On Mahmoud Darwish Day, 13 Poems

The towering, generation-defining Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was born on this day in al-Birwa. To commemorate his entrance into our world, which happened on a March 13, we have excerpts from 13 poems and poemtexts. Follow the links for more complete works:

Also, there is apparently no excerpt online from the excellent Palestine as Metaphor, a collection of interviews with Darwish translated by Amira El-Zein and Carolyn Forché; read it anyway.

1) “The Moon Did Not Fall Into the Well,” from  Journal of an Ordinary Grieftr. Ibrahim Muhawi

Muhawi’s translations have a wonderful sense of the rhythm of the original, and this particular text is and open-hearted narrative with deeply etched characters. It opens:

—What are you doing, father?

—I’m searching for my heart, which fell away that night.

—Do you think you’ll find it here?

—Where else am I going to nd it? I bend to the ground and pick it up piece by piece just as the women of the fellahin pick up olives in October, one olive at a time.

—But you’re picking up pebbles!

—Doing that is a good exercise for memory and perception. Who knows? Maybe these pebbles are petrified pieces of my heart.

2) “Love, like meaning,” from  In the Presence of Absencetr. Sinan Antoon.

Perhaps the greatest of Darwish’s works, this version brought Antoon the 2012 National Translation Award:

Love, like meaning, is out on the open road, but like poetry, it is difficult. It requires talent, endurance, and skillful formulation, because of its many stations. It is not enough to love, for that is one of nature’s magical acts, like rainfall and thunder. It takes you out of yourself into the other’s orbit and then you have to fend for yourself. It is not enough to love, you have to know how to love. Do you know how?

3) The Dice Player,” from If I Were Another: Poemstr. Fady Joudah

The charming “The Dice Player” with a visual adaptation:

4) “The Horse Fell off the Poem,” from The Butterfly’s Burdentr. Fady Joudah

There is no margin in modern language left
to celebrate what we love,
because all that will be … was

5) “The Second Olive Tree,” tr. Marilyn Hacker

And with horses, olive trees:

The olive tree does not weep and does not laugh. The olive tree
Is the hillside’s modest lady. Shadow
Covers her one leg, and she will not take her leaves off in front of the storm.
Standing, she is seated, and seated, standing.

6) “Nothing But Iraq,” tr. Shareah Taleghani

A cry to Badr Shakir al-Sayyab:

I remember as-Sayyab screaming into the Gulf in vain:
Iraq, Iraq. Nothing but Iraq.
And nothing but an echo replies
I remember as-Sayyab, in that Sumerian space
A woman triumphed over the sterility of mist
She bequeathed to us earth and exile . . .
For poetry is born in Iraq,
So be Iraqi to become a poet, my friend.

6) A second translation, titled “I Remember al-Sayyab,” by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis

I remember al-Sayyab, his futile cries across the Gulf:

‘Iraq, Iraq, nothing but Iraq,’

And nothing answers but an echo.

I remember al-Sayyab under these same Sumerian skies

Where a woman surmounted the void

To make us heirs to earth and exile.

7) “And where is my will?” from Memory for Forgetfulnesstr. Ibrahim Muhawi

And where is my will?

It stopped over there, on the other side of the collective voice. But now, I want nothing more than the aroma of coffee. Now I feel shame. I feel shamed by my fear, and by those defending the scent of the distant homeland–that fragrance they’ve never smelled because they weren’t born on her soil. She bore them, but they were born away from her. Yet they studied her constantly, without fatigue or boredom; and from overpowering memory and constant pursuit, they learned what it means to belong to her.

“You’re aliens here,” they say to them there.

“You’re aliens here,” they say to them here.

8) “Standing Before the Ruins of Al-Birweh,” tr. Sinan Antoon, from I Don’t Want This Poem to End

Like birds, I tread lightly on the earth’s skin
so as not to wake the dead
I shut the door to my emotions to become my other
I don’t feel that I am a stone sighing
as it longs for a cloud

9) “The Tragedy of Narcissus,” from If I Were Anothertr. Fady Joudah:

10) “A Noun Sentence,” tr. Fady Joudah

A noun sentence, no verb
to it or in it: to the sea the scent of the bed
after making love … a salty perfume
or a sour one. A noun sentence: my wounded joy
like the sunset at your strange windows.

11) “If I Were a Hunter,” tr. Shakir Mustafa

If a hunter I were
I’d give the gazelle
a chance, and another,
and a third, and a tenth,
to doze a little. My share
of the booty would be
peace of mind under
her dozing head.

12) “Here They Are Words” tr. Fady Joudah

Here they are the words fluttering in the mind
There’s a land in the mind with a heavenly name the words carry.

13) “ID Card,” tr. Salman Masalha and Vivian Eden

This would not likely be a poem Darwish would choose among only 13 of his works. But it is one that, although written in his early days, in 1964, continues to have great political resonance:

Write it down! I’m an Arab
My card number is 50000
My children number eight
And after this summer, a ninth on his way.
Does this make you rage?
I am an Arab.

Also, as a bonus: Here the Birds’ Journey Ends, tr. Joudah


  1. Shukran, Marcia, for keeping Mahmoud Darwish’s memory fresh as ever. Poets don’t die and we owe it to individuals and collectives like you and your ArabLit to make us aware of that continuous life.

  2. This made me eager to continue working on translating some poems!

    1. Ohhh… fantastic! If you ever want to submit any, etc. etc. etc.!

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