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Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry was most eloquent when performed before an audience

By David J. Wasserstein

August 27, 2012


 

Modern poetry in Arabic, like its medieval predecessors, is written to be read publicly. Anyone with access to the Internet can still, even after Mahmoud Darwish’s death, apprehend something of the meaning and impact of his writing from several dozen recordings of him reading aloud to appreciative audiences in and out of the Arab world.

The Arabic language is at the heart of Arab identity. Adonis, a grand old man of modern Arabic poetry, born in Syria in 1930, writes, “The Arab has grown up in a culture which views language as his speaking image, and himself as its feeling, thinking reflection. It is a union of reason and sentiment, the chief symbol and assurance of Arab identity.”

For Darwish, language is much more than a tool. This comes through not just in what he writes but in his performance of it. He stands on a platform, at a lectern, his sheets in front of him; he reads with his eyes looking down at his text, like a musician who knows his notes perfectly but has no interest in anything beyond the composition itself, certainly not in his audience; as he reads he becomes visibly lost in the music of the language, playing with the sounds of the words as he utters them, manifestly enjoying the formal inflectional endings of the language imposed by his grammar and moving his right hand, even his fingers, to his sense of the rhythm. Although this is his own writing, he reads it as though seeing it for the first time. His audience, crowding a large concert hall or lecture room, watches and listens in a respectful silence akin to reverence, broken by occasional bursts of applause. This oral quality, the performance culture that is characteristic of Arab poetry, not only marks a difference from the poetry of other languages such as English or French, but also explains why translations from Arabic tend to have less impact than their originals.

Darwish’s poetry sold in the tens of thousands, and his readings/performances attracted huge and devoted audiences. Some of his most popular poems were performed by the well-known Christian Lebanese oud-player Marcel Khalife, set to music that oddly recalls that of Georges Moustaki. Its effect is thus not only literary and more broadly cultural but, not least because of the content of much of his writing, social and political too.

 


David J. Wasserstein is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author most recently (with the late Abraham Wasserstein) of The Legend of the Septuagint, From Classical Antiquity to Today. He is currently completing How Islam Saved the Jews.


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