Last month, Olive Branch Press — an imprint of Interlink Books — released a collection of five interviews with the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) titled Palestine as Metaphor, translated and introduced by Amira El-Zein and Carolyn Forché:
In her introduction to Palestine as Metaphor, El-Zein writes that the translation of these five interviews is “long overdue.” These are not posthumously published texts the author would’ve preferred abandoned in a drawer. Rather Darwish, she writes, “wanted to have them translated into English some time ago.”
They were first published as a collection in French translation in 1996; four were translated from the Arabic and one from Hebrew. None have previously appeared in their entirety in English, and all of them shade in details not only of Darwish’s feelings on poetry and poetic expression, but also his relationship to critics, his mother, his fame, translations of his work, prison, exile, and freedom.
The interviews are recursive, and some ask about the same issues. In two of the interviews, Darwish repeats the story of a poet-minstrel he remembered from childhood, who was being hunted by Israeli police, who would recite poetry at night and “disappear at dawn.” In the 1995 interview with Abbas Beydoun, he says, “He would carry the journey in his voice and in his poetry and in his singing. He would tell his story of pursuit and flight. He would tell of his quest for his own people, and how he would climb the mountain and descend into the valleys. It was at that time that I realized that words could carry reality, or equal to it.”
He talks about the same man in his interview with Israeli poet Helit Yushurun, conducted in Hebrew and published in Hadarim in 1996:
During this period at Deir al-Assad, I remember a man who had a beautiful voice, who used to come in the night to our neighbors at the entrance of the village, play the rababa, and sing his story: how he left his house, and how he crossed the border, and how he returned. He used to tell of the nights and moon—a heartbreaking nostalgia. Listening to him, I felt how much the words carried the reality. I understood that art comes from simple things. I wanted to imitate this man.
The interviews were initially published in 1993, 1995, and 1996, and although they cover the same ground, the poet is constantly re-assessing and re-vising himself.
The interview with Yushurun is the most contentious among the five; one of Yushurun’s questions references a time when “I refused to publish some of your poems in Hadarim because of this poem [“Passengers among Passing Words”]. What did you think?”
Darwish’s responses can be pointed but are always thoughtful. To this, he responds, in part: “I accepted this punishment. I said: I am ready to dismantle the poem if Shamir dismantles the settlements. That made me smile. I said: Helit Yeshurun wants to kick me out of the world of poetry. If she succeeds, good for her. But I doubted that you were going to succeed. I was annoyed for one reason: Shamir had caught me blatantly writing a weak text. For me this poem did not count.”
There are also some wonderful exchanges about his translation into Hebrew, as when Yushurun tells him: “In the same book, you say: ‘my life is the shame of my poetry, and my poetry is the shame of my life,'” and he answers: “What does that mean? I said this? It’s the wrong translation. I used the word fadiha. In Arabic, fadiha is not only shame, it’s also scandal. Fadiha is the opposite of a secret, of a hidden thing. Fadiha is a revelation. Fadahtu sirri: means I revealed my secret. Poetry cannot hide the truth that is in me. Poetry is the scandalous revelation of my secret.”
Darwish also remarks on translators he respects; notably Anton Shammas.
The collection is full of quotable exchanges, including many about Palestine and Israel, although there are no easy-answer sound bites: “I don’t like to resemble these taxi drivers to whom passing journalists glean their quick impressions about the country they are visiting.”
Any reader who has enjoyed Darwish’s poetry or prose collections would surely also enjoy these exchanges.