Unfortunately, It Was Paradise by Mahmoud Darwish
Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché
University of California Press, 2003 (ISBN 0520237544)
Picking up a book from a Palestinian poet, one expects politics and passion for views on the world as he knows it. What I as a reader wasn't prepared for when I picked up Mahmoud Darwish's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, however, was the Nerudaesque beauty of his lines, the almost erotic rendering he gives to a land at war in the form of measured, powerful verses. Darwish's poems flow smoothly like a river but with the overwhelming charisma of a stream.
The author writes of alienation both in an out of his native land, while not losing the intense connection he has to place and culture. Though a paradox, he succeeds at this all too well, as in his poem "Another Road in the Road":
There is yet another road in the road, another chance for migration.
To cross over we will throw many roses in the river.
No window wants to return to us, there we have to go, north of the
Have yet we forgotten something, both simple and worthy of our new ideas?
The distinction and bond between patriot and expatriate isn't the only paradox Darwish toys with so smoothly. He also navigates the waters between self and culture, often writing of his own life as a metaphor for the whole of his people, while other times mentioning Palestine or its citizens and meaning himself. This he accomplishes well in "They Would Love to See Me Dead":
The would love to see me dead, to say: He belongs to us, he is ours.
For twenty years I have heard their footsteps on the walls of the night.
The open no door, yet here they are now. I see three of them:
a poet, a killer, and a reader of books.
Will you have some wine? I asked.
Yes, they answered.
When do you plan to shoot me? I asked.
Take it easy, they answered.
They lined up their glasses all in a row and started singing for the people.
Of course, the reader should not presume this book is all politics and persecution. In fact, some of the collection's finer moments come in meditations on images and scenes. I hate to invoke Neruda too many times, but again and again as I read these poems, I felt as if I were reading that Chilean Nobel Laureate reincarnated. For example, there these lines from "I See My Ghost Coming from Afar":
Like a balcony, I gaze upon whatever I desire.
I gaze upon trees guarding the night from the night
and the sleep of those who would wish me death.
I gaze upon the wind chasing the wind
so that it might find a home in the wind.
I gaze upon a woman basking in herself.
Recommendation: All in all, Darwish as author utilizes the perfect combination: something to say AND a subtlety and majesty in the way he says it. This book is a must-read for anyone seeking a less activist perspective on the politics of the Middle East, but also a gem for anyone who enjoys simply good poetry. Buy this one and discuss it with your friends.