Reading: In Jerusalem by Mahmoud Darwish

Today I read a poem by Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008) in a translation by Fady Joudah. Darwish was born in Galilee, in a village that doesn’t exist anymore. He lived in exile in Beirut and Paris and published a lot of books. I know that he was considered a ‘resistance poet’ and served on an executive committee of the PLO (1987-1993), but I don’t want to get into politics. I just like this poem.

In Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Muhammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die.

The ending is a strong way to characterize the conflict in the Middle East. The first lines give a wonderful impression of the poet walking through Jerusalem after so many years in exile. He has no memory but walks between epochs and feels the prophets’ labor of love and peace.

Though the narrators disagree about ‘what light said about a stone’ and this caused wars. The poet is sleepwalking and becomes lighter and lighter, undergoing a transformation three times. Transfiguration, doves, a biblical rose and the cross – the poem is replete with Christian symbols.

The enlightened soul is hovering over the streeds of Jerusalem, not in place and time, he is no “I” in ascension’s presence. But all this hovering causes spiritual traffic congestion nonetheless, as the shouting woman soldier indicates. Didn’t I kill you? Didn’t I make sure that my narrator is the only one? Oh yes, we all did.

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