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Kareem James Abu-Zeid: A Search for Justice and Expansive Identities

August 21, 2014

Nathalie Handal talks to Kareem James Abu-Zeid about translating the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish and conveying the layered politics and fluid identities found in his work.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/domeoftherock_capossela1.jpg
Illustration by Annelise Capossela.

Nothing More to Lose, Najwan Darwish’s lyrical poetry collection published by New York Review of Books and translated by the half-American and half-Egyptian Kareem James Abu-Zeid, exemplifies everything we hope for from a poetry translation. Abu-Zeid has carefully considered every word and linguistic detail, examined the tone, rhythm and music of each poem. The result is poetry that holds the same haunting intelligence in English as in Arabic, a book that cleverly incites readers to ponder the meaning behind its title in every poem.

Darwish is one of the foremost Arabic-language poets of his generation. He published his first collection of poems in 2000, and has since become a vital cultural figure, getting involved in major artistic projects like the Palestine Festival of Literature, founding a small literary press in 2009, and making substantial contributions to cultural and literary journalism in the Arab world. He is currently the Chief Editor of the Cultural Section of the new pan-Arab newspaper Al Araby Al Jadeed.

Through his wrenching and witty work, echoing Charles Simic and Wislawa Szymborska fused with modern and classical Arab literary roots, Darwish unfolds his identity—personal and collective, Arab and universal. His poetry, like his city of birth Jerusalem, reveals a composite of histories. The people and places they contain seem to possess undisclosed details, and as readers uncover them piece by piece, they reveal a tapestry only Darwish could have woven. In “Identity Card”, he writes:

There is no place that resisted its invaders except that I
was of one its people, there is no free man to whom
I am not bound in kinship, and there is no single tree
or cloud to which I am not indebted. 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.

In my house there is a window that opens onto Greece,
an icon that points to Russia, sweet scent forever
drifting from Hijaz,
and a mirror: No sooner do I stand before it than I see
myself immersed in springtime in the gardens of
Shiraz, and Isfahan, and Bukhara.

And by anything less than this, one is not an Arab.

The Palestine in Darwish’s poems is often a place where human consciousness can be explored. The truth of his poems rests in the poet’s search for justice, and the distressing realization of its absence.

As Arab Jerusalemites increasingly suffer the demolition of their homes, Darwish’s poems leave us with a glimpse of the divine in the debris.

Jerusalem in particular is central to Darwish’s work. As Arab Jerusalemites increasingly suffer the demolition of their homes, his poems leave us with a glimpse of the divine in the debris. As many Palestinians are forbidden from reaching the holy city to pray, Darwish’s voices dig deeper in the city: “We stood on the Mount / to raise a sacrifice for you, / and when we saw our hands rise, / empty, / we knew that we were your sacrifice.” His poems preserve Jerusalem’s heart despite all the masks it’s forced to wear. As the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita wrote, after reading Darwish’s book: “I’ve seen nothing of what I believed, but if a God exists it is the same God for me and for the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish. What I want to say is that I also carry Palestine and Jerusalem in my heart.”

Such a response is testament to the force of Darwish’s poems, which is conveyed expertly by Abu-Zeid’s translations. Abu-Zeid was born in Kuwait, and has lived an itinerant life across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. He has translated writers from across the Arab world including Rabee Jaber from Lebanon, Dunya Mikhail from Iraq, and Tarek Eltayeb from Sudan. When he translates, he is like a sculptor, carving the verses until they are stand-alone works. He also believes in collaborative efforts between himself and the author. But what most distinguishes him is how he aims to convey the entire range of details behind the poem including what couldn’t have been known if Abu-Zeid hadn’t sought the answers from the poet.

I spoke to Abu-Zeid about translating Darwish’s striking, sharp, and unapologetic verses for his first collection of poetry in English.

Nathalie Handal for Guernica

Guernica: How did you first come to translate Najwan Darwish?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: I first heard of him when he was placed on the Hay Festival Beirut’s well-publicized list of “39 best Arab authors under the age of 39” back in 2009. I started translating some of his work that same year when he was invited to an international poetry festival in San Francisco. Of all the poets coming to that festival, Darwish was, not surprisingly, the only one who had trouble obtaining a visa. The San Francisco mayor’s office had to pull some strings to actually get him his visa, but it still didn’t come through until the event was already well underway. So Darwish missed the festival entirely. But I read his poetry for him—in Arabic and in my English translations—at the festival, and that was the beginning of our work together.

Guernica: Less than three percent of the world’s literature has been translated into English, and a lot of talent remains out there. What makes Darwish’s poetry stand out? Why was translating his work important to you as a translator?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: These kind of questions are hard to answer without falling into platitudes praising the poetry, so I’ll just list the top few reasons: (1) His poetry is remarkably varied. (2) He doesn’t romanticize the Palestinian conflict in any way, nor does he glorify his own role as a poet (quite the opposite). (3) A real sense of humor comes through in a lot of the poems. It might seem a bit morbid to some, but it’s still humor. (4) He never sacrifices aesthetics in favor of political message. (5) Although it’s rooted in the specific experience of living in modern-day Palestine, the themes and expressions of his poetry transcend national boundaries. Darwish often moves, poetically, from Palestine to the Arab world at large, and then from the Arab world to the whole world. The poets that most influenced Darwish, similarly, are not only Palestinian or Arab poets—there are echoes of a lot of European poetry in his work.

Also, one of my greatest pleasures as a translator is bringing authors into English for the first time—while many of Najwan’s individual poems had been translated into English, he had never had a whole book translated into English before. That made the project particularly attractive to me.

Guernica: How do you see his work contributing to world literature?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: I’m never quite sure what “world literature” as an entity refers to, but I will say this: I think Najwan Darwish’s work is changing what we think of as Palestinian literature. He’s not afraid to inject a healthy dose of irony and humor into his poetry, which really sets it apart from the work of the other well-known Palestinian poets.

Guernica: When we translate, we also translate culture—how difficult was it to translate Najwan’s individual culture (transmitted, acquired, and with all his intersections) into English?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: Well, the most obvious answer to that question is that I failed—as every translation inevitably fails—to poetically convey all of Najwan’s cultural references to the reader: the evidence for this is that there are a good six pages of notes in the back of the book that explain some of the references that might not be immediately familiar to the English-language reader. So yes, it was very difficult at times. But at the same time, none of those notes in the back of the book are essential to the poems: the poems still manage to stand on their own, even in English, even to a reader who won’t necessarily get all the references.

Darwish believes that all writers engage in one way or the other with politics. His definition of politics is people—their lives, what stirs around them, affects them.

Guernica: Palestinian writers are almost always asked about how their work engages with politics and if it should. Darwish believes that all writers engage in one way or the other with politics. His definition of politics is people—their lives, what stirs around them, affects them. Can you elaborate on how Darwish weaves in that politics without being didactic, without preaching, without veering from artistry and poetics?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: Najwan weaves politics and the personal in so many different ways that it’s very difficult to answer this question. But I’ll give one example, a poem called “Liberty” that invokes the famous Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People, which itself was a commemoration of the 1830 July Revolution in France. Najwan’s poem begins with a fairly straightforward description of the painting—a painting that clearly glorifies both “revolution” and “liberty” in all their aspects. But the end of Darwish’s poem is where the personal brilliantly enters—and in this case clashes with—the political: “But notice too how barefoot liberty / tramples the people beneath her.” There’s no preaching or didacticism here, just a warning, just a word of caution disguised as a very astute observation about the painting itself. Darwish wrote that poem about a year into the revolution in Syria (which is now generally referred to as a civil war), and unfortunately his warning has proven to be all too accurate.

Darwish asks the Arab reader: How can we criticize the occupation without taking a long hard look at ourselves as well?

Guernica: “Identity Card,” one of the most important poems in the book, expresses what it is to be both Arab and Palestinian in a very unique way. Can you discuss that poem?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: The text is a poetic reply to perhaps the best-known poem to ever come out of Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish’s [no relation] declamatory poem “Identity Card.” That earlier poem was a work of defiance by a very young poet angry at the injustices of the occupation, a poem where Arab identity was defined in opposition to the Israeli other. Mahmoud Darwish himself would soon turn away from that mode of oppositional poetry. All the same, that earlier poem, in the eyes of many, came to be the embodiment of Palestinian resistance poetry. So what Najwan Darwish is giving us here is an attempt at a new definition both of resistance and of what it means to be an Arab. The term Arab here is expanded seemingly indefinitely to include Kurds, Armenians, Iranians, Turks, etc. But this politics of inclusion does not shy away from decrying injustices. In that poem, he writes: “And my scorn for Zionists will not prevent me from saying that I was a Jew from Andalusia, and that I still weave meaning from the light of that setting sun.” Najwan Darwish avoids a rhetoric of hate here, as he does elsewhere in the collection. But the inclusion he calls for is not limitless, and Zionists are not the only objects of his scorn. It should be noted that in the context of the book as a whole, Najwan Darwish rarely misses a chance to criticize, whether subtly or directly, religious fundamentalists of all stripes as well as dictatorial Arab regimes. In doing so, he asks the Arab reader: How can we criticize the occupation without taking a long hard look at ourselves as well?

Guernica: The poems entitled “Jerusalem” offer piercing examples of the strength of his voice, in “Jerusalem (II)” he writes: “When I leave you I turn to stone / When I come back I turn to stone.” Can you expand on these poems, their place in his poetic repertoire, and your journey translating them?

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: These are two of my favorite poems by Najwan Darwish, which is why I positioned them so early on in the book. I’ve read a lot of Palestinian poetry, and (without naming any names) it’s fair to say that the city of Jerusalem has almost become a fixed trope not only in Palestinian literature but in Arabic literature at large. Modern Arab poets have generally done one of two things with Jerusalem (and often do both): they praise her as a beloved, or they mourn this beloved city being lost to Israel. I say “her” here because all city names are grammatically feminine in Arabic, Jerusalem included. I liked these two poems because Darwish, a resident of that city, completely upends the traditional poetic image of Jerusalem. In the first poem the city seems somewhat heartless. Jerusalem is an indifferent goddess, and yet she still demands the blood of her inhabitants: “We stood on the Mount / to raise a sacrifice for you / and when we saw our hands rise / empty / we knew / that we were your sacrifice.” And in the second poem, the city is a veritable tormentor, a Medusa. The poet still loves the city, which is precisely why he cannot escape her grasp. But he won’t persist in her glorification. She’s “the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah” here, not a phrase you would expect from any Palestinian poet.

Najwan Darwish is also playing, ironically, with the Arabic name of the city here: al-Quds, from the root meaning “to be holy” (so the city name very literally means something like “the holy place”). Interestingly, Darwish leaves out the definite article (al) in the Arabic titles of these poems. This lack of definiteness universalizes the city ever so slightly in the Arabic text. I’d love to claim that my translation captures all the nuances of those two poems, but you can see that certain aspects of the Arabic title did not make it into the English translation.

Guernica: In the last poem of the collection, “The World Will be Good,” Darwish writes: “From beyond the years / from beyond the countries and all that maps conceal/ I guard you / and you guard me.” These lines echo an eternal connection between home and heart which addresses hope amidst the desolation—did you position it at the end purposely to emphasize this point.

Kareem James Abu-Zeid: Look, I’ll be honest here: There’s a lot of darkness in this book. The Palestinian situation is grim, to say the least, and Najwan is more aware of this than anyone. Even the humor—and there is quite a lot of it in this book—is generally quite dark. But there’s always a spark somewhere in his poems, and although he is never shy to give voice to his doubts and his moments of anguish, the poetry never fully succumbs to despair. So yes, I placed “The World Will Be Good” at the end of the book to end on a note of hope, and to bring the collection full circle, in a way. For me, this poem is deeply intertwined with the very first poem of the collection, “Nothing More to Lose.” Both are about love in the face of loss, both are about hope in the face of death, and yet both end on a deeply ambiguous note. For me, they were the clear choices to bookend this powerful collection.

Nathalie Handal is a Lannan Foundation Fellow, and recipient of the Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature 2011. Her latest books include Love and Strange Horses, winner of the 2011 Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award and the critically acclaimed Poet in Andalucía.

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