Mahmoud Darwish, the revered Palestinian poet who passed away last year, writing about Edward Said:
Homage to Edward Said
by Mahmoud Darwish
NEW YORK. NOVEMBER. 5TH AVENUE.
Shards of light in a leaden sky.
In the shadows, I asked my foreign soul: is this city Babylon or Sodom?
There, at the edge of an electric chasm sky high, I met Edward thirty years ago.
The times were less impetuous.
Each said to the other:
If your past is your experience, make the future sense and vision!
Let us move forward, towards our future, confident in imagination’s sincerity and the miracle of the grass.
I no longer remember whether we went to the cinema that evening, but I heard old Indian braves call out to me: trust neither the horse nor modernity.
No. No victim asks his executioner: if I were you and my sword greater than my rose . . . would I have acted as you have done?
That kind of question arouses the curiosity of the novelist who sits behind the glass walls of his study overlooking the lily garden . . . Here the hypothesis is lily-white, clear as the author’s conscience if he closes his accounts with human nature . . . No future behind us, so let us move forward!
Progress could be the bridge back to barbarity . . .
New York. Edward awakes while dawn slumbers on. He plays an air by Mozart. Tennis on the university court. He reflects on thought’s ability to transcend borders and barriers. Thumbs through the New York Times. Writes his spirited column. Curses an orientalist who guides a general to the weak spot in an eastern woman’s heart. Showers. Drinks his white coffee. Picks out a suit with a dandy’s elegance and calls on the dawn to stop dawdling!
He walks on the wind. And, in the wind, he knows himself. No four walls hem in the wind. And the wind is a compass for the north in a foreign land.
He says: I come from that place. I come from here, and I am neither here nor there. I have two names that come together but pull apart. I have two languages, but I have forgotten which is the language of my dreams. I have the English language with its accommodating vocabulary to write in. And another tongue drawn from celestial conversations with Jerusalem. It has a silvery resonance, but rebels against my imagination.
And your identity? Said I.
His response: Self-defence . . . Conferred on us at birth, in the end it is we who fashion our identity, it is not hereditary. I am manifold . . . Within me, my outer self renewed. But I belong to the victim’s interrogation.
Were I not from that place, I would have trained my heart to raise metonymy’s gazelle there . . .
So take your birthplace along wherever you go and be a narcissist if need be.
– Exile, the outside world. Exile, the hidden world. Who then are you between them?
– I do not introduce myself lest I lose myself. I am what I am.
I am my other in harmonious duality between word and geste.
Were I a poet, I should have written:
I am two in one, like the swallow’s wings.
And if spring is late coming, I am content to be its harbinger!
He loves countries and leaves them. (Is the impossible remote?) He loves to migrate towards everything. Travelling freely between cultures, there is room for all who seek the essence of man.
A margin moves forward and a centre retreats. The East is not completely the East, nor the West, the West. Identity is multifaceted.
It is neither a citadel nor is it absolute.
The metaphor slumbered on one bank of the river. Had it not been for the pollution,
It would have embraced the other.
– Have you written your novel?
– I have tried . . . sought to find my image reflected in distant women. But they have retreated into their fortified night. And they have said: our universe does not depend on words. No man will capture in words the woman, an enigma and a dream. No woman will capture the man, symbol and star. No love is like another; no night like another. Let us list men’s virtues and laugh!
– And what did you do?
– I laughed at my own absurdity and threw my novel away.
The thinker restrains the novelist’s tale, while the philosopher deconstructs the singer’s roses.
He loves countries and leaves them: I am who I shall be and become. I shall construct myself and choose my exile. My exile is the background of the epic landscape. I defend the need for poets of glory and reminiscence; I defend trees that clothe the birds of home and exile, a moon still fit for a love song, an idea shattered by its proponents’ fragility and a country borne off by legends.
– Is there anything you could return to?
– What awaits me draws me on and urges me . . . I have no time to draw lines in the sand. But I can revisit the past like strangers listening to the pastoral poem in the gloom of the evening:
‘At the fountain, a young girl fills her jar with clouds’ tears. And she weeps and laughs at a bee that stung her heart when it was time to leave.
Is love pain in the water or malady in the mist . . .’
(And so on, till the song draws to a close.)
– So you could suffer from nostalgia?
– Nostalgia for times to come. More distant, more elevated, more distant still. My dream guides my steps and my vision cradles my dream, curled like a cat, on my lap. It is reality imagined, born of the will: we can change the chasm’s inevitability!
– And nostalgia for the past?
– That is only for the thinker who is anxious to understand the fascination a foreigner feels for the medium of absence. My own nostalgia is a struggle for a present that clings to the future.
– Did you penetrate the past the day you visited the house, your house, in Jerusalem’s Talibiya district?
– Like a child afraid of his father, I was ready to hide in my mother’s bed. I tried to relive my birth, to follow the trail of childhood across the roof of my old home, to run my fingers over the skin of absence, to smell the perfume of summer in the jasmine of the garden. But truth’s hyena drove me from a nostalgia that lurked, behind me, like a thief in the shadows.
– Were you afraid, and of what?
– I cannot meet loss head on. Like the beggar, I stayed at the door. Am I going to ask strangers who sleep in my bed for permission to spend five minutes in my own home? Will I bow respectfully to the people that occupy my dream of childhood? Will they ask: who is this stranger who lacks discretion? Will I be able just to speak of peace and war among victims and the victims of victims, avoiding superfluous words and asides? Will they tell me that two dreams cannot share a bed?
Neither he nor I could have done that.
But he is a reader who reflects on what poetry has to tell us in times of disaster.
in your homeland
In my name and in yours, in the almond blossom, in the banana skin, in the baby’s milk, in the light and in the shade, in the grain of wheat, in the salt jar. Consummate snipers reach their targets.
This land is smaller than the blood of its children, offerings placed on resurrection’s doorstep. Is this land blessed or baptised
That neither prayers nor the sand can assuage? There is not enough justice in the pages of the Holy Book to give the martyrs the joy of walking freely across the clouds. Blood, by day. Blood, by night. Blood in the words!
He says: the poem could embrace loss, a shaft of light glinting from a guitar or a Christ mounted on a mare and blood- spattered with elegant metaphors. What is beauty if not the presence of truth in the form?
In a skyless world, the earth becomes a chasm. And the poem is one of consolation’s gifts, a quality of the winds, from both south and north. Do not describe your wounds as the camera sees them.
Cry out to make yourself heard and to know that you are still alive and living, that life on this earth is still possible. Invent hope for words. Create a cardinal point or a mirage that prolongs hope and sing, for beauty is freedom.
I say: life defined by its antithesis, death . . . is no life at all!
He replies: we shall live, even if life abandons us to our fate. Let us be the wordsmiths whose words make their readers eternal, as your extraordinary friend Ritsos might have said . . .
He says: If I die before you, I shall leave you the impossible task!
I ask: Is it a long way off?
He replies: A generation away.
I say: And if I die before you?
He replies: I shall console the mounts of Galilee and I shall write: ‘Beauty is merely the attainment of adequacy.’ All right! But don’t forget that if I die before you, I shall leave you the impossible task!
When I visited the new Sodom in the year 2002, he was opposing the war of Sodom against the people of Babylon and fighting cancer. The last epic hero, he defended Troy’s right to its share in the story.
Eagle on high,
Taking leave of the mountain tops,
For residing above Olympus
And the summits,
Farewell, poetry of pain!