Palestinian Studies

2017 Workshop

Sinan Antoon

Associate Professor, The Gallatin School – New York University

Before the Ruins: When Darwish Met Benjamin

Mahmoud Darwish said, on more than one occasion, that he considered himself to be a Trojan poet whose text was lost. He was concerned with “recollecting and reconstructing the voices of the defeated. . .The Trojans would have expressed a different narrative than that of Homer, but their voices are forever lost. I am in search of those voices." Darwish conducted his poetic search as he roamed over a “map of absence,” as he called Palestine. In his last prose book, In the Presence of Absence, he asked: “What can a poet do when confronted with the bulldozers of history. . . except guard language from being emptied of the voices of victims who ask for their share in tomorrow’s memory.”

Darwish was thrust by a variety of coincidences, events, and circumstances into becoming the official re-memberer, or chronicler of Palestinian collective memory. This was undoubtedly, a daunting task that would, sooner or later, drain the poeticity and creativity of any and many a poet, but Darwish took the challenge head on and excelled in the many ways he transformed it into an aesthetic challenge, first and foremost. To remember and summon the past and deploy it in a creative and productive manner is what he did so very well time and again. 

My paper stems from an ongoing interest in exploring the various modes in which Darwish reconstructs and remembers his home/land, specifically in his late poetry, that part of his oeuvre he himself considered more mature and for which he wanted to be most remembered. How does he grapple with memory and history and what textual strategies does he deploy to “rescue the memory of the victims”? The paper tries to unpack some predominant topics revolving around the theme of “return” and the poet’s complex relationship with a past and present that are dialectically implicated in an ongoing struggle. Return is read in tandem with another important theme: Absence. The latter theme/category acquires added significance in the Palestinian context. The nakba resulted in the actual absence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Palestine itself. It was also predicated on and perpetuated by a discursive (and a legal) absence of the Palestinian.

Considering Darwish’s iconic status and his immense symbolic capital and the visceral importance of “return” as a concrete demand and a political category, it is tempting to speculate on the potential political implications of absence and return in his work. 

The paper reads a few representative poems to explore the nexus of memory/absence/return. If the past presence cannot be recognized or fully represented anymore, absence can still be. Far from being negative, absence itself is the trace and the proof of what and who could have and should have been there, not as remains, but as continuous uninterrupted presence. Thus, poeticizing absence from a place is not a defeatist gesture. On the contrary, implicit in it is the demand for recognition and the right to return, not as a ghost, or a foreigner, but to return. A translation of this demand from the poetic realm to the political is not simple, but the narrative exists.

Sinan Antoon is associate professor, The Gallatin School, and Fellow, Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, NYU. His teaching and research interests lie in pre-modern and modern Arabic literature and contemporary Arab culture and politics. His scholarly works include The Poetics of the Obscene: Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014) and numerous essays on the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Sargon Boulus, and on contemporary Iraqi culture. His essays and creative writings in Arabic have appeared in major journals and publications in the Arab world and on and in The New York TimesThe NationMiddle East ReportJournal of Palestine StudiesJournal of Arabic LiteratureThe Massachusetts Review, World Literature TodayPloughshares, and Washington Square Journal. He is a member of the Editorial Review Board of the Arab Studies Journal and co-founder and co-editor of Jadaliyya. He has published two collections of poetry in Arabic and one collection in English: The Baghdad Blues(Harbor Mountain Press, 2007). His first novel I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody(City Lights, 2007) appears in German, Portuguese, Norwegian, and Italian editions. He translated his second novel, Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman (Beirut, 2010), into English as The Corpse Washer for Yale University Press in 2013 and the work was recognized with a 2014 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for translation and on the long list for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for best translated fiction. His third novel Ya Maryam (Dar al-Jamal, 2012), whose Spanish edition Fragmentos de Bagdad was translated by Maria Luz Commedado, was released from Turner Libros in 2014. His translations from the Arabic include Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago, 2011) and a selection of Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef’s late work, Nostalgia; My Enemy (Graywolf, 2012). His translation of Toni Morrison’s Home was published in Arabic in 2014. Antoon returned to his native Baghdad in 2003 as a member of InCounter Productions to co-direct a documentary, About Baghdad,about the lives of Iraqis in a post-Saddam-occupied Iraq. He was a 2009 postdoctoral fellow at the EUME Program at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and a 2013 fellow of the American Academy in Berlin. In 2014, Antoon was the Distinguished Visiting Creative Writer at the American University in Cairo.