Fady Joudah on Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)

Mahmoud Darwish was and is a colossal figure in modern Arabic poetry. He passed away Saturday in Houston, Texas after heart surgery. Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet and doctor who lives in Houston and was a finalist for the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for Butterfly's Burden, a collection of three recent books by Darwish. Two of these poems appear in PEN America 9: Checkpoints, along with two new poems by Joudah, who recently won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. (One of these poems provided our new issue with its title.)

Mahmoud Darwish was and will remain a rare phenomenon in the world of letters, a poet whose constant dialogue with place and time (or non place and non time) have thrust him in the hearts and minds of millions of people. He was as extraordinary and private as he was universal and public.

A tender, shy man, with a sense of humor and satire, he was dedicated to the art of poetry and was not concerned with his public image, but never disdainful of it, always respectful of, and indebted to, his readers. His complex language that incessantly bears the illusion of accessibility is laden with paradox and complex metaphor. He was not only the truest and most beautiful expression of Palestine and Palestinians but also of the Arab world. He is dearly loved in Tunis and Morocco as he is in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt and across the Gulf. And he was also celebrated and honored the world over.

Mahmoud Darwish loved life, and loved it in its full adornment and dignity and did not want it compromised. He would not want sorrow to define him. He would rather “We Love Life” and “Remember after (him) only life”…And he would want not necessarily the fixation on the elegiac and the historico-political in his poetry, but a celebration of his eulogy for life and language. He was an innovator of prosody and contemporary rhythms in Arabic, a philosopher of the self and its stranger others, ever the interlocutor. I can only hope that the day will soon come, especially in English, when Darwish’s night and dream, jasmine and almond blossoms are seen for what they are, the private lexicon of a singular and eternal, timeless voice in the history of human literature.

Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American, is a physician. His first poetry collection, The Earth in the Attic, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007. He has been a field member of Doctors Without Borders since 2001.

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