The Butterfly’s Burden: Mahmoud Darwish’s legacy

Two years ago today, while undergoing heart surgery in Texas, the poet Mahmoud Darwish died at age 67. Al-Masry Al-Youm celebrates the Palestinian poet whose legacy of over 30 books, many of them still being translated into English, still gives voice to a marginalized Palestinian population, and whose masterful lines continue to enrich the border-less world of poetry.

The Butterfly’s Burden is the most recent book of Darwish’s to arrive in English translation (from Palestinian-American poet and translator, Fady Joudah). It compiles three collections, and was published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2009.

Darwish spent much of his life outside of his native Palestine. Even when he was granted residence in Ramallah in adulthood (where he founded the literary review al-Karmel) he felt in exile; his real home has long been part of Israel unreachable by the majority of Palestinian Arabs. From the beginning, his work described the feeling of displacement so familiar to other Palestinians that he quickly became an important symbol of peaceful resistance. Early activism led to his imprisonment, and Darwish was a long-time member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Many Palestinians, if asked, will list three figures essential to their national identity: Yasser Arafat, Edward Said, and Mahmoud Darwish. When Darwish died, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of national mourning.

Though he would bristle at the label of the voice of Palestine–and his work transcends easy categories–Darwish’s sensitive and often simple lines are very effective when they reflect the essence of Palestinian resistance through vivid descriptions of their daily rituals. It seems impossible not to read Darwish’s Palestinian heritage into his work, and even when politics isn’t in the background, identity is.

The first section of The Butterfly’s Burden is called "The Stranger’s Bed," originally published in 1998. In it, Darwish buries his true meaning just below the surface, gracefully employing metaphor to portray the speaker as a desperate lover in search on his lost love (Darwish claims that his first love was a Jewish girl, and writes many poems to her and about how this relationship informed his perception of Israel). Beneath the romance, though, is despair for a country that is not his, an abducted country. In We Walk on the Bridge, he writes:

Echo for echo: who of us said those words, me
or the foreign woman? No one can
Return to another. Eternity performs
its manual chores out of our lives then thrives…

In this phase of Darwish’s life, he was strongly influenced by his frequent travels to Lebanon, Moscow, Cairo, Greece, Cyprus, and Tunisia; his work describes the longing a traveller feels for the woman, and the land, he has abandoned.

The second collection, called "A State of Siege" (2002), is more a straightforward cry against the siege and against the injustice. In a particularly bracing poem, Darwish writes:

Pain is: that a housewife doesn’t hang up her clothesline
in the morning, and that she’s satisfied with this flag’s cleanliness.
A Stage of Siege is a cry to humanity about the humans in Palestine that being slaughtered by other humans;
you standing at the doorsteps, enter
and drink Arabic coffee with us.

Perhaps most stinging is that, through the anger, Darwish keeps his door open, recognizing that even the perpetrators are “other humans.”

In the final section, "Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done," Darwish’s images are clearer, more clever, and playful, brought to life stunningly by Joudah, who, despite being himself an accomplished poet, vows to stick to “the structure of the Darwish poem.” Joudah’s poetic eye only enhances the original text; The Butterfly’s Burden is a worthy addition to Darwish’s voice, which is as strong as ever.

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