He has written some of the most beautiful and moving poetry in Arabic. I do not know anyone who was not moved to tears by “I Yearn for My Mother’s Bread.” But even more, through his words, Mahmoud Darwish was able to give verbal expression to the ambiguities of being Palestinian: the pain and the anxiety, the memory and the hope, the determination and the uncertainty, the belonging and the exile, the anger and the love.

Ghassan Sharbil of al-Hayat has a beautiful eulogy, “Why did you leave poetry so alone?

And here is my translation of The Sparrows of Galilee, one of my favorite poems (Arabic version here). “She” in this poem is Rita, the Israeli lover who in an earlier poem joined the IDF (bayna Rita wa `uyuni bunduqiyah). In this poem, Rita is disillusioned and is embarking on a journey to look for the truth. The poet is left behind, making new sense of an imprisonment without her. The poem is meant to be sung (even before Marcel Khalifeh did) as a Palestinian folk song.

We will meet in a short while

In a year

In two years

And a generation…

Then she captured with the camera

Twenty gardens

And the sparrows of Galilee.

She went searching, behind the sea,

For a new meaning of truth.

My homeland is a clothesline

For handkerchiefs of spilt blood

And I lay down on the beach

As sand… and palm trees.

***********

She doesn’t know –

Oh, Rita! Death and I have granted you

The secret of joy withering in the customs’ house

And we were renewed, death and I

On your first front

And in the window to your house.

Death and I are two faces –

Why do you now flee from my face?

Why do you flee?

And why do you now flee from that

Which makes of wheat eyelashes for the earth, from that

Which makes of the volcano another face for jasmines?

Why do you flee?

***********

At night only her silence used to wear me out

When it stretched out in front of the door

Like the street… Like the old neighborhood

Be it as you wish – oh, Rita –

Let silence be an axe

Or a frame for the stars

Or a climate for the labor pains of the tree.

I sip the kiss

From the edge of knives

Come, let us belong to the massacre!

***********

They fell like excess leaves

The flocks of swallows

In the wells of time…

And I snatch the blue wings

Oh, Rita,

I am the tombstone for the growing grave

Oh, Rita

I am he in whose flesh

The chains carve

A shape for the homeland.

(From The Birds Die in Galilee, 1969)

Addendum: The Guardian obituary gives a good overview of Darwish’s life and poetry.