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Six Poems by Najwan Darwish

4 May 2016

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Najwan Darwish has been hailed by the New York Times Book Review as ‘one of the foremost Arabic-language poets of his generation’. Nothing More to Lose, superbly translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, is his first collection in English and it more than justifies the claim. Given his upbringing in Jerusalem, a city drawn and quartered along lines of identity, a city with multiple meanings, it is no surprise to find that faith, power, race and trauma are the dominant threads Najwan expertly uses to interrogate histories and weave his own truths.

Two years ago I walked through the streets 
of Dahieh, in Southern Beirut
and dragged a cross
as large as the wrecked buildings
But who today will lift a cross
from the back of a weary man in Jerusalem?

(Sleeping in Gaza)

Given the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it is by now rote to assume a Palestinian poet must be defined by resistance or rage or some mix thereof, but that is not the case here. Darwish skips where you might expect him to march, laughs where you might expect him to curse; always defiant of expectation, sometimes he’ll do all four in the one poem.

All these years you’ve been mourning the loss of your country.
Shame on you: Loss is a fabrication.

(Fabrications)

His vision is not so narrow, nor so insular, as to be defined by a border. Indeed, living in contested territory, among so many fault lines of self, no doubt ensured he would always look beyond it. His is a restless spirit, and this diverse collection reflects a global outlook. Darwish speaks of Jewish pain, of Armenian, Kurdish, Amazigh and Palestinian trauma too. Wherever oppression has stamped its foot, he seems to have visited in mind and heart, as if to say, ‘I see you here too, you cannot hide from me.’

He speaks not just with an eye to history, but to all histories, including his own, as with ‘In Praise of the Family.’

There is but a single sentence fit to praise you:
You are the deep quarry
of my nightmares.

Selected from his poetry over a 15-year period, the poems in Nothing More to Lose are exhilarating in their range and scope, offering deep cynicism, grief, hope and humour, as well as the language of faith, if not faith itself. There are few poets who can handle such weighty themes with such skill and brevity, but Darwish pulls it off with enviable ease, managing not just to write of life itself but also of himself.

I broke in the dream, became 
countless fragments, and no one
was there to gather me

(Tonight I Dreamt You Were Dead)

Given the tonal complexity and lyricism on display, it is a testament to Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s skill as a translator that he was able to carry so much across to English, and lose so little. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Nothing More to Lose, I urge you to do so now. You won’t regret it. In the meantime, it is with great excitement that I can present six new poems by Najwan Darwish translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, and published here for the first time.

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