes.
I am the dialogue of dreamers; I’ve shunned my body and self
to finish my first journey towards meaning,
which burnt me, and disappeared.
I’m absence. I’m the heavenly renegade.
One day I shall become what I want.
One day I shall become a poet,
water obedient to my insight. My language a metaphor
for metaphor, so I will neither declaim nor point to a place;
place is my sin and subterfuge.
I’m from there. My here leaps
from my footsteps to my imagination . . .
I am he who I was or will be,
made and struck down
by the endless, expansive space.
One day I shall become what I want.
One day I shall become a vine;
let summer distil me even now,
and let the passers-by drink my wine,
illuminated by the chandeliers of this sugary place!
I am the message and the messenger,
I am the little addresses and the mail.
One day I shall become what I want.
This is your name —
a woman said,
and vanished in the corridor of her whiteness.
This is your name; memorise it well!
Do not argue about any of its letters,
ignore the tribal flags,
befriend your horizontal name,
experience it with the living
and the dead, and strive
to have it correctly spelt
in the company of strangers and carve it
into a rock inside a cave:
O my name, you will grow
as I grow, you will carry me
as I will carry you;
a stranger is brother to a stranger;
we shall take the female with a vowel
devoted to flutes.
O my name: where are we now?
Tell me: What is now? What is tomorrow?
What’s time, what’s place, what’s old, what’s new?
One day we shall become what we want.

Translated by Sargon Boulus from the author’s collection ‘Judariya'[‘Mural’],Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut, 2000. Reprinted from Banipal No 15/16

After people recited the poems we walked in silence to the Ramallah Municipality, which is a few blocks away. As we walked it was odd to move from that solemn space of solitude and poetry into the city streets where we heard music from cafes and the athan. As we approached the building we were greeted with oud music which was a video projected on the side of the building. After the music we heard Darwish read some poems in what would be his last poetry reading.

In the last two years I had the opportunity to attend two of Darwish’s poetry readings, one in Amman and one in Beirut. After one of them he asked me what my favorite book of his was. I responded that is Memory for Forgetfulness. He said, “you don’t like my poetry?” And indeed I do, but this particular memoir is so powerful, and yes, so poetic. It reads like poetry. Here is one of my favorite passages–I love what he says about mortality and the way the aroma coffee symbolizes being alive. Here is an excerpt from the memoir:

Three o’clock. Daybreak riding on fire. A nightmare coming from the sea. Roosters made of metal. Smoke. Metal preparing a feast for metal the master, and a dawn that flares up in all the senses before it breaks. A roaring that chases me out of bed and throws me into this narrow hallway. I want nothing, and I hope for nothing. I can’t direct my limbs in this pandemonium. No time for caution, and no time for time. If I only knew—if I knew how to organize the crush of this death that keeps pouring forth. If only I knew how to liberate the screams held back in a body that no longer feels like mine from the sheer effort spent to save itself in this uninterrupted chaos of shells. “Enough!” “Enough!” I whisper, to find out if I can still do anything that will guide me to myself and point to the abyss opening in six directions. I can’t surrender to this fate, and I can’t resist it. Steel that howls, only to have other steel bark back. The fever of metal is the song of this dawn.

What if this inferno were to take a five-minute break, and then come what may? Just five minutes! I almost say, “Five minutes only, during which I could make my one and only preparation and then ready myself for life or death.” Will five minutes be enough? Yes. Enough for me to sneak out of this narrow hallway, open to bedroom, study, and bathroom with no water, open to the kitchen, into which for the last hour I’ve been ready to spring but unable to move. I’m not able to move at all.

Two hours ago I went to sleep. I plugged my ears with cotton and went to sleep after hearing the last newscast. It didn’t report I was dead. That means I’m still alive. I examine the parts of my body and find them all there. Two eyes, two ears, a long nose, ten toes below, ten fingers above, a finger in the middle. As for the heart, it can’t be seen, and I find nothing that points to it except my extraordinary ability to count my limbs and take note of a pistol lying on a bookshelf in the study. An elegant handgun—clean, sparkling, small, and empty. Along with it they also presented me with a box of bullets, which I hid I don’t know where two years ago, fearing folly, fearing a stray outburst of anger, fearing a stray bullet. The conclusion is, I’m alive; or, more accurately, I exist.

No one pays heed to the wish I send up with the rising smoke: I need five minutes to place this dawn, or my share of it, on its feet and prepare to launch into this day born of howling. Are we in August? Yes. We are in August. The war has turned into a siege.[1] I search for news of the hour on the radio, now become a third hand, but find nobody there and no news. The radio, it seems, is asleep.

I no longer wonder when the steely howling of the sea will stop. I live on the eighth floor of a building that might tempt any sniper, to say nothing of a fleet now transforming the sea into one of the fountainheads of hell. The north face of the building, made of glass, used to give tenants a pleasing view over the wrinkled roof of the sea. But now it offers no shield against stark slaughter. Why did I choose to live here? What a stupid question! I’ve lived here for the past ten years without complaining about the scandal of glass.

But how to reach the kitchen?

I want the aroma of coffee. I want nothing more than the aroma of coffee. And I want nothing more from the passing days than the aroma of coffee. The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being. The aroma of coffee so I can stand my share of this dawn up on its feet. So that we can go together, this day and I, down into the street in search of another place.

How can I diffuse the aroma of coffee into my cells, while shells from the sea rain down on the sea-facing kitchen, spreading the stink of gunpowder and the taste of nothingness? I measure the period between two shells. One second. One second: shorter than the time between breathing in and breathing out, between two heartbeats. One second is not long enough for me to stand before the stove by the glass facade that overlooks the sea. One second is not long enough to open the water bottle or pour the water into the coffee pot. One second is not long enough to light a match. But one second is long enough for me to burn.

I switch off the radio, no longer wondering if the wall of this narrow hallway will actually protect me from the rain of rockets. What matters is that a wall be there to veil air fusing into metal, seeking human flesh, making a direct hit, choking it, or scattering shrapnel. In such cases a mere dark curtain is enough to provide an imaginary shield of safety. For death is to see death.

I want the aroma of coffee. I need five minutes. I want a five-minute truce for the sake of coffee. I have no personal wish other than to make a cup of coffee. With this madness I define my task and my aim. All my senses are on their mark, ready at the call to propel my thirst in the direction of the one and only goal: coffee.

Coffee, for an addict like me, is the key to the day.

And coffee, for one who knows it as I do, means making it with your own hands and not having it come to you on a tray, because the bringer of the tray is also the bearer of talk, and the first coffee, the virgin of the silent morning, is spoiled by the first words. Dawn, my dawn, is antithetical to chatter. The aroma of coffee can absorb sounds and will go rancid, even if these sounds are nothing more than a gentle “Good morning!”

Coffee is the morning silence, early and unhurried, the only silence in which you can be at peace with self and things, creative, standing alone with some water that you reach for in lazy solitude and pour into a small copper pot with a mysterious shine—yellow turning to brown—that you place over a low fire. Oh, that it were a wood fire!

Stand back from the fire a little and observe a street that has been rising to search for its bread ever since the ape disentangled himself from the trees and walked on two feet. A street borne along on carts loaded with fruits and vegetables, and vendors’ cries notable for faint praise that turns produce into a mere attribute of price. Stand back a little and breathe air sent by the cool night. Then return to your low fire—If only it were a wood fire!—and watch with love and patience the contact between the two elements, fire colored green and blue and water roiling and breathing out tiny white granules that turn into a fine film and grow. Slowly they expand, then quickly swell into bubbles that grow bigger and bigger, and break. Swelling and breaking, they’re thirsty and ready to swallow two spoonfuls of coarse sugar, which no sooner penetrates than the bubbles calm down to a quiet hiss, only to sizzle again in a cry for a substance that is none other than the coffee itself—a flashy rooster of aroma and Eastern masculinity.

Remove the pot from the low fire to carry on the dialogue of a hand, free of the smell of tobacco and ink, with its first creation, which as of this moment will determine the flavor of your day and the arc of your fortune: whether you’re to work or avoid contact with anyone for the day. What emerges from this first motion and its rhythm, from what shakes it out of a world of sleep rising from the previous day, and from whatever mystery it will uncover in you, will form the identity of your new day.

Because coffee, the first cup of coffee, is the mirror of the hand. And the hand that makes the coffee reveals the person that stirs it. Therefore, coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul. And it is the enchantress that reveals whatever secrets the day will bring.

Finally here is a video tribute to Darwish that was on Al Jazeera English today:

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2 thoughts on “memorializing mahmoud darwish

  1. Hi marcey,
    I read with great interest your article. Mahmoud Darwish is indeed a great poet. But from other points of views he suffers from severe ‘amnesia’ as to the initial causes of the Israel-Arab conflict. His ‘amnesia’ fuelled his activist poetry but I believe in their sincerity. In 2007 he spokes of making peace with Israel. And again I believe in his sincerity. I invite you to look at my article “Mahmoud Darwish Palestinian Poet is gone” wich I published yesterday on my blog.( here:http://kafee.wordpress.com/2008/08/12/mahmoud-darwish-palestinian-poet-is-gone/)… or qlick on my name.

    Cheers
    Shlomo

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