A list of links to recent interesting things that I’ve just gotten around to reading:

At Words Without Borders, Carol Perkins translates a short story about adultery–“The Masseuse and her Adulterous Husband“–by Syrian writer Salwa Al Neimi. (It has some striking information about adultery laws in Tunisia). 

British playwright David Hare spends time in Israel and the Occupied Territories talking to people about and visiting different points in the wall that now separates the two; he writes a personal, provocative essay in the New York Review of Books. Here’s a passage:

And that’s what I feel in Jerusalem as well. Jerusalem used to be the spiritual capital—after all, that’s what the argument was about. You could feel it, on every street corner, you could feel the history, but now with the hideous wall and the overbuilding and desecration of the landscape—I mean, what is going on? Aren’t they destroying the very quality for which the city was meant to be precious? Aren’t they killing the thing they love? Or is that my problem? Am I just a decadent Westerner who can’t help thinking spirituality must have something to do with beauty? Jerusalem used to be beautiful. Now it isn’t. As far as I’m concerned, Jerusalem is spoiled—How can it not be spoiled? It has a great concrete wall beside it—but then Jerusalem was never intended for me. It was intended for believers.

At The National, George Packer reviews a book about an Iraqi general, his family, and their complicity in Saddam’s regime; Robyn Creswell reviews Adina Hoffman’s biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali (he says it is “a triumph of sympathetic imagination, dogged research and impassioned writing” and “the is the first biography of any Palestinian writer in any language”–can that be true?)

And finally, ArteEast has a new issue of their digital magazine up; this one focuses on the Art of Engagement–on the intersection of political activism, political engagement and art, the “limits and possibilities of publicly engaged art and participatory practice in the Middle East.”

Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat and Western “Ventriloquism”

There’s a great article by Marina Warner in the London Review of Books about the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Edward FitzGerald–a work that is better understood as “channeling” than translating and that is remarkably reminiscent of the way the Thousand and One Nights was assimilated into Western literature.

The consideration of FitzGerald’s–apparently quite inspired–rendering of Khayyam’s work turns into a reflection on the act of translation itself (something I’m alway fascinated with) and on the way Western authors have spoken through Eastern alter-egos. To some degree, FitzGerald seems to have well aware of what he was doing. I enjoyed this quote: 

…FitzGerald wrote: ‘But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.’

(found via the Literary Saloon).

Mahmoud Darwish, “Unbeliever in the Impossible”

There’s a really lovely article in the last issue of Harper’s on Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (thanks for the tip, Matt). It’s not available to non-subscribers, so I’m cutting and pasting. And honestly, Harper’s is a great magazine and this article is just one more reason to subscribe

Unbeliever in the impossible:
The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish
By Robyn Creswell
He died of a broken heart, far from home. That is the sentimental version, not entirely untrue. Mahmoud Darwish, widely acknowledged as the national poet of Palestine, died last August following open-heart surgery at a hospital in Houston, Texas. After three days of official mourning in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority organized a state funeral in Ramallah, where the body was laid to rest. The ceremonies were carried live on Al Jazeera and included eulogies by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and fellow poet Samih al-Qasim. Listening to those speeches—conventionally bombastic and anodyne—one couldn’t help remembering Darwish’s more mischievous imagining of his own funeral in his memoirMemory for Forgetfulness. Written in 1986, the book recounts a single day in Beirut during the summer of 1982, when the Israeli bombardment was especially heavy and death was very much on the poet’s mind. “I want a funeral with an elegant coffin, so I can peek out at the mourners,” Darwish thinks, listening to the bombs drop and savoring the anticipated pleasures of life after death: wreaths of red and yellow roses, a smooth-voiced master of ceremonies, broadcast recordings of his poems. But then, lying in the coffin, he hears the whispers of the bereaved:

“He was a womanizer.” “His clothes were much too fancy.” “The carpets in his house—you’d sink into them up to your knees!” “He had a mansion on the Côte d’Azur, a villa in Spain, and a secret bank account in Zurich.”… “We don’t know if he had a yacht in Greece, but he had enough seashells in his house to build a refugee camp.” “He lied to women.” “The poet is dead and his poems died with him. What’s left of him? His days are over. We’re through with his legend.”11. The titles above are the best and most recent translations of Darwish into English. He has had many different translators, and the quality of these texts is uneven. In the interest of consistency, I have provided my own translations.

Darwish was indeed a legend. He became famous while still very young as “the poet of the resistance”; later on, his books sold in the millions and were translated into dozens of languages; his public readings filled soccer stadiums and his poems were set to music by the Arab world’s greatest performers. But all legends end in gossip. In Darwish’s vignette, the rumormongers strike before the body is even in the ground. Their reproaches are in fact a collection of lies and cruel half-truths. Darwish did not own mansions or yachts, but he was for a long time associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose corruption, by the time Darwish wrote his memoir, was already apparent. He was not a European playboy but was by all accounts, including his own, very fond of women. He left Israel for good in 1971—living in Moscow, Cairo, and Beirut before settling for a long stay in Paris—a departure that some Palestinians, especially those who remained behind, considered a betrayal. He wrote for more than forty years from the heart of a conflict that never left the headlines, and he could escape neither the eulogies nor the resentments, nor his own unsparing self-criticism. What’s left of him, beyond the legends and the gossip, is the poetry.

Continue reading Mahmoud Darwish, “Unbeliever in the Impossible”

New York encounters

So I apologize again for my recent lack of writing…

I’ve been couch surfing and (then) moving into a new place.

The cultural highlights of my last month in New York, however, have been seeing Tariq Ali and Norman Finkelstein, among others, talk at the Brecht Forum a few weeks back about Barak Obama’s foreign policy. The general consensus was that his foreign policy, despite his hopeful rhetoric, was a continuation of self-defeating imperialist American tendencies. Also, an interesting and inevitable discussion opened up over whether one should vote, nonetheless, for Obama (the panel was split). There was also quite a bit of discussion of the situation in Pakistan. Ali said that war in Pakistan was being pursued “as an alibi for the failure of the Afghanistan war.” 

Last week, I had the thrill of meeting the great poet Adonis. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear him read his own poetry, which he did at an event in honor of Edward Said. I was told by people who attended that it was fantastic–Adonis read his long poem on New York, “قبر من اجل نيو يورك” (“A Tomb for New York”). A few days later, I attended an informal talk he gave about Islam and literature. Adonis talked about the historic divide between literature and religion, between poets that celebrated the joys of wine and caliphs who used religion to shore up their political power. He posed a few provocative questions: he asked, for example, how one can explain the fact that if Arabic is the language of God, it was nonetheless an existing language, spoken by pagans, before God’s revelation? But overall his talk was replete with simple oppositions (perhaps expecting a US audience that wasn’t that familiar with the subject)–it posited a historic separation between art and religion, and set modern Arab writers up as the descendants of rebellious, hedonist medieval poets, small creators competing with the big Creator. 

On a side note, I was shocked and dismayed by my utter failure to find a book of Adonis’ poetry in New York. I looked for his work at three or four bookstores, hoping to get a copy for him to sign, and found nothing.

Goodbye Mahmoud Darwish

“My Mother”

I long for my mother’s bread

My mother’s coffee
Her touch
Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day
I must be worth my life
At the hour of my death
Worth the tears of my mother.

And if I come back one day
Take me as a veil to your eyelashes
Cover my bones with the grass
Blessed by your footsteps
Bind us together
With a lock of your hair
With a thread that trails from the back of your dress
I might become immortal
Become a God
If I touch the depths of your heart.

If I come back
Use me as wood to feed your fire
As the clothesline on the roof of your house
Without your blessing
I am too weak to stand.

I am old
Give me back the star maps of childhood
So that I
Along with the swallows
Can chart the path
Back to your waiting nest. 


(Mahmoud Darwish, translation found on

Mahmoud Darwish died on Saturday. Many obits refer to him as something like “Palestine’s national poet” or “the poet of the Palestinian cause” which in a way is true but which makes this extraordinarily talented poet sound like something smaller than he was. He wasn’t just the voice of a particular state or people; he wasn’t a propagandist. What I found outstanding about his work is how–deeply and constantly concerned as he is with the problems of Palestinians–he manages to never be ideological, to always be free within his writing, open-eyed and even funny, a true artist. And therefore universal and all the more powerful when he does talk of the suffering and injustice of Palestinians. I still remember the shock of delight when I first read “Memory for Forgetfulness” (“what a book!”), of which an excellent English translation is available. 

Al Jazeera English has a nice segment on Darwish. I also recommend his official site, which has a great selection of audio recordings (unfortunately seemingly without the transcripts to go with) of the poet reciting his work. And I’m posting more English translations of some of his poems after the jump.


“Identity Card is one of the first poems that made Darwish famous across the Arab world. 


Identity Card

Record !
I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the nineth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks…
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself
at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Continue reading Goodbye Mahmoud Darwish