Now, As You Awaken

by Mahmoud Darwish

Translated from the Arabic by Omnia Amin and Rick London



The author of more than 20 books of poetry, and many books of prose, Mahmoud Darwish is the most celebrated Palestinian poet writing today. Born in 1942, his family fled to Lebanon in 1948 when the advancing Israeli Army destroyed their village. When, like many others, they stole back into Palestine the following year, they became subject to the "present absent" designation used by the new Israeli state to mark the status of internally displaced Palestinians.

In Darwish's book of poems, Don't Apologize For What You've Done (Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut, 2004), the conditions of exile and estrangement converge in a poetry of personal immediacy - even as the work roams through broad territories of history and myth.

The first poem in this collection, The Rhythm's Passion, is composed serially in 47 passages. It evokes a poetics of presence-absence, written on the edge of identity, where loneliness is empathic and tender, and persists through the lyrical density of the work - and the lyrical instability brought about by the continual redrawing of its "map of absence."

The Rhythm's Passion enacts the drama of being in a radically unsettled place, looking for something to be at home with.

The passages that follow are from this poem.



I have the wisdom of one condemned…

I have the wisdom of one condemned to die,
I possess nothing so nothing can possess me
and have written my will in my own blood:
"O inhabitants of my song: trust in water"
and I sleep pierced and crowned by my tomorrow…
I dreamed the earth's heart is greater
than its map,
more clear than its mirrors
and my gallows.
I was lost in a white cloud that carried me up high
as if I were a hoopoe
and the wind itself my wings.
At dawn, the call of the night guard
woke me from my dream, from my language:
You will live another death,
so revise your last will,
the hour of execution is postponed again.
I asked: Until when?
He said: Wait till you have died some more.
I said: I possess nothing so nothing can possess me
and have written my will in my own blood:
"O inhabitants of my song: trust in water."



Don't apologize for what you've done…

Don't apologize for what you've done - I'm saying this
in secret. I say to my personal other:
Here all of your memories are visible:
Midday ennui in a cat's somnolence,
the cock's comb,
a scent of sage,
mother's coffee,
a straw mat with pillows,
the iron door to your room,
a fly buzzing around Socrates,
the cloud above Plato,
Diwan al-Hamasa,
father's photograph,
Mu'jam al-Buldan,
your three brothers and three sisters,
your childhood friends -
and a klatch of meddlers:
"Is that him?"
The witnesses disagree:
"It seems to be."
I ask:
"And who is he?"
I get no answer.
I whisper to my other:
"Is he the one that was you… that was me?"
He looks away.
The witnesses turn to my mother to confirm
he is me and
she readies herself to sing
her unique song:
"I'm the one who bore him,
but the wind brought him up."
And I say to my other: "Don't apologize, except to your mother."



On a day like this…

On a day like this, in a hidden corner
of a church, in full feminine magnificence,
in a leap year, when eternal green
meets navy blue in morning,
when form meets content and the sensuous
meets the mystic,
beneath a teeming arbor
where the shadow of a sparrow wearies
the image of meaning - in this emotional place
I'll encounter my end and my beginning
and say: To hell with you both. Have your way
if you must – take me and move on,
leaving the heart of truth fresh
for the hungry daughters of the jackal.
I say: I am not a citizen
or a refugee.
And I want one thing, nothing more,
one thing: a simple, quiet death
on a day like this, in the hidden heart
of the lily,
maybe compensation for a lot or for little,
for a life measured in moments and departures.
I want a death in this garden.
No more…no less.



If you find yourself alone…

If you find yourself alone, tell yourself:
Exile has altered its features…
Wasn't Abu Tammam afflicted before you
when he met himself:
"You are not you and
home is not home…"
Things carry your patriotic feelings for you:
A wild flower grows in your deserted corner,
a sparrow pecks the letter "H"
of your name into the broken bark
of a fig tree
and a bee stings your outstretched hand
as you reach for the goose down
on the other side of that fence.
And as for you:
The mirror has let you down,
you…and not you, say:
"Where have I left my face?"
You search beyond everyday things
for your feelings,
a happiness that cries and
a disappointment that chuckles…
Have you found yourself now?
Tell yourself: I found myself alone,
missing two moons,
but home is home.



I didn't apologize to the well…

I didn't apologize to the well as I passed by it.
I borrowed a cloud from an ancient pine and squeezed it
like an orange. I waited for a mythical white deer.
I instructed my heart in patience: Be neutral, as though
you were not a part of me. Here, good shepherds
stood on air and invented the flute and enticed
mountain partridges into their traps. Here, I saddled
a horse for flight to my personal planets, and flew.
And here, a fortuneteller told me: Beware of asphalt roads
and automobiles, ride on your sigh. Here, I loosened
my shadow and waited. I selected the smallest stone
and stood wakefully by it. I broke apart a myth
and got broken myself. I circled the well until
I flew out of myself to what I'm not. And a voice
from deep in the well spoke to me: This grave
is not yours. And so I apologized. I read verses
from the wise Qur'an and said to the anonymous presence
in the well: Peace be with you and the day
you were killed in the land of peace and with the day
you'll rise from the well's darkness
and live…



No flag flutters in the wind…

No flag flutters in the wind,
no horse floats in the wind,
no drums accompany the rise and fall of waves…
Nothing happens in tragedies today…
The curtain is drawn, both poets and audience
have left – there are no cedars or processions,
no olive branches to greet those coming in by boat,
weary from nosebleed and the lightness
of the final act, as if passing from one fate
to another, a fate written beyond the text,
a woman of Greece playing the part
of a woman of Troy, as easily white as black,
neither broken nor exalted, and no one asks:
"What will happen in the morning?"
"What comes after this Homeric pause?"
…as if this were a lovely dream
in which prisoners of war are relieved
by fairness of their long, immediate night,
as if they now say:
"We mend our wounds with salt"
"We live near our memory"
"We shall try out an ordinary death"
"We wait for resurrection, here, in its home
in the chapter that comes after the last…"



And we have countries…

And we have countries without borders, like our idea
of the unknown, narrow and wide - countries whose maps
narrow to a gray tunnel as we walk in them and cry out
in their labyrinths: "And still we love you."
Our love is an inherited disease. Countries that grow
by tossing us into the unknown. Their willows
and portrayals grow, their grasses and blue mountains.
A lake widens north of the soul. Wheat spikes
spring up south of the soul. The lemon shines like a lamp
in an emigrant's night. Geography emits sacred texts.
And the ascending chain of hills reaches higher
and higher. The exile tells himself: “If I were a bird
I would burn my wings." The smells of autumn
become the image of one I love, soft rain seeps
into the dry heart and imagination opens to its source
and becomes reality's terrain, the only true place.
Everything distant becomes rural and primitive,
as if the earth were still gathering itself to meet Adam
descending from his paradise. I say: These are the countries
that bear us…so when were we born?
Did Adam take two wives? Or will we be born again
to forget sin?



In Jerusalem, I mean inside the old wall…

In Jerusalem, I mean inside the old wall, I walk
from age to age without memory to guide me. For prophets
there are dividing the city's history… ascending to Heaven
and coming back less sad and less disappointed - love and peace
are sacred and are coming to this city. I was walking on a slope
and had forebodings:
How can storytellers differ over the way light
speaks in stone?
Do wars erupt from stones faintly lit?
I walk in my sleep. I look around in my dream.
I can't see anyone behind me. I can't see anyone
in front of me. All this light is for me. I walk.
I get lighter. I fly and become someone else in transfiguration.
Words sprout like grass from the prophetic mouth of Isaiah:
"If you won't believe now, you'll never believe."
I walk as if I were someone else. My wound
is a white rose of the gospels. My hands are two pigeons
hovering around a cross carrying the weight of the earth.
I don't walk, I fly. I become someone else in transfiguration.
No place, no time. So who am I? Ascending, I'm not myself.
I think: Only he, the Prophet Mohammed, spoke in
classical Arabic: "What will come next? And after that?"
Suddenly a soldier cries out: "You again? Haven't I already
killed you?" I said: "You've killed me… but, like you,
I forgot to die."



The exiles don't look back…

The exiles don't look back when leaving
one place of exile - for more exile
lies ahead, they've become familiar
with the circular road, nothing to the front
or to the rear, no north or south.
They emigrate from the fence to the garden,
leaving behind a will with each step across the yard
of the house:
"After we're gone, remember only this life."
They travel from the soft silk of morning to midday dust,
bearing a coffin filled with artifacts of absence:
an identity card and a letter to one beloved, address unknown:
"After we're gone, remember only this life."
With a wounded gesture of victory
they journey from the house to the street,
telling those who see them:
"We're still alive, so remove us from memory."
They emerge from their story to breathe and to bask
in the sun, think of flying higher…
and higher. They rise and fall. They come and go.
They jump from an ancient ceramic tile to a star.
And they come back to a story…
there's no end to the beginning.
They flee from somnolence to an angel of sleep,
pale and red-eyed from thinking of the blood
that's been shed:
"After we're gone, remember only this life…"



And they don't ask…

And they don't ask: What comes after death?
Though more intimate with the book of Paradise
than with accounts of the earth, they're preoccupied
with another question: What shall we do
before this death? Near to life, we live
and we don't – as if life were parceled out
from a desert where the haggling gods of property
settle their disputes.
We live beside an ancient dust.
Our lives burden the historian's night:
"Though I make them disappear, they come back to me
from absence."
Our lives burden the artist:
"I draw them and become one of them, veiled in mist."
Our lives burden the General:
"How can a ghost still bleed?"
We shall be what we want to be. And we want
a bit of life, not for just anything - but to honor
the resurrection after our death.
Unintentionally, they speak the philosopher's words:
"Death means nothing to us: if we are then he isn't.
Death means nothing to us: if he is then we are not."
And they have rearranged their dreams
and sleep standing.



Slain and unknown…

Slain and unknown. Neither gathered up by forgetfulness
nor dispersed by memory…they're forgotten
in winter grass on the road that runs between
two long tales, one of heroics, the other of suffering.
"I'm the victim here."
"No, only I am the victim."
No one says to a poet: "One victim doesn't kill another.
In the story there's a killer and a victim."
Once they were young, shaking snow from
the sacred cypress of Christ and playing
with small angels -
sons who were of the same generation… slipping away from school to escape mathematics
and the old hamasa poetry to play an innocent game
of death with soldiers on the barricades.
And they didn't say to the soldiers:
"Put away your guns and open the road so a butterfly
might find its mother near morning, so we might
fly with the butterfly out of our dreams, for dreams
are narrow at our door."
They were young and at play, making up stories
to tell a red rose still under snow, behind two long tales,
of heroics and suffering, and escaping with small angels
to a clear sky…



The cypress is in pieces like a shattered minaret…

                                       "The Cypress is the sadness of the tree,
                                         not the tree itself, and has no shadow
                                                      because it is the tree's shadow."
                                                                    Bassam Hajar

The cypress is in pieces like a shattered minaret, it's asleep
in the road, in its own ascetic shadows, green and dark,
just like it is. No one has been harmed. Cars pass by,
speeding over its branches, rising dust settling
on their windows…the cypress is in pieces
but the dove that chose it doesn't move its exposed nest
to a nearby accommodation. Overhead, two migrating birds
circle the sufficiency of its nesting place
and trade gestures. A woman says to her neighbor:
"I wonder, did you see a storm come by?"
"No, nor a bulldozer…and yet the cypress
is in pieces." And someone passing the debris says:
"Maybe it got bored from neglect, or worn out
by time, for it's as long as a giraffe and as meaningless
as a dust broom, and it provides no shade for lovers."
A small boy says: "I used to draw it without error, its lines
were easy to follow." And a girl says: "The sky
today is lacking because the cypress is in pieces."
And a young man says: "No, the sky today is complete
because the cypress is in pieces." And I say to myself:
"It's not obscure or clear, the cypress is in pieces -
there's only this: the cypress is in pieces."



A man and a fawn play together in a garden…

A man and a fawn play together in a garden…
I say to my friend: "Where did this little one
come from?" He says: "From Heaven – perhaps he's
the prophet John come back to me in my loneliness.
I've been blessed with his company. He has no mother
to nurture him so I became his mother, I give him
goat's milk mixed with a spoonful of scented honey
and carry him like a lover's cloud through an oak forest."
I said to my friend: "Has he become familiar with
this house of yours, filled with voices and utensils?"
My friend said: "He even lies in my bed when he's ill.
I become sickly when he does. I hallucinate:
O orphaned child, I'm your father and mother,
get up and teach me tranquility." I waited one month
before visiting my friend's rural home. And his words
came with tears, strong Solomon wept for the first time,
telling me in a quivering voice:
"This son of the father deer and the mother deer
died in my arms. He couldn't adjust to a domestic life.
But his death isn't like yours or mine." I said nothing
to my desolate friend. He didn't bid me goodbye
with a recitation of verse, as usual. He walked to the tomb
of the white deer. He gathered sand in his hands
and cried: "Rise up, my son, so your father can sleep
in your bed – only there can I know tranquility."
He is asleep in the fawn's grave and I have
a small past in this place…
A man and a fawn lie together in a garden…

                                                                to Soleiman Elnajab



Now, as you awaken…

Now, as you awaken, remember the swan's
last dance. Did you dance with young angels
while you were dreaming? Did the butterfly
light you up when it burned with the eternal
light of the rose? Did the phoenix appear clearly
before you and call you by your name?
Did you see the morning dawn from the fingers
of the one you love? Did you touch
the dream with your hand or did you
leave it to dream alone, aware suddenly
of your own absence? Dreamers don't abandon
their dreams, they flare and continue
the life they have in the dream…tell me
how you lived your dream in a certain place
and I'll tell you who you are. And now,
as you awaken, remember if you have wronged
your dream. And if you have, then remember
the last dance of the swan.



He is quiet and so am I…

He is quiet and so am I.
He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee.
That's the difference between us.
Like me, he wears a wide, striped shirt,
and like him, I read the evening paper.
He doesn't see my secret glance.
I don't see his secret glance.
He's quiet and so am I.
He asks the waiter something.
I ask the waiter something…
A black cat walks between us.
I feel the midnight of its fur
and he feels the midnight of its fur…
I don't say to him: The sky today
is clear and blue.
He doesn't say to me: The sky today is clear.
He's watched and the one watching
and I'm watched and the one watching.
I move my left foot.
He moves his right foot.
I hum the melody of a song
and he hums the melody of a similar song.
I wonder: Is he the mirror in which I see myself?
And turn to look in his eyes…but I don't see him.
I hurry from the café.
I think: Maybe he's a killer…
or maybe a passerby who thinks
I am a killer.
He's afraid…and so am I.



If I were someone else on the road…

If I were someone else on the road I wouldn't
have looked back - I'd have said what a man traveling
on the road says to a traveling woman: Greetings, stranger,
wake up your guitar, let's postpone tomorrow so the road
will open up and be more spacious and together
we'll escape from our story: How it is you are you
and I'm someone else here before you.

If I were someone else on the road I'd belong
to this road, there'd be no going back for me
or for you. Wake up your guitar so we can probe
the unknown and the direction that seduces
the traveler into a test of gravity. I'm no more
than the steps I'm taking and you are my compass
and my abyss combined. If I were someone else
I would have hid these emotions in a suitcase
and my poem would be liquid and white, transparent,
abstract and light, more durable than memory
and more fragile than dew, and I would be saying:
This expanse is my identity.

If I were someone else on the road I would have
said to the guitar: School me on the extra string,
for home is now further away and the road to it
more beautiful – that's what my new song will say -
the longer the road the more meaning is refreshed
and I become two on this road, myself and
someone else…



There's a seat for me in a deserted theater…

There's a seat for me in a deserted theater
in Beirut. I might remember or I might forget
the last scene, without longing – only because
the play wasn't skillfully crafted:
like an account of the war of the despairing
or the tale of instincts common to the audience.
The actors are tearing up their pages
and searching for the author among us, the witnesses
who sit here before them.
I say to the artist beside me: Don't raise your weapon,
be patient, unless you are the author.
He asks me: Are you the author?
We sit in fear. I say: Be heroic, neutral - rise above the fate
certain to come.
He says: No hero dies honorably in the second scene. I'll wait
for another. Maybe I'll make some changes in a later act.
Maybe I'll revise what metal has done to my brothers.
I say: So then it's you?
He says: You and I are both masked authors
and masked witnesses.
I say: What's my concern here? I only came to watch.
He says: There are no spectators at the threshold
of an abyss…no one who is neutral. You must choose
a part to play in the end.
I say: I'm in need of a beginning.
How does this begin?



It is night and she is lonely…

It is night and she is lonely
and I am lonely like her,
between her candle and mine are two empty tables
in this winter restaurant.
      Nothing disturbs the silence between us
She doesn't see me when I catch her plucking a rose
from her breast and I don't see her when she catches me
sipping a kiss from my wine…
She doesn't crumble her bread and I don't spill water
on the paper tablecloth.
      Nothing disturbs the serenity between us
She is alone and I am alone with her beauty. Why doesn't
frailty bring us together? I ask myself: Why not
taste her wine? She doesn't see me as I watch her
crossing her legs and I don't see her watch me
when I remove my coat. Nothing of me disturbs her
and nothing of her disturbs me, we're in harmony
with forgetfulness…
Our supper, each of us alone, is delicious.
Night's voice is blue, I'm not alone
and she's not alone as we listen together
to its crystal.
      Nothing disrupts our night.
She doesn't say:
Love is born a living creature
and becomes an idea.
And I don't say:
Love has become an idea…

But it seems to be so.



In Egypt, one hour isn't like any other…

In Egypt, one hour isn't like any other…
each moment is a memory renewed by a bird
of the Nile. I was there. The human creature
there invented the Sun-God. No one calls himself
by name: "I'm a son of the Nile, that's name enough
for me." From your first moment, you call yourself
"son of the Nile" to avoid the heaviness of the abyss.
There, the living and the dead pick clouds of cotton
from the land of Upper Egypt and plant wheat
in the Delta. Standing between the living
and the dead, two guards take turns watching over
the palms. Everything romantic is within you,
you walk on the edge of your soul in time's labyrinth,
as if before you were born Mother Egypt
had given birth to you first, as a lotus flower.
Do you know yourself now? Egypt sits with itself
in stealth: "Nothing is like me." And mends
the battered coat of eternity with a wind blowing
from any direction. I was there. The human creature
was writing the wisdom of Death-Life. Everything is
romantic, moonlit…except for the poem
as it turns around to look for tomorrow, thinking
of immortality but speaking only of its frailty
before of the Nile…



I remember Elsayyab…

I remember Elsayyab, screaming uselessly in the Gulf:
"Iraq, Iraq, there's only Iraq…"
Only an echo answered.
I remember Elsayyab, in the Sumerian vastness
the feminine overcame the infertility of mist
and bequeathed earth and exile together.
I remember Elsayyab, poetry is born in Iraq,
so be an Iraqi, my friend, if you want
to be a poet.
I remember Elsayyab, he didn't find life
as he imagined it between the Tigris and
the Euphrates, didn't contemplate the plant of immortality
like Gilgamesh, didn't think of resurrection…
I remember Elsayyab, taking laws from Hammurabi
to redeem a wrongful act and walking like a mystic
to his grave.
I remember Elsayyab, touched by fever
and hallucinating: "My brothers prepared supper
for Hulagu's army, there were only my brothers
for servants…"
I remember Elsayyab, we didn't dream of nourishment
too good for a bee, didn't dream of more than two small hands
to shake our absence.
I remember Elsayyab, dead blacksmiths rose up from their graves
to make our chains.
I remember Elsayyab, poetry is an experiment
and an exile - twins -
we didn't dream of life other than it is, dreamed only
of dying our own way.

"Iraq, Iraq, there is only Iraq…"



Translator's notes


Diwan al-Hamasa

A treasured anthology of early Arabic poetry compiled in the 9th century by Abu Tammam when he was snowbound in Hamadan.

Mu'jam al-Buldan

A summation of historical, geographical, and ethnographic studies in the Arab world written in the early 13th century by Yaqut ibn 'Abdallah, a freed slave who, upon his release, spent many years wandering, making a living by copying and selling manuscripts.


About the author

The author of more than 20 books of poetry, Mahmoud Darwish is the most celebrated Palestinian poet writing today. Born in 1942 in Palestine, he has lived in Beirut, Cairo, Mosow, and Amman, and currently resides in Ramallah.

About the Translators

Omnia Amin was born in Cairo, Egypt. She graduated from The American University in Cairo and received an MA and PhD in Modern and Contemporary British Literature from the University of London, Queen Mary and Westfield College. She was Head of the English Department at Philadelphia University in Jordan, and currently teaches at Zayed University in UAE.

Rick London's most recent publication is the chapbook Picture With Moving Parts (Doorjamb Press, 2002). He lives and works in San Francisco.



Copyright 2006 by Mahmoud Darwish
Translation copyright 2006 by Omnia Amin and Rick London