André Naffis-Sahely reviews

Journal of an Ordinary Grief

By Mahmoud Darwish

Archipelago Books, USA October 2010. $16.00

Exploding Watermelons

Following three years of military service Israeli soldiers receive a bonus of fifteen-thousand shekels – approximately £2,600 – at which point thousands head for the hill stations of Himachal Pradesh in Northern India.To some, it is a journey of self-exploration; to others, one of hedonism. Some refuse to return. This minority are encouraged to reconsider. If this proves unsuccessful, they are forcefully repatriated: they are a resource, and a scarce one. As indeed, are minds both able and willing to produce a compassionate portrait of Israel and Palestine over the course of the past seventy years, and Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away in 2008, was one of them.

This Journal, a memoir penned during his house arrest in Haifa prior to his exile from Israel in 1971, attempts such a portrait – despite the lack of means at his disposal; for as he puts it in “The Homeland”, the second chapter: “the map does not constitute an answer, because it is very much like an abstract painting. And your grandfather’s grave is not the answer because a small forest can make it disappear.” Through a mixture of imagined dialogues with his younger self and soliloquies, the Journal begins with a retelling of his family’s loss of their ancestral lands in al-Birwa. As the war unfolds, we see his grandfather take his family on a “picnic” to Lebanon in 1949. Their return, a few months later, is the story of millions: their land is confiscated and their orchards plundered. They now inhabit the no-man’s-land of un-citizenship – a concept familiar to Israeli Arabs ever since. Following his grandfather's death, Darwish’s father finds work in a quarry, where, de- B39-224 pages 18/09/10 11:32 am Page 200 BANIPAL 39 – TUNISIAN LITERATURE 201 spite the backbreaking work, he is barely able to sustain his family. “All of Palestine was translated in this manner. The houses Israelis live in are inhabited by ghosts.” Yet despite the heart-tearing questions “which was more painful, to be a refugee in someone else’s country […] or in your own?” as well as the philosophical musings, the Journal is largely characterized by its humour and sarcasm, especially when dealing with the Law. Here, for instance, is a scene recalling Darwish’s arrest:
You sit facing the officer.

He says politely, sitting under a photograph of Herzl, “I'm honoured to put you under arrest.”
You exchange pleasantries, “And I'm honoured to grant this honour. But would you kindly tell me what I am accused of?”
He says, “You are accused of exploding a watermelon at the entrance to the circus and threatening the security of the state.”

When Darwish later attempts to secure a laissez-passer in order to travel to Greece, he is brought before a tribunal, and, in a scene reminiscent of Kafka's Trial, told that despite the nonsensical logic, he is guilty, and forever will be. He is Joseph K.; no amount of arguing or wily side-stepping will change this: “Then you ask for a permit to live in the wind,” he writes, “and they smile.”

Stylistically, the Journal defies any firm typology. No mean task for the translator, Ibrahim Muhawi, whose preface and meticulous footnotes are impeccable – and who is quite obviously a believer in the possibility of “genuine” translation. His, as is often unfortunately the case with most translators, is not an act of approximation, but an inspired and scholarly piece of research. Both Muhawi and Archipelago Books are to be commended; the continuing efforts of this press to publish Darwish’s prose is fast proving an invaluable contribution to Weltliteratur.

From Banipal 39 - Modern Tunisian Literature

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