The edgily modern poetry of Najwan Darwish

With this collection of Najwan Darwish’s poetry — beautifully translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid — The New York Review of Books has made available to English-language readers the work of one of Arabic literature’s biggest new stars.

Darwish, born in Jerusalem to refugee parents, had his first collection of poetry in his native language published in 2000, when he was just 22. Since then he has been named one of the Hay Festival Beirut’s “best 39 Arab authors under 39” and his work has been translated into at least 15 languages. It’s an impressive record.

Nothing More to Lose, as the collection is titled, amply demonstrates why Darwish has received such acclaim. A selection of poems written between 2000 and the present day, the works contained in this slim volume are pugnacious, bitterly angry, tender, witty and sharply intelligent.

Many are highly political. Where the classic Palestinian resistance poets — Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim and their comrades — sought to describe and depict Palestinian culture and their people’s oppression, and to present often nostalgic or romantic views of the society they remembered or aspired to, this new political poetry is in your face, and often cynical.

After almost seventy years of Nakba (the forced dispossession and displacement of Palestinians that began in 1948), he seems to say that the dreams are harder to sustain. The questionable attainments of the political struggle up to now are skewered in “Liberty,” in which Najwan Darwish notes that the “barefoot Liberty” of classic French revolutionary iconography “tramples the people beneath her.”


The most damning words come, perhaps, in “Pleading Before History,” where we meet “these elderly lawyers/… still striving to defend our case.” Darwish portrays them as utterly impotent men who — in their dogged refusal to make themselves heard, or to say anything worth hearing — it is hard not to equate with current political leaders:

Despite their words still not being understood in the assembly rooms

despite their prolonged absence from the reality that keeps turning a cold shoulder to their dreams
despite our continued discontent, our weariness of their short sporadic speeches that seem like seas drowning on dry land…

These elders have washed their hands of reality.

Grim humor

Maybe such clear-eyed harshness is the result of growing up in Jerusalem, a city brutally sliced in two, where constant Israeli encroachments — physical, legal, administrative — continuously change the rules for Palestinian inhabitants. The ways in which this leaves them dangling is, it seems, best evoked through grim humor:

I’ll be banished from being
because I’m partial to the void
I’ll be banished from the void
for my suspect ties to being

In particular Darwish uses, to vicious effect, the imagery of the three monotheistic faiths, especially Christianity, with its varied and ambiguous roles in Palestine’s history and culture. Reflecting on the way in which his home city has been torn apart by politics and the demands of competing faiths, he writes:

We stood on the Mount
to raise a sacrifice for you
and when we saw our hands rise empty
we knew that we were your sacrifice

Right to anger

And on the winter 2008-09 bombing of Gaza, he offers excoriating words, condemning not only the killers but those who talk, exploit or fail to act. This is a Palestinian voice which refuses to tailor itself to the desires of audiences who want to hear about steadfastness and valor, and demands instead the right to be angry, and to decide for itself who its enemies are:

…there are two types of people:
those who cast their suffering and sins
into the streets so they can sleep
and those who collect the people’s suffering and sins
mold them into crosses, and parade them
through the streets of Babylon and Gaza and Beirut

But — with the inevitable comparison with his namesake — we also find that Najwan Darwish can take the personal and use it to open up huge political issues. Where Mahmoud Darwish’s “mother” figure baked the sweet-smelling bread of lost, happy memories, Najwan’s is a less stereotypical, more complex figure:

… this woman I never failed to disappoint: I was not martyred in the first intifada, nor in the second, nor in the third…
As she reads, her orthodox imagination crucifies me with every page…

That is not to say that the nostalgia and the deep-rooted appreciation of Palestinian history and culture aren’t still there; Darwish is far too intelligent a writer to resort to slogans and stock images. He well knows that the “political” points he makes are all the more ravagingly poignant because they are set in contexts which are beautiful, heartfelt and/or evocatively melancholy.

In “Identity Card,” for instance, Darwish opens with:

Despite — as my friends joke — the Kurds being famous for their severity, I was gentler than a summer breeze as I embraced my brothers in the four corners of the world.

He then goes on to emphasize the connections between Palestinian culture — and oppression — with the histories and experiences of other peoples, from Armenians, Amazigh and Aramaeans to someone “immersed in springtime in the gardens of Shiraz, and Isfahan, and Bukhara.”

And the title poem combines the bitter anger of “hear the houses sliced open/ in the village of Lifta” with the limpid, wistful but sophisticated beauty of:

listen like a fish
in a lake guarded by an angel,
hear the tales of the villagers, embroidered
like kaffiyehs in the poems
hear the singers growing old.

In the end, though, it is a dark, edgily modern vision with which Darwish presents us. The flickers of beauty which the world offers us are, it seems, ephemeral and quickly lost to the past, and any victories we might hope for from struggle are equally fragile.

This spirit is embodied in a brief poem, the title of which asks the famous question usually attributed to Adolf Hitler about the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 — “Who Remembers the Armenians?”

I remember them…

You, murderer, who remembers you?

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with the Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.