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Point of Departure

A translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s journals offers an introduction to the Palestinian poet’s work

Joshua Cohen
September 23, 2009
Darwish in Paris(
Darwish in Paris(

Mahmoud Darwish was, in one respect only, a poet of another era—a national poet, a bard. This distinction is not meant to characterize his poetry, merely to give an idea of his reputation, of what his poems mean to his people. Like Robert Burns of Scotland, like W.B. Yeats of Ireland, Darwish was the poetic soul of his small nation. But he was the national poet of Palestine—a nation that does not yet exist.

Darwish was born to a Sunni Muslim family in Al Birwa in the Western Galilee in 1941, under the British Mandate. He was seven when Israel was founded , and the family fled their orchards to Lebanon, to Jezzine and Damour. Later they illegally returned to Israel—insofar as one can return to a different country—and settled in Deir al-Asad, now known in Hebrew as Shagur.

If this was internal exile, true exile was to follow. In 1970 Darwish, then a communist, briefly attended university in Moscow before settling in Egypt, and then again in Lebanon. In 1973, he joined the PLO, for whom he coauthored the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. His fury seems particularly apparent here: “When in the course of modern times a new order of values was declared with norms and values fair for all, it was the Palestinian Arab people that had been excluded from the destiny of all other peoples by a hostile array of local and foreign powers. Yet again had unaided justice been revealed as insufficient to drive the world’s history along its preferred course.” Such affiliations prevented Darwish from living in his homeland again. However, in 1995 the Israeli government finally granted him and his family permission to settle in dusty Ramallah, in the West Bank—so far from the green Galilee of his youth.

Perversely for this poet of great metaphoric heart, his physical heart was weak—that is how the obituaries would frame Darwish’s infirmities and death. He suffered an infarct in 1984; two major operations followed. He died after undergoing intensive cardiac surgery in Houston, Texas, one year ago this month, and was buried in Ramallah, on a hill overlooking Jerusalem—Al Quds.

Author of more than 30 volumes of poetry and eight of prose, Darwish was a conscious but inadvertent polyglot: his model being the French Symbolists via the American Beats. His early career found expression in Classical Arabic, in verse metered and rhymed, but these strictures eventually gave way to what most Arab critics agree—I can only report their findings—was a uniquely protean and oblique utterance, angrily terse but humorous, always multiply meaning. His youthful political associations resolved themselves, as they usually do, into a sadder advocacy of the self, as Darwish once said in an interview: “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe, but now I think that poetry changes only the poet.”

Just as a critique of poetry might only change the critic. Which brings us to a justification of this essay, though it’s a pity that one should be necessary. I am writing about Darwish for Jewish readers for the following reasons: his was a fiercely sane voice for peace, and he remains a poet of international stature. Also, I should mention that Darwish spoke wonderful Hebrew—something that cannot be said for most of American Jewry.

A River Dies of Thirst is the first publication of Darwish’s journals to appear in English translation. Unfortunately this otherwise excellent edition offers no context for its selection, leaving the reader to assume one of two possibilities: either Darwish, during his short life, only managed to keep 160 pages of a diary, with each a minor masterpiece; or, translator Catherine Cobham has made her selection from a larger, looser corpus, choosing half poetry, half prose.

Whichever, the resulting book is our language’s best introduction to Darwish, as it brings together not only the personal and the political, but also nature writing with city life, exile with tourism, desire with regret.

Here is a prose entry:

If peace is a pause between two wars, then the dead have a right to vote: we will choose the general. If war is an accident on the motorway, then the living have a duty to vote: we will choose the donkey. But the living did not go to the ballot box, not because the snow was falling in big flakes, but because a sudden paralysis afflicted the city’s inhabitants, and when they opened their windows they saw spiders spinning their webs in the snow and went blind. When they tried to hear what was going on, storms arose, whose wild sounds were unfamiliar to them, and they went deaf. The astrologers said: “It is the chaos of existence at the door of the last judgment.” Luckily or unluckily for us, foreign historians, experts on our destinies and our oral history, were not here, so we don’t know what happened to us!

And here is the title poem:

A river was here

and it had two banks

and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds

A small river moving slowly

descending from the mountain peaks

visiting villages and tents like a charming lively guest

bringing oleander trees and date palms to the valley

and laughing to the nocturnal revelers on its banks:

“Drink the milk of the clouds

and water the horses

and fly to Jerusalem and Damascus”

Sometimes it sang heroically

at others passionately

It was a river with two banks

and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds

But they kidnapped its mother

so it ran short of water

and died, slowly, of thirst.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.