Mahmoud Darwish: A new translation captures the ache of exile

Mahmoud Darwish is the Palestinian poet laureate. His verses chronicle the Palestinians’ anguish at the loss of their land. His rhythms tattoo their angry heartache. After his death in 2008, he was buried in Ramallah, a final return to the land that was his life, his cause and his identity.

He wrote “Journal of an Ordinary Grief” in 1973 but this is its first translation into English. The first of three semi-autobiographical prose works (the second, “Memory for Forgetfulness”, was published in English in 1995; the third, “In the Presence of Absence”, will come out next year), it recounts the poet’s house arrest, his run-ins with Israeli interrogators and various spells in jail. Darwish’s voice, drifting between his own and that of his people, searches endlessly for what it cannot find.

Ibrahim Muhawi’s limpid translation captures the longing, the ache of exile. When Darwish and his family left their village in 1948, they expected to return soon. The painful realisation of their loss comes gradually. The trees that are the “ribs of childhood” have been left behind. Palestine has become a homeland defined by those who occupy it, a place that is “a dream in its actuality, and an actuality in its dream”. Occupied though it may be, it is a paradise that is “subject to being regained”. Despite everything, it is attainable.

Some question the Palestinians’ all-consuming attachment to their land. Darwish answers them simply: “‘Can the land be so holy?’ For the Palestinians, the answer is yes.” He regrets that they have produced no Jeremiah, no one who can “walk around in our streets and in our failings, one who can scourge us and lament us”. Perhaps it was hard for him to see how well he did that himself.


Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief. Archipelago Books 2010.

The Economist

October 21, 2010.



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