“I Advance in Defeat”, the Poems of Najwan Darwish

28 March, 2021
Lucia González Ippolito's colored pencil drawing

Exhaust­ed on the Cross
by Najwan Dar­wish
Trans­lat­ed by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
NYRB Books 2021
ISBN 9781682375526


Patrick James Dunagan


Poet­ry’s role high­light­ing human rights abus­es under despot­ic regimes has a lengthy record­ed his­to­ry, dat­ing at least as far back as ancient Greece, evi­dent in such works as Sopho­cles’ Antigone. Across ensu­ing cen­turies, untold num­bers of poets have writ­ten from under the weight of oppres­sive cir­cum­stances, giv­ing voice to those suf­fer­ing through life under the harsh­est of conditions. 

Available from  NYR Books .

The poems of Najwan Dar­wish con­tin­ue this lin­eage. His first pub­lished col­lec­tion of poet­ry trans­lat­ed to appear in Eng­lish, Noth­ing More to Lose  (trans­lat­ed by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and also pub­lished by NYRB in 2014) received pos­i­tive acclaim from review­ers in the States, who saw it as mark­ing a fresh turn in Ara­bic poet­ry, for its pared down, often raw con­fronta­tion of the uni­ver­sal injus­tice inflict­ed upon Pales­tine. This raw sparse­ness, bereft of much if any flour­ish in terms of style, tra­di­tion­al or oth­er­wise, along with his lack of abid­ance to clas­si­cal Ara­bic met­rics, sus­tained most­ly by way of pal­pa­ble forth­right state­ment alone sets Dar­wish (no rela­tion to Mah­moud Dar­wish) apart from pre­de­ces­sors. There is lit­tle of entice­ment direct­ed towards readers.

Exhaust­ed on the Cross, his sec­ond col­lec­tion, also trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Abu-Zeid, expands upon his pre­vi­ous work while con­tin­u­ing to con­vey direct tes­ta­ment of the imag­i­na­tion as rav­aged by the bru­tal ongo­ing real­i­ties of dai­ly life faced by the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple. Liv­ing on divid­ed land, with many fam­i­lies split apart for gen­er­a­tions now, the state of occu­pa­tion echoes as if end­less. Dar­wish shows that it no longer man­i­fests as a dis­rup­tion but instead as a defin­ing sense of nor­mal­i­ty. He does not employ lit­er­ary devices or probe his pos­si­ble inner strug­gles over whether to embrace a West­ern, mod­ern­ized iden­ti­ty. Though he went to school for med­i­cine but aban­doned the pro­fes­sion to work as a cul­tur­al jour­nal­ist with Al Ara­by Al Jadeed (The New Arab) based in Lon­don, no auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal frag­ments of his life appear in the poems. His atten­tion remains focused upon the land of his birth and the dev­as­ta­tion occur­ring there. 

Exhaust­ed on the Cross is intro­duced with a brac­ing and remark­able fore­word by Chilean poet Raúl Zuri­ta, who like a wary trav­el­er, sig­nals the rough jour­ney ahead:

 The char­ac­ters that move through the sev­en sec­tions that make up this book are exhaust­ed, exhaust­ed in an infin­i­ty of cross­es that rise in an infin­i­ty of places. Expelled from their ances­tral land, per­ma­nent­ly besieged and per­se­cut­ed, women who have lost everything—their hous­es, their neigh­bor­hoods, their children—make present to oth­ers, to me, to you, to the read­er, that in this land of vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors, dis­placed and dis­ap­peared, all the rest of us are sur­vivors. And if we can affirm that we are fac­ing polit­i­cal poet­ry, it is because we do it as sur­vivors of an unfin­ished war. Far removed from any pathos or self-pity and, on the con­trary, endowed with a stir­ring famil­iar­i­ty with every­thing it names, a famil­iar­i­ty that often resorts to irony and humor, Najwan Dar­wish’s poet­ry trav­els through the vil­lages, land­scapes, neigh­bor­hoods, cities, and towns of a his­to­ry that is three mil­len­nia old, one that, in each of its cor­ners, pre­serves the remains of a per­ma­nent­ly shat­tered eter­ni­ty, as if there were an under­ly­ing god, not named, who took plea­sure in weav­ing togeth­er suf­fer­ing and misfortune.

Born in 1978, and hav­ing lived through both intifadas, Dar­wish has come of age as a poet while Pales­tini­ans grap­ple with the con­tin­u­ous iner­tia of the sit­u­a­tion even after decades of unre­lent­ing strug­gle, polit­i­cal as well as mil­i­tant, in blunt recog­ni­tion there is not much hope of any change. As a result, the out­look his poet­ry offers is, not sur­pris­ing­ly, quite bleak. 

“It was all for noth­ing,
it was all
with­out mer­it,
with­out reward”
                          (“As for These” 69) 

Forced to bear dai­ly wit­ness to dev­as­tat­ing events with­out any offer of just reme­di­a­tion, he reg­u­lar­ly evokes in his work the help­less trav­es­ty of the circumstances. 

“The sea:
hope embroiled with despair,
despair dis­tilled from hope.”
(“The Sea” 68) 

Nobody deserves such a life as tes­ti­fied to by these poems, least of all chil­dren. Dar­wish acknowl­edges the harsh real­i­ty greet­ing those inno­cent­ly born into the midst of a con­flict that remains noth­ing less than an unde­clared war receiv­ing glob­al con­dem­na­tion. Tra­di­tion­al Pales­tin­ian fam­i­lies are rou­tine­ly set upon by sol­diers and set­tlers, and chil­dren as well as adults are man­han­dled, shot, killed or arrest­ed with­out charge and held in “admin­is­tra­tive deten­tion,” which is com­plete­ly ille­gal in democ­ra­cies that abide by the rule of law, respect­ing the writ of habeas corpus.

Israel fre­quent­ly declares itself the only democ­ra­cy in the Mid­dle East, but what dis­tin­guish­es a democ­ra­cy from sur­round­ing autoc­ra­cies if it con­tin­ues to prac­tice such hor­rors? (The same ques­tion applies to U.S. drone attacks and oth­er end­less­ly ongo­ing mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions ever on the rise since 9/11.)

Chil­dren remain one of Dar­wish’s cen­tral tropes: 

“the chil­dren born amid the shelling
in these sullen hos­pi­tals
are sim­ply com­pan­ions
join­ing this fam­i­ly we’ve cre­at­ed
from the ruins of our fam­i­lies.”
(“Fam­i­ly” 84) 

The per­se­ver­ance of Pales­tini­ans is remark­able in terms of their char­ac­ter, their strength. Life con­tin­ues, no mat­ter how many are arrest­ed with­out charge in the West Bank or killed dur­ing the sieges of Gaza. Even in con­di­tions of out­right war in the streets. Pales­tini­ans as a peo­ple have had lit­tle choice since 1948 but to resist. Their refusal to cow­er or fade away reflects an essen­tial nature at the heart of all human char­ac­ter (also demon­strat­ed by the actions of Antigone): Defi­ance. As Dar­wish insists, “Fate’s nev­er heard me sigh.” (90) Even as no relief arrives, Pales­tini­ans car­ry on buoyed by way of their unbri­dled resistance: 

“Fate wrecked us,
but still we emerge from the rub­ble
with sat­is­fac­tion on our faces.”
                   (“From the Rub­ble” 90) 

What is wrong is and always will be wrong. The suf­fer­ing of Pales­tini­ans unites their strug­gle with so many oth­ers who have endured across human­i­ty’s vast his­to­ry. As Dar­wish puts it: 

“Peo­ple are sim­ply peo­ple.
Peel off the lan­guages, and all you’ll find
is women and men.”
(“In Con­stan­tino­ple” 88)

Group­ings formed by nation­al­i­ty or reli­gion con­sis­tent­ly fail to rec­og­nize the greater com­mon­al­i­ty of exis­tence — an argu­ment dri­ven home in “Vis­it­ing Hafez”: 

“‘Arabs’ and ‘Persians’—what non­sense is this?
When I look in the mir­ror, I see only your faces
com­ing to me from Syr­ia, cleansed by the dawn
and the soil of Maysalun.

They’re plun­der­ing the muse­ums
while our sun, still black, floats on Bagh­dad’s riv­er.
Arabs and Per­sians, after all of this!” (14–15)

Poet­ry will not resolve these issues. Per­haps noth­ing will. Yet Dar­wish’s poems do at least con­vey some ele­ment of the abysmal grief, shock and sor­row with which mil­lions go about their dai­ly lives in an area of the world her­ald­ed for its beau­ty as well as his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al rich­es. Sad­ly, this has now become an old sto­ry. One bear­ing repeat­ed voicing. 

Translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid  and poet Najwan Darwish.

Abu-Zeid has unde­ni­ably secured a place for Dar­wish’s poems among non-Ara­bic read­ers, his trans­la­tion pro­vid­ing ready access to an Anglo­phone audi­ence that is des­tined to grow in size and who would oth­er­wise have no idea that such poet­ry in Ara­bic exists. This is a major accom­plish­ment. How­ev­er he has also made one slight yet rather regret­table alter­ation to the order­ing of sec­tions in Exhaust­ed on the Cross com­pared to Dar­wish’s orig­i­nal 2018 col­lec­tion Ta‘iba al-mu‘allaqun. Step­ping a bit out­side his role as trans­la­tor, he flipped the book’s first two open­ing sec­tions. As he describes, “the Ara­bic begins with the sec­tion “With the Kaa­ba on Its Back,” but I felt the poems of “An Ancient Breeze from Wadi Sal­ib” would be bet­ter suit­ed to open the book in Eng­lish, due to their wide-rang­ing themes and geo­gra­phies, and Dar­wish was gra­cious enough to agree to make this change.” (125)

Although Dar­wish gave approval and the dif­fer­ence may seem slight, it nev­er­the­less alters how the read­er enters into the poems. Of course, this does not detract from the impor­tance and pow­er of Dar­wish’s work. Nonethe­less it feels as if Abu-Zeid made the change to sit­u­ate Dar­wish’s book for the non-poet­ry read­er, those more inter­est­ed in geopol­i­tics i.e. look­ing for “wide-rang­ing themes and geo­gra­phies” sur­round­ing the work, rather than the sus­tained lyric voice bared of all but sor­row com­mon­ly raised across the work as whole.

In effect, read­ing the open­ing poems as arranged by Abu-Zeid slight­ly mis­leads the read­er as to the rest of the book. Dar­wish’s orig­i­nal open­ing poem, “Pass It”, is a first-per­son lyric dec­la­ra­tion of sac­ri­fi­cial accep­tance of one’s fate (read­ing in part): “Pass it to me, I said”[…] “Pass me this hazy bit of sky / hung / above a sea that’s been dead since for­ev­er”[…] “Pass me this pit in the earth”[…] “pass me my death.”(25) It has none of the exoti­cism of locale parad­ed forth in Abu-Zei­d’s alter­nate open­ing poem, “Mount Carmel”, for exam­ple “and some morn­ings the call to prayer / comes in qui­et­ly from the Istiqlal Mosque (borne / on an ancient breeze from Wadi Sal­ib)”. (3) It is not as if the poems do not belong in the book but they clear­ly do not sit­u­ate the read­er in quite the same expe­ri­ence as the rest. 

Dar­wish’s orig­i­nal order­ing also presents the title poem as clos­ing the book’s first sec­tion. The final lines offer a bene­dic­tion of sorts over what is to fol­low: “Bring me down, / let me have my rest.” (36) Yet of course, there is no rest for the speak­er in Dar­wish’s poems. With the poems of his orig­i­nal open­ing restored to place, the gam­bit pro­pelling the rest of them onward is clear. As a poem appear­ing lat­er in the book states: “I advance in defeat.” (“In Defeat” 59) 

Con­tin­u­al­ly forced for­ward, the poet must also look back with the rest of his peo­ple on all that has been lost. What awaits upon tomor­row, remain­ing the unknown fac­tor, will not stop the deter­mi­na­tion nev­er to give up the strug­gle for liberation.