“How many times will it be over, father?” a Palestinian boy asks in Mahmoud Darwish’s recent collection of poems, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? The boy poses the question after learning about the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, but one wonders whether Darwish was asking himself the same question when he finished the book in the early 1990s, a period that was an especially turbulent one in the life of the writer long considered to be the Palestinian national poet. In 1993 Darwish resigned from the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization to protest the signing of the Oslo accords, which he rejected because they had failed to secure from Israel a clear commitment to withdraw from the occupied territories. It was those very accords, however, that established an autonomous Palestinian Authority, thereby enabling Darwish to settle in the West Bank town of Ramallah in 1996 after spending twenty-six years in exile. But even though Darwish was back in Palestine, his life was still an odyssey. He could not move to, or visit, his native village of Birweh, in Galilee, because it was among the more than 400 Palestinian towns occupied and razed by Israeli forces during the war and incorporated into the new Jewish state.
Darwish’s return to Palestine also brought with it new forms of confinement. While he was living in Haifa as an “internal refugee,” or a Palestinian citizen of Israel, in the late 1960s, Israeli military authorities routinely arrested him each time he published a collection of poems; between spells of imprisonment they placed him under house arrest. In the 1990s, however, Darwish’s jailers were not the Israeli military authorities but rather readers who reduced his poetry to a running commentary on the Palestinian national cause. “In my recent works, I have consciously and rigorously checked myself to prevent the reader from continuing to read me according to his habits,” Darwish explained in 1993 in an interview with Syrian literary critic Subhi Hadidi. By that time, Darwish had ceased writing overtly political poems modeled on the work of Pablo Neruda and Louis Aragon; his work had become introspective and mythical, and was stirred by a metaphysical hunger. Nevertheless, he told Hadidi, “it’s a losing effort since I have found myself yet again the prisoner of a political reading.” Similarly, in an interview in 1996 with a trio of Palestinian writers in Ramallah, Darwish stressed that he had tried repeatedly to demolish the myth of his poetry’s political relevance “because to inhabit the myth is like living in a prison, denied of any sudden flowering, of any intellectual enrichment.” Although the prison Darwish describes is metaphorical, the constriction of liberties he experiences when he senses the cell doors clanking shut is jarring and real.
To hear Darwish push back against the pressure of political relevance is no less jarring an experience because his remarks appear to contradict the oft-invoked idea of him as a “poet of resistance.” This phrase has shadowed him like a Homeric epithet, especially when his work is discussed in the United States, a country where poets have rarely experienced the kind of acclaim he has enjoyed for four decades. Thousands of people have been known to attend Darwish readings in the Middle East, and although the poet is always grateful for such enthusiasm he remains exasperated by what sometimes feeds it, “this obsession to always want to serve the cause by the way of poetry,” which, as he told Hadidi, “is useless. It serves neither poetry nor the Palestinian cause.”
No less intriguing than this position is Darwish’s manner of defending it, which echoes the youthful militant poems that first earned him the reputation of being a poet of resistance. The early poems ring with calls for defiance of Israeli efforts to uproot Palestinians from their land; Darwish’s opposition to the pressure of political relevance, which is a defense against being dispossessed of private imaginative terrain, strikes the same heroic note. Even when confronting his readers, Darwish cannot help but behave as a poet of resistance, a writer who defines himself, and finds himself somewhat confined, by rhetorical acts of defiance.
This predicament isn’t Darwish’s alone. In 1967, on the first day of the Six-Day War, the poet Samih al-Qasim, an Israeli Arab and a member of the Israeli Communist Party, was arrested by Israeli forces and sent to Haifa’s Al Damoun prison. The experience shook al-Qasim to the core. “In prison I discovered–when the Israelis were declaring, ‘Sharm el-Sheikh is in our hands, Jerusalem is in our hands’–that I had to make one of two choices,” al-Qasim told British journalist Roger Hardy in 1982: “either to find a cave in the mountains, isolated from mankind, or to find a higher stage in the struggle. I lost my belief in nationalistic big words.” Al-Qasim had to extricate himself from nationalism’s fastened-down ideological positions while also trying to remain samid, or steadfast, a phrase coined by Palestinians to describe someone who remains attached to his or her land and culture despite imposing obstacles. The thirty-two poems collected in Sadder Than Water, the first collection of al-Qasim’s poems to be published in an English-language translation, suggest that the task has been arduous. Although al-Qasim has managed to escape from the prison of nationalism–“beware the rights of rhetoric dancing on blood,” he warns in the volume’s title poem–remaining samid has landed him in an open-air cell of sadness, melancholy and absurdity, one from which there appears to be no way out. As the escape artist of “The Tragedy of Houdini the Miraculous” explains, “And here’s the knottiest problem of all:/Entry or exit?”
Samih al-Qasim was born in 1939 in Zarqa, a city in the British Mandate of Palestine, where his father was stationed as an officer in the British-sponsored Arab Legion. Members of the Druse sect, the al-Qasim clan had lived for centuries in Rama, a village in northern Palestine to which the infant Samih and his family returned at the outbreak of World War II. Rama was occupied by Israeli soldiers during the Arab-Israeli war; the al-Qasims remained in the village but lived under the Emergency Regulations, which restricted the movement of Palestinian citizens within the new Jewish state until 1966. Despite those regulations, al-Qasim and Darwish, who’d become close friends, traveled around the country during the late 1950s and read their work at poetry festivals in rural Arab villages. According to the late novelist Ghassan Kanafani, a poem of al-Qasim’s about the massacre of forty-eight Palestinian villagers by Israeli border guards in the town of Kafr Qasim in October 1956 was “memorized throughout the whole Galilee.”
Al-Qasim, in fact, wrote several poems about Kafr Qasim, one of which is included in Sadder Than Water. It begins, “There is no monument, no rose, no memorial–/neither a line of poetry to delight the murdered/Nor any curtain for the unveiling.” The diction of these lines is characteristic of many poems in the volume. It is bardic and ceremonial, addressed to a public event and determined to maintain an air of rhetorical grandeur. Occasionally al-Qasim’s sense of grandeur is inadvertently comic, as in “He Whispered Before He Took His Final Breaths.” Thick with imperatives and exclamations–“Don’t honor me with a monument/and song!…Do not pay your last respects/with laurel and a royal display!”–the poem has the ring of amplified petitions rather than whispered requests. Still, the experiences of indignity, humiliation, privation and misrepresentation evoked in “He Whispered Before He Took His Final Breaths” are the recurring subjects of Sadder Than Water, and al-Qasim explores them fruitfully when he treats them ironically, as in “Sadness” (“Sadness laughed at my joy/in Disneyland–/scolding me/as all the people looked at me!”) and “End of a Talk With a Jailer”:
From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
and rooftops crowded with my family.
And windows weeping and praying for me.
From the narrow window of my small cell–
I can see your big cell!
Equally striking are the poems in which al-Qasim forgoes irony and struggles directly with the paralysis induced by acute existential bewilderment. In “The Ugliest of Words,” the speaker is baffled by a flurry of questions about a plot of land that is perhaps a symbol of Palestine itself: “What should I do with the narcissus?/The apricot?/The crowns of rugged trees?/What should I do with the finest/of my wildflowers? What?”
What’s most notable about “The Ugliest of Words” is its mode of address: Al-Qasim’s signature declarations, imperatives and exclamations have been replaced by questions, his bardic voice supplanted by an unremittingly introspective and agitated “I.” In “Sadder Than Water,” written in 2001, this style flowers furiously into a bittersweet and melancholy song. The poem is a meditation on how successive experiences of removal have made attachment to place seem more perilous and more necessary–and continually baffling. “Sadder than water,/in death’s wonder/you’ve distanced yourself from this land,” al-Qasim begins, yet counters in the next breath, “You distanced yourself from yourself./So that you might remain/on the land.” Al-Qasim then proceeds to catalogue in twenty-seven sections disparate episodes of dispossession, abandonment and devastation.
The catalogue takes the form of what al-Qasim calls a sarbiyya–an impressionistic collection of shifts in tone, perspective and mood. As Adina Hoffman notes in her superb introduction to Sadder Than Water, sarbiyya is derived from the word sarb, which means “flock”; a sarbiyya shifts suddenly like flocks of birds in flight, and in “Sadder Than Water” the shifts gather momentum from the poem’s incantatory music. Al-Qasim uses a short line often scored with anaphora and end-stops, meaning that successive lines begin with the same word or phrase and end with punctuation or a rhythmical pause. He amplifies and modulates this music by concluding many of the poem’s sections with a short refrain built around the spooky phrase “sadder than water”: “And you–sadder than ants,/sadder than darkness,/sadder than sadness and water”; “You fold and fall,/strange and sad–/sadder than water.”
“The earth is a feast for losers (and we are among them)./We are left in place as the echo of an epic hymn,” Darwish wrote several years ago in the long poem “Mural.” “Sadder Than Water” is also a history of the lost and the dispossessed, but al-Qasim’s voice, unlike Darwish’s, is not inclined to utter grand aphorisms about it. “To your own exhausted toothbrush/you disclose the secrets of your utter aloneness./And with your comb you scribble on sheets of vapor,” al-Qasim writes. This voice may be sure of itself, but it is uncertain of much else. In “Sadder Than Water” al-Qasim takes up a task that has preoccupied many modern poets: to survey the wreckage and carnage of recent history piled up at his feet. But unlike his younger self, al-Qasim refrains from presenting his voice as the unimpeachable conscience of a wrecked world. The reason is that he has been abandoned by the world–“no ark comes to save you/ no olive branch is here in the orbit,”–and jostled by competing demands: “Your face wants you to be: a light./Your soul wants you to be: a night./The roses want you to be: pollen./The cave wants you to be: a friend.” In the face of such confusion, all al-Qasim has left is a diminished voice, one that shares secrets with a spent toothbrush. As the incantatory music quickens, he manages to rally himself at the end of the poem, yet even his newfound strength seems fragile: “No. Don’t believe what the stories say, or the legends…./You were born to remain in the land,/but to remain in it slain/and sad–sadder than sadness.” Remaining steadfast, it seems, means staying attached to a place that holds nothing but pathos–a sadness deeper than sadness.
During the late 1950s, when al-Qasim and Darwish were electrifying audiences with their festival poetry, the poet Taha Muhammed Ali was living in the old quarter of Nazareth and running a tiny souvenir shop that catered to Christian tourists. (When he was 18 Ali and his family had moved to Nazareth after a brief stay in Lebanon, to which they had fled after their native village of Saffuriyya, a few miles from Nazareth, was leveled by Israeli artillery in the 1948 war.) Ali, in fact, had not yet written any poems; he was a writer of short stories who liked to spend his evenings studying classical Arabic texts and reading American fiction and English Romantic poets. Ali took up poetry in the early ’70s, and when his work began appearing in Arabic periodicals, it was clear that more than his days as a shopkeeper distinguished him from his peers. Whereas Darwish and al-Qasim, like most Palestinian poets, have favored the elevated and ornate rhetoric of fus’ha, or classical Arabic, Ali writes nonmetrical, unrhymed poems that blend classical fus’ha with colloquial Arabic.
Another difference is Ali’s examination of the heroic mode prevalent in Palestinian poetry. In “Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower,” the opening poem in So What, we learn that were Abd el-Hadi “to encounter/the entire crew/of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,/he’d serve them eggs/sunny-side up/and labneh/fresh from the bag.” One of Ali’s translators, Gabriel Levin, notes in the introduction to So What that Ali “eschews” the heroic mode. This observation is true, but it doesn’t really convey how Ali, instead of simply shunning the heroic, backpedals away from it with guarded humor–fried eggs and soft cheese.
Levin and his co-translators, Peter Cole and Yahya Hijazi, were right to choose “Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower” to open both this volume and the earlier and smaller edition of twenty poems, Never Mind, on which it is based because the poem quickly immerses readers in Ali’s world, where what appears to be placid can suddenly become disconcerting. The first stanza of the poem begins with a calm introduction to a simple soul, “In his life/he neither wrote nor read”; the second introduces a slight note of dissonance: “Nevertheless–his case is hopeless.” But in the third stanza the scene turns murky because we learn that the poem’s narrator hasn’t been discussing a generic “case”: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:/about his enemies/my client knows not a thing.” Without knowing it, we have been listening to the closing argument of a defense attorney, and by the end of the poem much else remains unknown. What are the charges against el-Hadi? How long has he been held? Who is the jury?
Ali himself often sounds like the defense attorney: He is a beguiling storyteller who maintains a tone of credibility and lucidity without diluting the mysterious or distressing aspects of his tale. Here is the entirety of “Balance,” one of the fourteen previously untranslated poems included in So What: “In 1948/we owned/ a noble bull/with horns/like those of other bulls./And they/had an ordinary tractor/with a chain/like those/of the other tractors!” Ali invokes a pastoral scene lost to the events of 1948. But what does he mean by balance? The parity between “we” and “they,” and between the noble bull and the ordinary tractor? Or does he mean the parity between the bull owners, all of whom possess a noble animal, and the tractor owners, all of whom have an ordinary machine? The poem tempts allegory and nostalgia without surrendering to either. Compare Ali’s approach to that of Samih al-Qasim, who in “Dialogue Between an Ear of Corn and a Camel’s Thorn” writes a straightforward allegory of occupation in which two species native to a region cannot coexist: “Ear of Corn: Don’t kill me before my appointment with the living death./Camel’s Thorn: My only profession is killing freely.” Al-Qasim and Ali can both be comic poets, but Ali’s wit is more vivacious.
Perhaps Ali has cultivated such wit because he isn’t restricted by the narrative of the national struggle. His poems aren’t like al-Qasim’s, wherein various tragically minded Ears of Corn are preyed upon by the likes of a bloodthirsty, unyielding Camel’s Thorn. Instead, one encounters fools like Abd el-Hadi and figures like the speaker of “Warning,” who is trying to discourage a group of hunters from training their sights on his happiness: “What seems to you/so nimble and fine,/like a fawn,/and flees/every which way,/like a partridge,/isn’t happiness./Trust me:/my happiness bears/no relation to happiness.” More caustic is “Ambergris,” a blistering portrait of how Palestine has become a whore “holding out a hand to the years,/as it manages a ballroom/on the harbor pier,” and who “grumbles about us–/detests us.” The symbolism of “Ambergris,” which Ali wrote in 1983, brings to mind an exchange between Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Darwish. Arafat had complained to Darwish that the Palestinians were an “ungrateful people,” and Darwish shot back, “Find yourself another people then.”
In recent years Darwish’s poems have come to sound like “Ambergris,” more rueful than heroic, whereas Ali, who now gives readings to enthusiastic crowds abroad but avoids the geopolitical stage, has come to know the kind of acclaim that Darwish first tasted as a teenager. Most days when he is home, Ali can be found in his souvenir shop on Casanova Street, now one of the largest in Nazareth. Visitors say its shelves are crammed with narghiles, olive-wood camels, imitation pearl-studded scabbards and postcards of the nearby Church of the Annunciation. Trinkets being sold by a poet: It’s an image fit for a postcard, a picture that’s corny and trite–and also antithetical to Ali, who by avoiding commonplace responses to everyday experience has written poems that are fragile and graceful and harsh.