A very touching article about Mahmoud Darwish in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008
He wrote for us too
By Yael Lerer
I consider myself privileged to have taken part in the effort to translate Mahmoud Darwish into Hebrew. This undertaking was carried out, for the most part, by the gifted Muhammad Hamza Ghaneim, who also passed away before his time, four years ago. Four volumes in Ghaneim's wonderful translation have been published in Hebrew: "Bed of a Stranger" (Babel Publishers, 2000); and "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?" (2000), "State of Siege" (2003) and "Mural" (2006), all published by Andalus.
In early 2000, when the country was in an uproar over a proposal by then education minister Yossi Sarid to include two of Darwish's poems as optional items in the high-school literary syllabus, not a single volume by the poet could be found in Israeli bookstores. Many of Darwish's poems had appeared throughout the years in literary journals and newspaper literary sections. Salman Masalha also translated Darwish's "Memory for Forgetfulness," a book of prose (Schocken, 1989), and Hannah Amit-Kochavi translated the correspondence between Darwish and poet Samih al-Qasim ("Between Two Halves of the Orange," Mifras Publishing House, 1991). But not one volume of poetry was available.
Then Ghaneim, one of the more important contributors to Andalus Publishing, which was then being founded, pulled from his drawer the Hebrew translation of "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?", a masterpiece by Darwish offering a poetic reflection on childhood realms and their loss; in a matter of weeks we had published the book. When it reached stores everyone kept quiet: the petty politicians, poets, columnists-all those who vehemently argued over Darwish's poetry without having read it. I would have liked to think it was his poetry that muted everyone, leaving the bickerers at a loss for words. But sadly I discovered that Darwish was also right in saying more than once that Hebrew readers didn't really take notice of his poetry.
Darwish also wrote for us. Many of his poems address us-Jewish Israelis-directly. The poem "State of Siege" (translated by Ghaneim and edited by Anton Shammas) reads in Hebrew as if it was written in the language, and the first to call this to my attention was Darwish himself. In January 2002, at the height of Israel's siege of the West Bank, when tanks were plowing the streets of Ramallah, and shortly after Israeli soldiers wreaked destruction, firing at pictures in the gallery of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, which housed Darwish's office, and raided his desk drawers, Darwish wrote about what was happening. In this beautiful poem he writes of destruction, death; but also of peace, of the shared future that we try so hard to thwart, of possibility. From amidst the devastation he seeks to "cultivate hope," and invites us-the destroyers and murderers-to come in and drink some coffee, but to "get out of our mornings." He turns to us, but we don?t want to listen.
We aren't able to extricate ourselves from a colonizer mentality that sees natives as "uncultured," or relegates native culture to the level of folklore, and which at best finds interest in their work, as Darwish repeatedly said, "in order to know the enemy or to make peace with him." And so, although the historical and moving evening held in honor of the poet by Masharef magazine in Haifa a year ago did attract the attention of the Israeli media, the extensive daily coverage it received appeared only in the news pages. It was coverage that for the most part overlooked Darwish's texts and the works that had been translated into Hebrew. Our sales that month accurately reflect the gap between the apparent "media interest" and the interest in the poetry: seven copies of "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?", seven of "State of Siege," 15 of "Mural," which had come out less than a year earlier.
Darwish wrote "Mural" ("Jidariyya" in Arabic, "Tziyur Lelo Kir" in Hebrew) in 1999, after surviving clinical death, which had resulted from surgery that ultimately granted him another 10 years of life and creativity. In this breathtaking and difficult poem he talks to death, negotiates with it, asks it to wait for him (at least "until I finish my talk with what's left of my life"), and waits for it to return. "This poem by Mahmoud Darwish is too big and profound to be interpreted by a single review," is what was written in Haaretz. A few months later, in neighboring pages, a writer criticized the fact that al-Hakawati Palestinian National Theater didn't stage the (wonderful) play "Jidariyya"in Israel. Since the writer noted that "after the premiere in Jerusalem, the play was subsequently staged in Ramallah, at the al-Midan Theater in Haifa, in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Acre," I assume that she was referring to the fact that it wasn't staged in Hebrew, or for Hebrew speakers. All the while, she used the Arabic title, ignoring the existence of a Hebrew translation. Again, the same unbearable gap between boisterous criticism on the one hand and evident lack of interest on the other.
The shy, quiet man, perplexed by the audience of thousands that gathered before him, found it difficult to refuse permission to translate his work into Hebrew, even though in his final years-as with anyone who desires a life in this country founded on justice and equality-his despair was profound, and he wasn't successful in cultivating hope. "What is the point of doing it now, it's still early, they won't read it," he said when we asked to publish "Mural" in Hebrew. Ultimately, however, he couldn't refuse and was satisfied with the finished product. I am glad that we won his trust, and hope that our translations are indeed worthy of it.
The volumes we have published comprise a small portion of Darwish's oeuvre, and despite everything I have said here, I wish that we had had the means to complete the translation project, filling Hebrew bookshelves with more loving, complete translations like those of Ghaneim.
Yael Lerer is the founder of Andalus Publishing, an independent publishing house that specializes in the translation of Arabic literature into Hebrew.