So, we are who we are, as the Mississippi flows,
and what remains from yesterday is still ours--
but the color of the sky has changed,
the sea to the East has changed.
O white master, Lord of the horses,
what do you want from those making their way
to the night woods?
Our pastures are sacred, our spirits inspired,
the stars are luminous words where our fable
is legible from the beginning to end
if only you'll lift up your eyes:
born between water and fire,
reborn in clouds on an azure shore
after Judgement day...
Don't kill the grass any more,
it possess a soul in us that could
shelter the soul of the earth.
Tamer of horses, teach your horse
to ask forgiveness of nature's soul
for the way you've treated our trees:
O Sister tree,
look how they've tortured you
the way they've tortured me;
never ask forgiveness
for the woodcutter whose axe felled
both your mother and mine...
The white man will never understand the ancient words
here in spirits roaming free
between sky and trees.
Let Columbus scour the seas to find India,
it's his right!
He can call our ghosts the names of spices,
he can call us Red Indians,
he can fiddle with his compass to correct his course,
twist all the errors of the North wind,
but outside the narrow world to his map
he can't believe that all men are born equal
the same as air and water,
the same as people in Barcelona,
except that they happen to worship Nature's God in everything
and not gold.
Columbus was free to look for a language
he couldn't find here,
to look for gold in the skulls of our ancestors.
He took his fill from the flesh of our living
and our dead.
So why is he bent on carrying out his deadly war
even from the grave?
When we have nothing left to give
but a few ruinous trinkets, a few tiny feathers to
embroider our lakes?
you killed over seventy million hearts,
more than enough for you to return from slaughter
as king on the throne of a new age.
Isn't it about time, stranger,
for us to meet face to face in the same age,
both of us strangers to the same land,
meeting at the tip of an abyss?
We have what is ours and
we have what is yours of the sky.
Yours air and water, such as we have.
Ours pebbles, such as we have,
yours iron, such as you have.
In the shadow domain, let us share the light.
Take what you need of the night
but leave us a few stars to bury our celestial dead.
Take what you need of the sea
but leave us a few waves in which to catch our fish.
Take all the gold of the earth and sun
but leave the land of our names to us.
Then go back, stranger.
Search for India once more!
Our names: branching leaves of divine speech,
birds that soar higher than a gun.
You who come from beyond the sea, bent on war,
don't cut down the tree of our names,
don't gallop your flaming horses across
the open plains.
You have your god and we have ours,
you have your religion and we have ours.
Don't bury your God
in books that back up your claim of
your land over our land,
don't appoint your God to be a mere
courtier in the palace of the King.
Take the rose of our dreams
and see what we've seen of joy.
Sleep in the shade of our willows
and start to fly like a dove--
this, after all, is what our ancestors did
when they flew away in peace
and returned in peace.
You won't remember leaving the Mediterranean,
eternity's solitude in the middle of a forest
rather than on the edge of a cliff.
What you lack is the wisdom of defeat,
a lost war, a rock standing firm
in the rush of time's furious river,
an hour of reverie for a necessary sky of dust to
an hour of hesitation between one path and another.
One day Euripides will be missing
as well as the hymns of Canaan and Babylon,
Solomon's Song of Songs for Shulamith
and the yearning lily of the valley.
What you white men need will be the memory of
how to tame the horses of madness,
hearts polished by pumice in a flurry of violins.
All this you will need,
as well as a hesitant gun.
(But if you must kill, white man, don't slay
the creatures that befriended us.
Don't slaughter our past.)
You will need a treaty with our ghosts on those
sterile winter nights,
a less bright sun, a less full moon
for the crime to appear
less glamorous on the screen.
So take your time
as you dismember God.
We know what this elegant enigma conceals from us:
a heaven dies.
A willow strays, wind-footed,
a beast establishes its kingdom
in hollows of wounded space,
ocean-waters drench the wood of our doors with salt,
earth's a primordial burden heavier than before
but similar to something we've known since the
beginning of time.
Winds will recite our beginning and our end
though our present bleeds
and our days are buried in the ashes of legend.
We know that Athens is not ours
and can identify the color of the days
from puff clouds or rising smoke.
But Athens isn't yours as well,
yet we know what mighty iron is preparing for us
for the gods that failed
to defend the salt in our bread.
We know that truth is stronger than righteousness,
and that times changed
when the technology of weapons changed.
Who will raise our voices to the rainless clouds?
Who will rinse the light after we're gone?
Who will tend our temples,
who will safeguard our traditions
from the clash of steel?
“We bring you civilization,” said the stranger.
“We're the masters of time
come to inherit this land of yours.
March in Indian file so we can tally you
on the face of the lake, corpse by corpse.
Keep marching, so the Gospels may thrive!
We want God all to ourselves
because the best Indians are dead Indians
in the eyes of the Lord.”
The Lord is white and the day is white.
You have your world and we have ours.
What the stranger says is truly strange.
He digs a well deep in the earth to bury the sky.
Truly strange, what the stranger says!
He hunts down our children, as well as butterflies.
O stranger, what promises do you make to our garden,
zinc flowers prettier than ours?
But do you know that a deer
will never approach grass that's been
stained with our blood?
Buffaloes are our brothers and sisters, as well as
everything that grows.
Don't dig any deeper!
Don't pierce the shell of the turtle that carries our grandmother
the earth on its back!
Our trees are her hair,
and we adorn ourselves with her blooms.
“There's no death on earth,”
so don't break her delicate formation!
Don't bruise the earth, don't smash
the smooth mirror of her orchards,
don't startle her, don't murder the river-waisted one
whose grandchildren we are.
We'll be gone soon enough.
Take our blood,
but leave the earth alone:
God's most elaborate
writing on the face of the waters,
for His sake and ours.
We still hear our ancestors' voices on the wind,
we listen to their pulse in the flowering trees.
This earth is our grandmother, each stone sacred,
and the hut where gods dwelt with us
and stars lit up our nights of prayer.
We roamed naked and walked barefoot to touch
the souls of the stones
so that the spirit or air would unfold us in women
who would replenish nature's gifts.
Our history was her history.
To endure our life
go away and come back.
Return the spirits,
one by one,
to the earth.
We keep the memory of our loved ones in jars,
like oil and salt, whose names we tied
to wings of water birds.
We were here first,
no ceiling to separate our blue doors from the sky,
no horses to graze where our deer used to graze,
no strangers bursting in on the night of our wives.
O give the wind a flute to weep for the people
of this wounded place,
and tomorrow to weep for you.
And tomorrow to weep for you.
Tending our last fires
we fail to acknowledge your greetings.
Don't write commandments
from your new steel god for us.
Don't demand peace treaties from the dead.
There's no one left to greet you in peace,
which is nowhere to be seen.
We lived and flourished before the onslaught of
English guns, French wine and influenza,
living in harmony side by side with the Deer People,
learning our oral history by heart.
We brought you tidings of innocence and daisies.
But you have your god and we have ours.
You have your past and we have ours.
Time is a river
blurred by the tears we gaze through.
But don't you ever
memorize a few lines of poetry, perhaps,
to restrain yourself from massacre?
Weren't you born of a woman?
Didn't you suckle the milk of longing
from your mother as we did?
Didn't you attach paper wings to your shoulders
to chase swallows as we did?
We brought you tidings of the Spring.
(Don't point your guns at us!)
We can exchange gifts, we can sing:
My people were here once, then they died here...
Chestnut trees hide their souls here.
My people will return in the air,
Take my motherland by the sword!
I refuse to sign a treaty between victim and killer.
I refuse to sign a bill of sale
that takes possession
of so much as one inch of my weed patch,
of so much as one inch of my cornfield
even if it's my last salutation to the sun!
As I wade into the river wrapped in my name only
I know I'm returning to my mother's bosom
so that you, white master, can enter your Age.
Enter your brutal statues of liberty over my corpse.
Engrave your iron crosses on my stony shadow,
for soon I will rise to the height of the song
sung by those multitudes suicided by their
dispersion through history
at a mass where our voices will soar like birds:
Here strangers won
over salt and sea mixed with clouds.
Here strangers won
over corn husks within us
as they laid down their cables for
lightning and electricity.
Here's where the grieving eagle
dived to his death.
Here's where strangers won over us
leaving us nothing for the New Age.
Here our bodies evaporate, cloud by cloud, into space.
Here our spirits glow, star by star, in the sky of song.
A long time will have to go by before our
present becomes our past, just like us.
We will face our death, but first
we'll defend the trees we wear.
We'll venerate the bell of night, the moon
hanging over our shacks.
We'll defend our leaping deer,
the clay of our jars, the feathers
in the wings of our last songs.
Soon you'll raise your world over ours,
blazing a trail from our graveyards to a satellite.
This is the Iron Age: distilled from a lump of coal,
champagne bubbling for the mighty!
There are dead and there are colonies.
There are dead and there are bulldozers.
There are dead and there are hospitals.
There are dead and there are radar screens
to observe the dead
as they die more than once in this life,
screens to observe the dead who live on after death
as well as those who die
to lift the earth above all that has died.
O white master, where are you taking my people
Into what abyss
is this robot bristling with aircraft carriers and jets
consigning the earth?
To what fathomless pit
will you descend?
It's your to decide.
A new Rome, a technological Sparta and an
ideology for the insane...
but we'd rather depart from an Age
our minds can't accept.
Once a people,
now we'd rather flock to the land of birds.
We'll take a peek at our homeland through stones,
glimpse it through openings in clouds,
through the speech of stars,
through the air suspended above lakes,
between soft tassel fringes in ears of corn.
We'll emerge from the flower of the grave.
We'll lean out of the poplar's leaves
of all that besieges you, O white man,
of all the dead who are still dying,
both those who live and those
who return to tell the tale.
Let's give the earth enough time to tell
the whole truth about your and us.
The whole truth about us.
The whole truth about you.
In rooms you build,
the dead are already asleep.
Over bridges you construct,
the dead are already passing.
There are dead who light up the night
and the dead who come at dawn
to drink your tea
as peaceful as on the day your
guns mowed them down.
O you who are guests in this place,
leave a few chairs empty
for your hosts to read out
the conditions for peace
in a treaty with the dead.
About the Author
Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish was born in al-Birwa in Galilee, a village that was occupied and later razed by the Israeli army. Because they had missed the official Israeli census, Darwish and his family were considered “internal refugees” or “present-absent aliens.” Darwish lived for many years in exile in Beirut and Paris. He is the author of over 30 books of poetry and eight books of prose, and earned the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize from the Lannan Foundation, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres Medal from France.
In the 1960s Darwish was imprisoned for reciting poetry and traveling between villages without a permit. Considered a “resistance poet,” he was placed under house arrest when his poem “Identity Card” was turned into a protest song. After spending a year at a university of Moscow in 1970, Darwish worked at the newspaper Al-Ahram in Cairo. He subsequently lived in Beirut, where he edited the journal Palestinian Affairs from 1973 to 1982. In 1981 he founded and edited the journal Al-Karmel. Darwish served from 1987 to 1993 on the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1996 he was permitted to return from exile to visit friends and family in Israel and Palestine.
Mahmoud Darwish’s early work of the 1960s and 1970s reflects his unhappiness with the occupation of his native land. Carolyn Forché and Runir Akash noted in their introduction to Unfortunately It Was Paradise (2003) that “as much as [Darwish] is the voice of the Palestinian Diaspora, he is the voice of the fragmented soul.” Forché and Akash commented also on his 20th volume, Mural: “Assimilating centuries of Arabic poetic forms and applying the chisel of modern sensibility to the richly veined ore of its literary past, Darwish subjected his art to the impress of exile and to his own demand that the work remain true to itself, independent of its critical or public reception.”
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye commented on the poems in Unfortunately It Was Paradise: “[T]he style here is quintessential Darwish—lyrical, imagistic, plaintive, haunting, always passionate, and elegant—and never anything less than free—what he would dream for all his people.”
Mahmoud Darwish died in 2008 in Houston, Texas.