Week two of this year’s Poetry Month series is curated by Kate Hedeen and focuses on poetry in translation. Read her curatorial statement here.
It was good fortune and a good friend that first led me to Najwan Darwish’s poetry. The poet Jack Hirschman introduced me to Najwan’s work back in 2009. Jack, ever indefatigable (and still going strong as he approaches 90), had invited Najwan to be part of the second biennial San Francisco International Poetry Festival, which he was organizing at the time. And although Jack reads and translates a ridiculous number of languages, Arabic isn’t one of them, so he called on me to translate Najwan’s poems for the festival.
Of the 15 poets from all across the world who would be there, Najwan, the only invitee from Palestine, was — perhaps not surprisingly — also the only one who had trouble obtaining a US visa. The visa was seemingly approved at first, only for the approval to then be delayed for unknown reasons, and for an undetermined period of time. Jack did everything he could to help. He finally managed to get someone from the San Francisco’s Mayor’s office (a guy named Gavin Newsom, I believe, who’s been in the news for other reasons lately) to make some calls, and the visa was approved — but too late for Najwan to attend the festival. I wound up reading his poetry in both the original Arabic and in my English translations at the festival, and so my immersion in Najwan’s work began.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect when Jack asked me to translate Najwan’s poetry. Anyone who has read even just a few of the thousand-plus pages of Jack Hirschman’s incomparable Arcanes will know how wide-ranging — and sometimes even contradictory — his interests and causes are. Jack brings together Kabbalah and Stalinism (see Matthew Furey’s documentary Red Poet), rageful social activism and gentle, heartfelt compassion, to name just a few. And Najwan Darwish, too, I soon discovered, is a poet of many different and unexpected facets.
Najwan’s earlier poems, such as this one translated by Kamal Boullata, are often direct, unambiguous, and haunting condemnations of the ongoing Israeli Occupation, which is what one generally expects from Palestinian poetry. But the first poems I saw by Najwan were much more complex, and much more ambiguous. “Jerusalem,” for example, one of the first poems by him that I ever translated, is no facile encomium to the poet’s native city. Instead, the poet directly addresses that city:
“When I leave you I turn to stone / and when I come back I turn to stone / I name you Medusa / I name you the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah / you the baptismal basin that burned Rome.”
In addition to decrying the injustices of the world, including — but not limited to — the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, Najwan’s mature poetry simultaneously resists falling into simplistic or purely oppositional notions of identity. In 1964, a different Darwish — Mahmoud Darwish (no relation to Najwan) — wrote what is probably the most famous Palestinian poem of the 20th century, “Identity Card.” That landmark text dramatically narrates an encounter between a Palestinian and, presumably, an Israeli security officer: “Write it down! / I’m an Arab! / And my ID number is fifty thousand…” Almost a half-century later, Najwan would write his own poem titled “Identity Card,” which presents a very different notion of Arab and Palestinian identity by embracing Kurds, Amazighs, Russians, Greeks, Persians, and also, at one key moment, Jews: “And my scorn for Zionists will not prevent me from saying that I was a Jew expelled from Andalusia, and that I still weave meaning from the light of that setting sun.” Along these lines, in a recent interview Najwan resisted the notion of being considered solely as a Palestinian poet, or of being pigeonholed in any way: “I may be a committed [Palestinian] citizen, but as a poet (I don’t usually dare to call myself a poet) my identity is more complex and much broader, and contains several layers of histories, civilizations, and identities.”
In 2012, three years after good fortune led me to Najwan’s work, that same fortune led to Najwan’s first book of poetry in English translation. I was spending three idyllic weeks at the Banff International Literary Translation Center’s residency, working on a book by the Syrian novelist Rabee Jaber. As a more fun and informal part of our time there, the translators decided to do a couple readings amongst ourselves in the lounge we shared, where we would perform material that was not part of our Banff projects. I decided to read some of my translations of Najwan’s poetry. It so happened that Jeffrey Yang, a brilliant poet and translator who is also the poetry editor at NYRB Poets, was there when I was reading — Jeffrey’s German translator, Beatrice Faβbender, had received a residency from Banff, and Jeffrey joined us there for a week to work with Beatrice on her German translation of his remarkable book An Aquarium. After I’d finished reading a few of Najwan’s poems, Jeffrey asked me if I wanted to submit a sample; “Maybe we can do a book,” he said. And so Nothing More to Lose was conceived. (Jeffrey and I also played several long and arduous table tennis matches that week, all of which ended in my defeat, but that’s another story — one perhaps better suited to the genre of the epic, or that of tragedy.)
Earlier this year, NYRB published a second collection of Najwan’s poetry in English, Exhausted on the Cross, of which the tireless Chilean poet Raúl Zurita has written the following: “In a history full of unfinished words, of sentences broken halfway through, of stanzas that do not say what they wanted to say, [Najwan Darwish’s] poetry has been the colossal record of violence and, at the same time, the no less colossal record of compassion.” In these modern times of ours, times of violence, confinement, hypocrisy, and occupation, Najwan Darwish’s poetic compassion, his compassionate poetry, offers some solace. (A few poems from Najwan’s latest collection can be read here, here, and here; and other poems by Najwan are also available here, here, and here.)
Kareem James Abu-Zeid, PhD, is a translator of poets and novelists from across the Arab world. His work has earned him an NEA translation grant (2018), PEN Center USA’s Translation Award (2017), and Poetry Magazine’s translation prize (2014), among other honors. His most recent translation is Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross (NYRB Poets, 2021). The online hub for his work is www.kareemjamesabuzeid.com.