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The Eternal Traveler

ISSUE:  Winter 2009

It is Sunday at midnight, and I write in Switzerland, where I am staying for a week before leaving to spend the year in Jordan. I thought of waiting until tomorrow to begin but decided that elegies are better written in the middle of the night—and an elegy for Mahmoud Darwish is best written in a country where one feels foreign, gazing at a dark horizon with a glass of wine in hand.

Because of course, that was Darwish’s favorite posture. In his final poems, he narrates from a perspective that became strangely archetypal for him. He writes as the man in the café. The man in the café: cigarette; glass of wine; Paris, London, Damascus, Manhattan unfolding in front of him, their ambient sounds and sights transformed into echolalia, urban tumbleweeds, beloveds. The eternal traveler, drifting from place to place in exile, weighted by the sorrow and wisdom of knowing a land he cannot return to, which, because he cannot see it directly, he must instead overlay upon whatever city is currently under his gaze.

One of his collections is called Unfortunately, It Was Paradise—an elegant phrase to summarize the paradox of the exile, the reason that a homeland cannot be forgotten, regardless of its state of ruin. I remember an argument I had about Hurricane Katrina, in which a friend asserted that to rebuild the levies was a waste of federal funds, that no permanent engineering solution existed, that New Orleans would never not be in jeopardy from floods and hurricanes.

But after I spent a week there this spring, I understood the power of Darwish’s title as a retort. There are a thousand practical reasons why a Louisianan or a Palestinian might move away. But when you take Claiborne Avenue into the Ninth Ward, and see the water-damaged houses that are marked with the bizarre nomenclature of the “X”—above which is written the number of people who died, and to the side of which is a written a “Yes” or “No” to indicate whether the house can be salvaged—or when you see the stretch of tents and couches that has become an open-air homeless shelter beneath a highway overpass, the economic and political arguments no longer matter.

That same response drives Darwish in his poems about Palestine. Last year, a sewage reservoir collapsed in the Gaza Strip, and a village was flooded and five people killed by a torrent of shit and piss. And yet—while writing in a time when these anachronistic and surreal tragedies occur, when modernity in its most innocuous forms has failed to reach parts of his homeland—Darwish still clung to the idea of Palestine as Paradise. A land is not defined by its ruins, but rather by the memories of its citizens, and thus by its potential to flourish again and be renewed. This was the ethic that Darwish maintained in all of his work—that memory inspires the painful dream of the future nation.

As an editor of his most recent manuscript, I have heard the echoes of Darwish’s voice as I myself sat at cafés and wondered how to bring his words to life in the English language. How to fulfill what he himself sets out as his greatest purpose: namely, to take up the ceaseless task of smoothing out the rough edges in his poems. I offer below two poems from his last collection, both of which exemplify the sense of cryptic playfulness that Darwish tried always to create, especially while in a somber mood. What are the mistakes in the poem, and what words have been forgotten? Why does fate really keep the poet alive?

I was supposed to meet him in Amman. My questions will have to remain unanswered.


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