Mahmoud Darwish’s “Journal of an Ordinary Grief”

Reviewed by Andre Naffis-Sahely

Image of Mahmoud Darwish’s “Journal of an Ordinary Grief”

Every artist, particularly if they happen to be a good one, is in a sense posthumous; and as soon as their tongue is safely lifeless, every tribe lays claim to what part of their work suits their particular purposes;  “he or she” they say, “belonged to all of us.” The more I read of Darwish, who was quite possibly the modern apotheosis of the Arabic language, the more I consider how appalled he might have been of the public spectacle engendered by his death: the indecisions as to where he would be buried, the cortège of politicians filing past his coffin, the plans for a memorial, the days of mourning; who wouldn't be mortified? To most of those who knew him, Darwish was humble, shy— but alert to the duplicity of responses he inspired in his readers:

"You have to be crafty with formulation in order to safeguard your existence. For this reason you prefer poetry to crossing rivers. Then critics living in ease will accuse you of being a traitor to the national cause. And your enemies will accuse you of anti-Semitism."

Penned during Darwish's house arrest in Haifa prior to his exile from Israel in 1971, Journal of an Ordinary Grief is the first of his prose works to attempt a portrait of the artist as first and foremost a poet, and in the second place as a Palestinian. What is a Palestinian without a country, or even a physical memory of that country? Many of the lines in the Journal struggle with this paucity of means. As he puts it in “The Homeland,” the second chapter in the book: “the map does not constitute an answer, because it is very much like an abstract painting. And your grandfather's grave is not the answer because a small forest can make it disappear.” Through a mixture of soliloquies and imagined dialogues with his younger self, the Journal begins with a re-telling of his family's loss of their ancestral lands in al-Birwa, near Haifa. As the war unfolds, we see his grandfather take his family on a “picnic” to Lebanon in 1949. Their return, a few months later, when the reality of their situation had sunk in, is the story of millions: their land is confiscated and their orchards plundered. Refusing to concede defeat and sell his land, Darwish's grandfather leases his fields in a ruinous deal from their new owner, just in order to dwell in his past. The family's fate is sealed. They now inhabit the no-man's-land of un-citizenship—a concept familiar to Israeli Arabs ever since.

Following his grandfather's death, Darwish's father finds work in a quarry, where, despite the backbreaking work, he is barely able to sustain his family. “All of Palestine was translated in this manner. The houses Israelis live in are inhabited by ghosts.” Yet despite the heart-tearing questions “which was more painful, to be a refugee in someone else's country [ . . . ] or in your own?” as well as the philosophical musings, the Journal is largely characterized by its humor and sarcasm, especially when dealing with the Law. Here, for instance, is a scene recalling Darwish's arrest:

You sit facing the officer.

He says politely, sitting under a photograph of Herzl, “I'm honored to put you under arrest " 

You exchange pleasantries, “And I'm honoured to grant this honor. But would you kindly tell me what I am accused of?"

He says, “You are accused of exploding a watermelon at the entrance to the circus and threatening the security of the state

 When Darwish later attempts to secure a laissez-passer in order to travel to Greece, he is apprehended at the Port of Haifa just as he is about to board a ship. He has not yet left the city, to which he is indefinitely confined. Brought before a tribunal—in a scene reminiscent of Kafka'sTrial—Darwish is told that despite the nonsensical logic behind his indictment, he is guilty, and forever will be. He is Joseph K.; no amount of arguing or wily side-stepping will change this, to which Darwish, replies half-mockingly:

“Gentlemen, now that I understand the law, I want to make a dangerous         
confession. I swim in the sea every day, which belongs to the State of Israel and
not the city of Haifa, and I do not have a permit to enter the sea.”

I have another confession as well: “I enjoy the weather in the city of Haifa, and
the weather belongs to the State of Israel and not the city of Haifa. I do not have
a permit to enter the weather because the sky I see above me does not belong to
Haifa, and I do not have a permit to sit under the sky.”

Then you ask for a permit to live in the wind, and they smile.

It is passages of this sort that prompt one to agree with Ibrahim Muhawi, the translator of this volume, who in his foreword suggests that “irony is probably the literary mode most appropriate to exile”. Soon after this incident, Darwish is allowed to leave for Moscow. He was not to return until 1995, at which point he began to reside in Ramallah, in the West Bank, far from the land of his childhood.  Stylistically, the Journal defies any firm typology: part prose poetry and part diary—it poses no mean task for Muhawi, whose own prose and meticulous footnotes are impeccable, and who is quite obviously a believer in the possibility of “genuine” translation. His is not an act of approximation, but an inspired and scholarly piece of research. Towards the end of his foreword, for instance, he notes how Darwish had not provided the sources for his citations in the original manuscript, somehow self-assured of the familiarity of his statements to the reader; “while this consideration may have been true for some Arab readers in 1973,”,Muhawi says, “we cannot assume it to be the case for the reader of this translation.” Too right. In a fascinating paper, which Muhawi delivered at the SOAS in 2002—“Towards a Folkloristic Theory of Translation”—he offers a few thoughts on his notion of “thick translation” which, as he puts it, “is a form of political power, particularly when the source text comes from a culture, such as that of Palestinian Arabs, that is misunderstood or maligned in the target language.” It is exactly this sort of demystification that makes this memoir such an achievement. Journal of an Ordinary Grief is compelling—and offers numerous fascinating insights into the mindsets of Palestinians, Israelis, and Israeli Arabs alike. Both Muhawi and Archipelago Books are to be commended; the continuing efforts of this press to publish Darwish's prose is fast proving an invaluable contribution to Weltliteratur—and indispensable reading for anyone interested in the roots and ramifications of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. While it has only been a couple of years since his death, we are quickly losing sight of the “real” Darwish; we can only watch while the myth, the martyr and the “posthumous artist” take his place, but that is his real gift: what he loses, others gain; in thought, pleasure, and above all, one hopes, understanding. All of which require plenty of time, but, as Darwish puts it in the final sentence of the book, “waiting is steadfastness and a stand.”