Dialogues with Imaginary Partners
Journal of an Ordinary Grief (Yawmiyyât al-Huzn al-‘Âdî, 1973) is the first of three major prose works that form a trilogy spanning Darwish’s career. (We always have to be careful in selecting descriptive terms for Darwish. True, these are prose works, but they are far from being “prosaic.”) The second, Dhâkira lil-Nisyân—a memoir of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon—appeared in 1985, and my translation (Memory for Forgetfulness, University of California Press) in 1995. The third volume, Fî Hadrat al-Ghiyâb (In the Presence of Absence), appeared in 2006, two years before the poet’s death. To the extent that they are based on the poet’s actual experience, these works may be considered autobiographical, though Journal tends more in that direction than the other two.
In this book we read about the poet’s experience of house arrest, his encounters with Israeli interrogators, and the periods he spent in prison. Readers should not expect straightforward autobiographical narrative, however, but a work in the symbolist mode, in which the semantic range of words is extended. From the beginning of his career, Darwish had already adopted Palestine as his cause célèbre, but it is in this work that he makes an explicit declaration of his mission: “Your cause and your life are one. And before all this—and beyond it—it is your identity.” This identification is part of the symbolist equation of himself and Palestine. It is as much a poetic identification as it is political; in other words, it is an equation of the poetic with the political. To avoid confusion, readers should keep this identification in mind. Expressions like “your death,” “the first death,” or “the nineteenth anniversary of your killing,” do not refer to his personal death but to the loss of Palestine in 1948. The pronoun I, for example, can refer to the poet as an individual but can also stand for the Palestinian people as a whole. The author uses a number of forms here, principally dialogues with imaginary partners. The opening part of the book is a dialogue that places the reader in a strange space because we cannot tell who is talking to whom until the end of the section, when we discover that the dialogue has been between the author and himself as a child. In Journal, as in all of Darwish, we are placed in the middle of an encounter between writing and history where writing gives shape to the homeland.
This work first appeared in Beirut (Dâr al-‘Awda), two years after the poet left his homeland to become an exile. In taking a close look at the existentially complex situation of the Palestinians in Israel proper, and in exploring the meaning of resistance and the ambiguity of his identity as an Israeli Palestinian—an ambiguity that becomes a major theme and poetic figure in all his work—this prophetic book provides the background for the poet’s decision to become an exile. Irony is probably the literary mode most appropriate to exile. Loss of homeland and life under occupation—the major themes of this work—are not ordinary griefs. Darwish’s irony, which undoubtedly stems from the complexity of being an Israeli Palestinian, is a distinguishing feature of all his work.
In preparing this translation I faced a difficult decision. The opening parts of the work as it originally appeared in 1973 were omitted in later editions (Riad El-Rayyes Books). The scholar in me decided that the 1973 edition must be translated in full because it forms part of the record of Darwish’s corpus—aside of course from the significance of its content. After careful consideration I decided to include the omitted material as an appendix, except for Darwish’s own introduction to the original edition (“These Pages”), which I put at the beginning for the thought it articulates about writing and the homeland. Particular attention, however, should be paid to the opening section of the appendix, which explains the dilemma Darwish faced in living in Israel but without citizenship: “The ground of perplexity lay between the truth of your being and your current legal status.”
I was guided in the process of translation by two precepts from Darwish himself: rhythm and the sentence as a unit of meaning. The first section of his 2005 volume of poems, Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done, consisting of 47 poems, is called “The Passion for Rhythm” (literally, “lusting after rhythm”), and the first poem of that section is called “The Rhythm Chooses Me.” (“The rhythm chooses me / It chokes on me.”) This is the most explicit and powerful articulation of Darwish’s concern with rhythm, which always was a major esthetic preoccupation for him.
Toward the end of Journal, Darwish refers the reader to the Arabic sentence (“Going to the Arabic Sentence on May 15”). This phrase is an excellent illustration of the symbolist mode mentioned earlier: in combing together words or phrases that apparently do not belong side by side, the poet extends the metaphorical potential of the individual words as well as the meaning. The verb “go”—itself rich in connotation—makes of language a place, thereby extending the sense of the word sentence, which, in addition to its literal reference to the sentence, can in this context also refer to the Arabic language, including its grammar and sound system; to the political rhetoric of the Arab regimes; to Arabic prose; and (beyond the boundary of language) to the Arab peoples and their countries.
None of these, however, is as troubling as the literal reference to Arabic sentences, because this is the domain that lies within the power of the translator. Darwish, the accomplished poet, is also an acknowledged master of Arabic prose—that is, of the Arabic sentence. After all he himself is writing Arabic sentences and that obviously is what the translator must consider as the basic unit of translation because the sentence establishes the rhythm of his prose. Yet in a quotable line in one of his later poems, Darwish says, “Neither is prose, prose; nor is poetry, poetry.” Such an outlook does not lead to the production of easy sentences. Darwish’s prose often shares the complexity and obscurity of his poetry, reflecting the complexity he felt in his identity.
The sentence being the basic unit of rhythm in Darwish, in rendering Journal into English I used his sentences, regardless how complex, as the basic units of translation. Insofar as it has been possible to do so, I have maintained the rhythm of his syntax throughout, translating sentence for sentence. Yet though one can make an effort at the macro level of rhythm to maintain the integrity of the sentence, it nevertheless remains true that each language has its own sense of rhythm within the sentence. Arabic moves from right to left, and its words are constructed differently from the way English manages its vocabulary. In translating within the sentence, I have relied on my ear to create sound harmonies and a consistent rhythm, but without sacrificing meaning.