Sunday, 27 August 2017

Malfuf wa Malik: Collaborations, Displacements, Exiles, and Fleas*

Talking about collaborations, take a listen to an uber famous one – in the Arab world, and right round the globe -

Marcel Khalife is a Lebanese musician, composer and oud-maestro who in the 1960's set to music and sang this hugely popular rendition of Rita...whose love story is cut short by the political exigencies of her times. "Between Rita and my eyes there is a rifle...Rita's name was a feast in my mouth, her body was a wedding in my blood" - some of the most exquisite use of language I have had the good fortune to come across, even after whatever must have been lost in translation! Written by Mahmoud Darwish, who else?

The poet of resistance

Now what can I tell you about Mahmoud Darwish? He was born in 1941, the same year incidentally, that Rabindranath Tagore, an iconic Bengali poet, died. Darwish was a much-awarded, much beloved and revered and studied poet throughout the Arab world and way beyond. He was in himself a voice for the Palestinian struggle, the exiles, the dispossessed, his "Record! I am an Arab!" practically became an anthem for the Palestinians. He was identified with the resistance to such a degree by everyone that he once famously complained it would be nice to be able to write a poem about a woman, without the readers immediately loading it with all sorts of political meanings. But these are well-known facts, his work and his life have been studied and presented in much greater depth than I can do in a blogpost. 

Maybe I should start with my journeys -. My first exposure to poetry was early, the first poems I remember were Tagore's, chanted to me at around 4 years old. My mum had many of his long, ballad-like poems perfectly memorised, stanza after stanza, and I got a lot of them all through toddlerhood onwards. The first foreign language poems were obviously in English, there was a Palgrave's Golden Treasury at home, and I read - Spring, the sweet spring, is the years' pleasant king :) and badgered my father's secretary till she typed it out on a sheet I could carry around everywhere because that hardcover book was too uncomfortable for my 7-year-old fingers. The first translated poem I read was from French - Noliwe by Leopold Sedar Senghor, at school as a teenager. Somewhere along the line I remember picking up Neruda's poetry and being mesmerised by him too. What I'm trying to say in my usual waffly way is that I was no stranger to translated poetry. Yet when I came to Bahrain 20 years ago, I knew nil about Arabic poetry or the poets. Zilch. Totally blank. But that has changed, slowly and steadily, though I have a long way to go still...

  "If I were another I would have belonged to the road,
neither you nor I would return. Awaken the guitar
and we might sense the unknown and the route that tempts
the traveler to test gravity. I am only
my steps, and you are both my compass and my chasm..."

There is a lightness, a radiance in Darwish's language that uplifts even as the messages of sorrow and anger and homelessness and dispossession move deeply. The yearning to belong, the longing to stand where your roots are, to feel the earth your forefathers have tilled - these are at once universal and very individual. The bone-deep nostalgia for places lost - hiraeth, the Welsh call it, and Bengalis and Palestinians could probably be the silver and gold medallists in that department! :) 

"I am a woman. No more and no less
I live my life as it is 
thread by thread 
and I spin my wool to wear, not 
to complete Homer’s story, or his sun. 
And I see what I see 
as it is, in its shape,
though I stare every once
in a while in its shade
to sense the pulse of defeat, 
and I write tomorrow
on yesterday’s sheets: there’s no sound
other than echo."

The best poems are those, when you read them for the first time, you feel you've waited forever for those very words to throw a mantle of enchantment around you and make your senses swim. For this one poet, and only him/her, to sum your entire life up, to shake up and reassemble your feelings in wondrous configurations. To lead your heart into a place where it kneels and almost forgets to beat. Beyond magical!


Like many young Palestinians, poet Mourid Barghouti didn't know when he left his hometown Ramallah in 1966 for Cairo, that it would be a while before he saw it again. The following year the Six-day War broke out as he sat his final year exams, and Mourid was denied entry back into Palestine. For 30 years. He travelled back to it in 1996, and I Saw Ramallah is an account of that homecoming. It has won awards, and it is an evocative, lyrical and powerful narrative of the Palestinian displacement, and of the literature of exile generally.

Displacement is like death. One thinks it only happens to other people. From the summer of '67 I became that displaced stranger whom I had always thought was someone else.

The stranger is the person who renews his Residence Permit. He fills out forms and buys stamps for them. He has to constantly come up with evidence and proofs. He is the one who is always asked: "And where are you from, brother?" Or he is asked: "Are summers hot in your country?" He does not care for the details that concern the people of that country where he finds himself, or for their 'domestic' policy. But he is the first to feel its consequences. He may not rejoice in what makes them happy but he is always afraid when they are afraid. He is always the 'infiltrating element' in demonstrations, even if he never left home that day...

And because I was born into a Partition family, and heard the stories growing up - of refugees, forced displacement and dispossession due to cataclysmic political events - Bengalis of my generation, born several years after the Partition have also been shaped by their missing homelands and homes somehow.  Therefore I related to Barghouti's story on several levels even without having to get into the ins and outs of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I Saw Ramallah gave me a context for understanding both these poets who write so eloquently and so poignantly.

I will leave you with this reading of "Nothing pleases me" by Darwish. All I am going to say is - his poetry pleases, pleases? what an inadequate word! no, it thrills me exceedingly. 

*According to one interpretation by the author of his family name, Barghouti comes from the word 'flea.'


  1. Someone (Rumi?) said that poetry is the language of the heart. And the very best poetry plucks my heart strings and produces melodies I have never heard - and always knew.

  2. A mantle of enchantment that described the world of poetry. Pieces that capture the soul.
    Have a good week

    1. Yup, and a far better world than our real one just at the mo. You have a great week too.

  3. You know that I really enjoy these peeks of yours into another culture.

  4. Hi Nila - lovely post ... I'd love to do some studying of poetry under you. Partition life at the time must have been awful - and to see life as it is now ... thanks for giving us an insight into these times. I'm always grateful for the nod you give us towards poets, artists, musicians ... we're unlikely to have heard of.

    I have Palgrave's Golden Treasury here ... with Spring as the first poem ... written by Thomas Nash in the late 1500s

    As Martin says ... I enjoy reading these and one day I hope I can delve deeper - cheers Hilary

    1. Palgrave's is still there on my bookshelf in the parental home. I go back and reread a couple pages every year :) "Drink to me only with thine eyes and I will pledge with mine"....That was absolutely my favourite collection growing up...

  5. "The best poems are those, when you read them for the first time, you feel you've waited forever for those very words to throw a mantle of enchantment around you and make your senses swim. For this one poet, and only him/her, to sum your entire life up, to shake up and reassemble your feelings in wondrous configurations." Yes! I have felt that way about several songs that I've heard during my life, and what are songs but poems set to music?

    1. What, indeed? Songs sum up specific periods for me, trips, milestones - inextricably linked with memories.

  6. I know that poetry has been around for a long time. By giving us a glimpse of different time periods and different places you have added a chapter to our knowledge without any effort on our part. At least for me. Thanks

    1. Ya, poetry predates writing, started off as an oral tradition...glad you enjoyed reading, Thanks for visiting.