Al-Ahram Ueekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Issues of life and death

Reviewed by Ferial J Ghazoul

JidariyyaJidariyya (Mural), Mahmoud Darwish, Beirut: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 2000. pp105

This slim volume, released this month, is a long poem by Mahmoud Darwish written in 1999 following a serious heart operation that he went through. Lyrical poetry tends to gush forth in short pieces; writing a long poem runs against the grain and is almost always a risky affair. Yet Darwish's Mural undertakes the difficult task and succeeds in captivating our continuous and undivided attention, line after line, page after page, by its sheer poetic power and tenderness. The poem recalls and invokes sacred and canonical texts as they intersect with the experiential moment of life/death and existence/nothingness. Darwish's poem is neither philosophical nor religious; it is intimately and painfully personal. It moves precisely because it presents human helplessness and articulates a cry against obliteration -- the same cry betraying loss that Gilgamesh uttered when his friend Enkidu was abducted by death in the first extant epic written in Iraq five millennia ago.

In its focus on the self, Mural inevitably reminds us of other long poems revolving around the self -- Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror", for example. The modernist Whitman presents an imperial self with its all-encompassing optimistic drive, looking brightly at the future. His American counterpart, the postmodernist Ashbery, presents, on the other hand, a convoluted self delving ironically and torturously into the past/present. In this framework, we can see Darwish's Mural as presenting another dimension of the self: its quentissensial vulnerability. The confessional element in Darwish's poem stems from its admitting human weakness, physical deterioration, reluctance to bid farewell to the world, and finally gathering enough strength to tell Death to be not proud.

Mahmoud Darwish is the uncontested Palestinian bard. His poems, written over the last four decades, constitute the lyrical diaries of the Palestinian saga. Thus, even when he writes about the most personal of events in his life, one tends to read him as the voice of his people. The liminal state he depicts, the almost fatal illness of his, the wavering between helplessness and the will to survive in his poem, I -- for one -- read not as simply the fears and tribulations of an individual, but as those of an entire people at a historical crossroads.

Mural opens up that grey area between life and death, with the poetic persona surrounded by white. While we, as readers, gather that this is the clinical whiteness of a hospital (invariably recalling, for an Arab reader, the last poems of the Egyptian Amal Dunqul written in the hospital when he was being treated for a terminal illness), the first person in the poem seems to perceive it instead as the whiteness of the shroud, and thus wonders where the proverbial angel of Islamic eschatology is, the angel who weighs one's good deeds and bad after death:

Mahmoud Darwish
A white dove's wing carries me away
"I see heavens there at an arm's length.
To a new childhood. I was not dreaming
That I was dreaming. Everything had the aura of the real.
I knew I was getting rid of myself
And flying. I will be what I shall become in
The last galaxy. Everything white.
The sea hangs above a white cloud.
Nothingness is white in the white absolute of heavens.
I was, and I was not. I am all alone
In this white eternity. I came before my time.

No angel appeared to me to tell me:
'What did you do there in the World?'
I did not hear the hymns of the good souls,
Nor the agonies of the evil ones. I am all alone in whiteness.
All alone."

The poem moves as a swan song does. It incorporates a treasury of images from poems past and present, and of texts ranging from Gilgamesh and the "All is vanity" of Ecclesiastes to Kierkegaard's "fear and trembling" -- in a way comparable to the way in which Whitman incorporates varied ethnicities in his American self. Thus the favourite Sufi parable of the butterfly's attraction to the fire is juxtaposed with the unrequited longings of the 'Uthri poets of early Islam; echoes of the classical pre-Islamic odes confront the experimental poetics of contemporary Egyptian poetry, with its alliterative and innovative play on alphabetical letters and sounds.

As we read this magnificent poem by Darwish, the subtle allusions and the rich intertextual references seem to function as a poetic store-house of collective memory. But Mural is more than a monument, more than a poetic obelisk, to immortalize mortals. It has its share of ambivalence too, and it embodies the transformations of Mahmoud Darwish in his condition of exile. Darwish refused to leave his occupied homeland in the 1960s, saying in a poem "my homeland is not a suitcase," only to write after his departure from Palestine in the early 1970s, "my homeland is a suitcase". Likewise, in this poem he disowns the knowledge and vision connected with Joseph, "no eleven stars worshipping me" (in an allusion to verse four in Surat Joseph in the Qur'an, "Father, I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon; I saw them bowing down before me"), after having identified himself with Joseph in an earlier poem set to music and sung by Marcel Khalifé.

Darwish expresses in his oeuvre the different moods of the Palestinian people. The variety of these moods reflects the varied situations in which Palestinians have been involved. Darwish is not a partisan poet, though he is political; no Palestinian poet can afford to dismiss politics. Mural, however, shows a definite move away from the circumstantial and the quotidian to the more universal and existential issues of life and death.

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