I read “The Dice Player” in its entirety in an Arabic newspaper right after Darwish read the poem for the first time in Ramallah in June 2008—what would be his last public appearance in that city. A few weeks earlier, we had talked on the phone about his deteriorating medical condition and his coming to Houston for surgery. I remember hanging up and telling my wife, also a physician, “Hana, he’s dying.” So when I read the poem, I knew what most people didn’t: he was writing his own elegy, had delivered his own eulogy in Ramallah, with typical Darwishian elegance that refuses self-pity and celebrates life. He was writing, for one last time, who he was in his own eyes and ears, and not what or who many imagined him to be.
In a later conversation he asked me what I thought of the poem. I told him, “It is another Mural, a condensate in a persistent daily speech unlike anything you’ve written before, starting with that list in the poem’s opening lines.” Mural, of course, is perhaps his magnum opus, an epic lyric that has become an international literary phenomenon through the imagination of the Palestinian National Theatre—which turned it into a brilliant play (without changing a word) that has toured the world. He wrote Mural in 1999, after surviving clinical death, when he thought his time to write might be short. But Darwish would live another nine years and publish five more books that saw him wed prose and prosody, high lyric and quotidian speech. I could hear him smile when he replied to my assessment, “Yes. Some of my friends even went as far as to call it the anti-Mural poem.”
Then Darwish asked me to translate this last great poem of his.
I said, “I already have.”
“What did you call it?”
“The Dice Thrower.”
“No,” he said. “Player is better.”
No doubt he was aware of Mallarmé’s “A Dice Throw”—as the text of the poem indicates. But perhaps it was that simple aspect of Darwish’s life, which went largely ignored by most of his readers in the Arab world and outside it: he was an obsessive backgammon player, a dice player, as the Arabic expression would have it, a game he shared with his neighbor and friend, Ghanem Zraiqat, almost nightly when he was in Amman. He wanted, as usual, to go beyond metaphor and analysis, into the private—something he had done throughout his writing life. But, as usual, his private heart, by chance, was collective, his role of the dice, universal.