‘No Palestinian Has Ever Written Poetry Quite Like This Before’

Before I ever met Najwan Darwish, I’d imagined him in an impassioned frustration, throwing handfuls of promotional fliers in the air:

Out at the end of this month from NYRB Classics.That was at the 2011 Palestine Festival of Literature. Two years later, when I was invited to tag along with PalFest, I rode in Darwish’s patient car and expected to hear him read his poetry in Nablus.

In that, I was disappointed. Later, I heard Darwish tell the story of why he didn’t appear onstage in Nablus, where he’d been expected to read just before Basel Zayed and Turab played music inspired by his poems.

Darwish didn’t get to see the crowd of two hundred-odd people singing along with his poetry. But he made it to the following night’s event in Ramallah and, after several false starts, he finally explained: He’d waited at a checkpoint for forty-odd minutes before being turned away. A soldier didn’t want to let him through, and Darwish felt he didn’t have time to wait for some higher-up to arrive and sort it out. So he drove off in search of an alternate checkpoint. But he got lost. He couldn’t find Nablus on his GPS, he couldn’t find signs pointing to the city and — perhaps even more telling — walls blocked his view of possible landmarks.

He ended up near Tel Aviv, where he got stuck in traffic, and continued driving around for a while longer before, in frustration, he gave up and went home.

By the time Darwish told me all this at Cafe La Vie in Ramallah, in a tone both amused and angry, he’d already shaped it into a metaphor, a story that could stand in for hundreds of others. And it was exactly this furious, open-hearted, fearless poetic wit that I have been so pleased to find in Nothing More to Lose, a collection of Darwish’s work assembled and translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

In his translator’s afterword to Nothing More to Lose, Abu-Zeid writes that, “As the translator of several different Arab poets and novelists, I have often faced the challenge of finding the right tone, of keeping the language consistent and unified as it is in the original. With Darwish’s work I’ve had to suppress this tendency, and instead consider each poem as its own singular entity. I am not translating one poet, but many, I often told myself as I grappled with — and learned to embrance — the apparent inconsistencies in his poetry.”

Which is to say: When you read this collection, you will not be reading the same poem over and over again, and thank the heavens for that.

“Fabrications” is just one small piece in this varied collection, placed about mid-way through. But it reminds me of many of the Najwan Darwishes. A narrator is speaking the poem, intimately, as though he were sitting beside you, telling an anecdote that begins, “The whole story is a fabrication.”

The tone is largely casual, and the first few fabrications are ones we might expect — from the TV news, both Israeli and Arab. The poet-narrator even drolly assembles the names of three major stations “al-jazeera al-arabiya al-hurra / (‘the free Arabian peninsula”).” But it is not just the TV news that’s fabricated: “And I’m sure the bills, too, are all fabrications–/ Who put them in my mailbox?”

The diction is heightened in places, and shifts suddenly, knitting together various philosophical and philological fabrications, yet the poem continues to feel intimate, spoken. It weaves between specifically Palestinian realities to anyone’s:

“My enemies are fabrications. And my relatives — the peak of fabrication.”

(I like to repeat this line.)

Thankfully, the narrator doesn’t speak as though he is aware of international readers or Western taboos. (Elsewhere in the collection, in “Pleading Before History,” Darwish takes apart this tendency to edit Palestine for external consumption.) Instead, the narrator moves freely from a discussion of the nature of pronouns to: “I don’t hate collaborators. Look — I can watch their broadcasts without throwing up.”

The poem is particularly interested in collaborators, those “dignified men” and “respectable women” who are looking out for themselves. It takes us through brief moments in history, such as the 1917 Battle for Jerusalem and the surrender of that city: “That really happened, but the picture was fabricated; for you can, at any time, gather up a few effendis, ask them to hold a white flag in front of the Jaffa Gate, and then snap a picture.”

It remains very personal, angry and funny, until it transcends all this at the last possible moment: “And all beings raise their arms like trees now in this fabricated poem.” It feels almost like a command, as though we must stop reading and lift our arms up in the air.

It is Abu-Zeid who writes, in his afterword, that “no Palestinian has ever written poetry quite like this before.”

I suppose that, too, is a fabrication.