from Memory for Forgetfulness (Dha:kira li-l-nisya:n), August Beirut 1982

by Mahmoud Darwish
translated by Ibrahim Muhawi

Darwish's book begins with an epigraph from Roland Barthes:

C’est précisément parce que j‘oublie que je lis.

I am just beginning this moving and powerfully written book and am finding Darwish's work an extraordinary investigation into reading, writing, history, memory, forgetfulness, occupation, exile, identity, nation, violence. That said, gendered constructions in this passage strike me as problematic. Also, among other things, it would be productive to read this along side of Jacques Rancière's The Names of History.

In 1948 Darwish's family fled from Birwe in Upper Galilee to Lebanon. Shortly thereafter "the newly formed Israel destroyed the village. Darwish's family...stole back into the homeland, but too late to be included in the census of the Palestinian Arabs who had remained in the country" (xii). Without identity papers and under Israeli rule, Darwish was vulnerable. In his Journal of an Ordinary Grief (Yawmiyya:t al-Huzn al-?a:di), Darwish explains, "you realize that philosophically you exist but legally you do not" (xiii).

All quotes (including footnotes *-***) are from Memory for Forgetfulness, August, Beirut, 1982 by Mahmoud Darwish. Translated with an Introduction by Ibrahim Muhawi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

And where is my will?

It stopped over there, on the other side of the collective voice. But now, I want nothing more than the aroma of coffee. Now I feel shame. I feel shamed by my fear, and by those defending the scent of the distant homeland--that fragrance they've never smelled because they weren't born on her soil. She bore them, but they were born away from her. Yet they studied her constantly, without fatigue or boredom; and from overpowering memory and constant pursuit, they learned what it means to belong to her.

"You're aliens here," they say to them there.

"You're aliens here," they say to them here. *

And between here and there they stretched their bodies like a vibrating bow until death celebrated itself through them. Their parents were driven out of there to become guests here, temporary guests, to clear civilians from the battlegrounds of the homeland and to allow the regular armies to purge Arab land and honor of shame and disgrace. As the old lyric had it: "Brother, the oppressors have all limits dared to break/ To battle then, of ourselves an offering to make.../ Of a sudden upon them with death we came/ In vain their fight, and nothing they became."** And as those lyrics were chasing out the remnant of the invaders, liberating the country line by line, these youths were born here, any old way--without a cradle, perhaps on a straw mat or banana leaves, or in bamboo baskets--with no joy or feasting, no birth certificate or name registration. They were a burden to their families and tent neighbors. In short, their births were surplus. They had no identity.

And in the end what happened, happened. The regular armies retreated, and these youths were still being born without a reason, growing up for no reason, remembering for no reason, and being put under siege for no reason. All of them know the story--a story very much like that of a cosmic traffic accident or a natural catastrophe. But they also read a great deal in the books of their bodies and their shacks. They read their segregation, and the Arab-nationalist speeches. They read the publications of UNRWA  [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency], and the whips of the police.***Yet they went on growing up and going beyond the limits of the refugee camp and the detention center.

And they read the history of forts and citadels conquerors used as signatures to keep their names alive in lands not theirs and to forge the identity of rocks and oranges for example. Is history not bribable? And why, then, would many places--lakes, mountains, cities--bear the names of military leaders but that they had mouthed an impression when they first beheld them, and their words became the names still used today? "Oh, rid!" (How beautiful!) That's what a Roman general cried out when he first saw that lake in Macedonia, and his surprise became its name. Add to this the hundreds of names we use to refer to places previously singled out by some conqueror, where it has since become difficult to disentangle the identity from the defeat. Forts and citadels that are no more than attempts to protect a name that does not trust time to preserve it from oblivion. Anti-forgetfulness wars; anti-oblivion stones. No one wants to forget. More accurately, no one wants to be forgotten. Or, more peacefully, people bring children into the world to carry their name, or to bear for them the weight of the name and its glory. It has a long history, this double operation of searching for a place or a time on which to put a signature and untie the knot of the name facing the long caravans of oblivion.

Why then should those whom the waves of forgetfulness have cast upon the shores of Beirut be expected to go against nature? Why should so much amnesia be expected of them? And who can construct for them a new memory with no content other than the broken shadow of a distant life in a shack made of sheet metal?

Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?

And who is going to help them forget in the midst of this anguish, which never stops reminding them of their alienation from place and society? Who will accept them as citizens? Who will protect them against the whips of discrimination and pursuit: "You don't belong here!"

They present for inspection an identity, which, shown at borders, sounds an alarm so that contagious diseases may be kept in check, and at the same time they note how expertly this very identity is used to uplift Arab-nationalist spirit. These forgotten ones, disconnected from the social fabric, these outcasts, deprived of work and equal rights, are at the same time expected to applaud their oppression because it provides them with the blessings of memory. Thus he who's expected to forget he's human is forced to accept the exclusion from human rights that will train him for freedom from the disease of forgetting the homeland. He has to catch tuberculosis not to forget he has lungs, and he must sleep in open country not to forget he has another sky. He has to work as a servant not to forget he has a national duty, and he must be denied the privilege of settling down so that he won't forget Palestine. In short, he must remain the Other to his Arab brothers because he is pledged to liberation.

Fine, fine. He knows his duty: my identity--my gun. Why then do they level against him countless accusations: making trouble, violating the rules of hospitality, creating problems, and spreading the contagion of arms? When he holds his peace, his soul is taken out to the stray dogs; and when he moves toward the homeland, his body is dragged out to the dogs. The intellectuals, capable of trying on the latest models in theory, have convinced him he's the only alternative to the status quo; yet when the status quo pounces on him, they demand self-criticism because he has gone too far in his patriotism: he has gone so far as to put himself beyond the fold of the status quo. Conditions are not ripe. Conditions are not yet ripe. He has to wait. What must he do? Chatter his life away in the coffee shops of Beirut? He had already prattled so long he was told Beirut had corrupted him.

Society ladies, armed with automatic weapons, amid the tinkle of their jewelry give speeches at parties organized for the defense of the national origins of mujaddara. Yet when he feels embarrassed by this and says something to the effect that the homeland is not a dish of rice and lentils, and when he takes up arms for use outside, on the border, they say, "This is overstepping the bounds." And when he uses these arms to defend himself inside, against the local agents of Zionism, they say, "This is interference in our communal affairs." What's to be done then? What can he do to end the process of self-criticism, other than apologize for an existence which has not yet come into being? You are not going there, and you don't belong here. Between these two negations this generation was born defending the spirit's bodily vessel, onto which they fasten the fragrance of the country they've never known. They've read what they've read, and they've seen what they've seen, and they don't believe defeat is inevitable. So they set out on the trail of that fragrance (13-17).

*Recurring throughout, "there" and "here" represent two major poles of experience in the text. Literally, they are references to Palestine (there) and Lebanon (here).

**After the loss of Palestine in 1948, this lyric was made famous by the Egyptian singer Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (to whom there is another reference later in the text). To Darwish, an innovative and experimental poet, the lyric represents the decadent use of the qaSi:da--the classical form of Arabic verse. The reference in the sentence following the lyric to "liberating the country line by line" is extremely bitter and ironic, since the country was actually lost while that kind of poetry was still being written. The lyric's content demonstrates another form of decadence for a poet who, as we see from this book, has an overriding concern with language; it shows the vacuity of pre-1967 Arab political discourse in general and discourse about Israel in particular. The Arab defeat in 1967 (a watershed year in modern Arab history and a major theme in the book) opened the eyes of many intellectuals to the need for renewal on all fronts.

***UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, was created in 1950 to take care of Palestinians living in the refugee camps in the Arab countries when "it became clear no resolution of the refugee question was likely." Charles C. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: St Martin's Press, 1992), p. 154.

(photo from the Palestine Monitor)

1 comment:

steve said...

Thanks for printing this. This is the first experience I've had of Darwish that has actually led me into the work in a way that I found myself present to receive it, and it is powerful, vivid, compelling, surprising, extremely moving. Thanks.