Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading
In a poem published in Arabic last month, Mahmoud Darwish bids Edward Said farewell
New York/ November/ Fifth Avenue
The sun a plate of shredded metal
I asked myself, estranged in the shadow:
Is it Babel or Sodom?
There, on the doorstep of an electric abyss,
high as the sky, I met Edward,
thirty years ago,
time was less wild then...
We both said:
If the past is only an experience,
make of the future a meaning and a vision.
Let us go,
Let us go into tomorrow trusting
the candor of imagination and the miracle of grass/
I don't recall going together to the cinema
in the evening. Still I heard Ancient
Indians calling: Trust
neither horse, nor modernity
No. Victims do not ask their executioner:
Am I you? Had my sword been
bigger than my rose, would you
if I would have acted like you?
A question like that entices the curiosity
of a novelist,
sitting in a glass office, overlooking
lilies in the garden, where
of a hypothesis is as clear as
of a novelist set to settle accounts
human instinct... There is no tomorrow
in yesterday, so let us advance/
Advancing could be a bridge
New York. Edward wakes up to
a lazy dawn. He plays
Runs round the university's tennis
Thinks of the journey of ideas across
and over barriers. He reads the New York Times.
Writes out his furious comments. Curses an Orientalist
guiding the General to the weak point
inside the heart of an Oriental woman. He showers. Chooses
his elegant suit. Drinks
his white coffee. Shouts at the dawn:
Do not loiter.
On wind he walks, and in wind
he knows himself. There is no ceiling for the wind,
no home for the wind. Wind is the compass
of the stranger's North.
He says: I am from there, I am from here,
but I am neither there nor here.
I have two names which meet and part...
I have two languages, but I have long forgotten
which is the language of my dreams.
I have an English language, for writing,
with yielding phrases,
and a language in which Heaven and
Jerusalem converse, with a silver cadence,
but it does not yield to my imagination.
What about identity? I asked.
He said: It's self-defence...
Identity is the child of birth, but
at the end, it's self-invention, and not
an inheritance of the past. I am multiple...
Within me an ever new exterior. And
I belong to the question of the victim. Were I not
from there, I would have trained my heart
to nurture there deers of metaphor...
So carry your homeland wherever you go, and be
a narcissist if need be/
The outside world is exile,
exile is the world inside.
And what are you between the two?
Myself, I do not know
so that I shall not lose it. I am what I am.
I am my other, a duality
gaining resonance in between speech and gesture.
Were I to write poetry I would have said:
I am two in one,
like the wings of a swallow ,
content with bringing good omen
when spring is late.
He loves a country and he leaves.
[Is the impossible far off?]
He loves leaving to things unknown.
By traveling freely across cultures
those in search of the human essence
may find a space for all to sit...
Here a margin advances. Or a centre
retreats. Where East is not strictly east,
and West is not strictly west,
where identity is open onto plurality,
not a fort or a trench/
Metonymy was sleeping on the river's bank;
had it not been for the pollution
it could have embraced the other bank.
- Have you written any novels?
ï I tried... I tried to retrieve
my image from mirrors of distant women.
But they scampered off into their guarded night.
Saying: Our world is independent of any text.
A man cannot write a woman who is both enigma and dream.
A woman cannot write a man who is both symbol and star.
There are no two loves alike. No two nights
alike. So let us enumerate men's qualities
- And what did you do?
ï I laughed at my nonsense
and threw the novel
into the wastepaper basket/
The intellectual harnesses what the novelist can tell
and the philosopher interprets the bard's roses/
He loves a country and he leaves:
I am what I am and shall be.
I shall choose my place by myself,
and choose my exile. My exile, the backdrop
to an epic scene. I defend
the poet's need for memories and tomorrow,
I defend country and exile
in tree-clad birds,
and a moon, generous enough
to allow the writing of a love poem;
I defend an idea shattered by the frailty
of its partisans
and defend a country hijacked by myths/
- Will you be able to return to anything?
ï My ahead pulls what's behind and hastens...
There is no time left in my watch for me to scribble lines
on the sand. I can, however, visit yesterday
as strangers do when they listen
on a sad evening to a Pastorale:
"A girl by the spring filling her jar
"With clouds' tears,
"Weeping and laughing as a bee
"Stings her heart...
"Is it love that makes the water ache
"Or some sickness in the mist..."
[until the end of the song].
- So, nostalgia can hit you?
ï Nostalgia for a higher, more distant tomorrow,
far more distant. My dream leads my steps.
And my vision places my dream
on my knees
like a pet cat. It's the imaginary
the child of will: We can
change the inevitability of the abyss.
- And nostalgia for yesterday?
ï A sentiment not fit for an intellectual, unless
it is used to spell out the stranger's fervour
for that which negates him.
My nostalgia is a struggle
over a present which has tomorrow
by the balls.
- Did you not sneak into yesterday when
you went to that house, your house
in Talbiya, in Jerusalem?
ï I prepared myself to sleep
in my mother's bed, like a child
who's scared of his father. I tried
to recall my birth, and
to watch the Milky Way from the roof of my old
house. I tried to stroke the skin
of absence and the smell of summer
in the garden's jasmine. But the hyena that is truth
drove me away from a thief-like
- Were you afraid? What frightened you?
ï I could not meet loss face
to face. I stood by the door like a beggar.
How could I ask permission from strangers sleeping
in my own bed... Ask them if I could visit myself
for five minutes? Should I bow in respect
to the residents of my childish dream? Would they ask:
Who is that prying foreign visitor? And how
could I talk about war and peace
among the victims and the victims' victims,
without additions, without an interjection?
And would they tell me: There is no place for two dreams
in one bedroom?
It is neither me nor him
who asks; it is a reader asking:
What can poetry say in a time of catastrophe?
in your country,
in my name and in yours, in
the almond flower, in the banana skin,
in the baby's milk, in light and shadow,
in the grain of wheat, in salt/
Adept snipers, hitting their target
with maximum proficiency.
This land is smaller than the blood of its children
standing on the threshold of doomsday like
sacrificial offerings. Is this land truly
blessed, or is it baptised
which neither prayer, nor sand can dry.
There is not enough justice in the Sacred Book
to make martyrs rejoice in their freedom
to walk on cloud. Blood in daylight,
blood in darkness. Blood in speech.
He says: The poem could host
loss, a thread of light shining
at the heart of a guitar; or a Christ
on a horse pierced through with beautiful metaphors. For
the aesthetic is but the presence of the real
In a world without a sky, the earth
becomes an abyss. The poem,
a consolation, an attribute
of the wind, southern or northern.
Do not describe what the camera can see
of your wounds. And scream that you may hear yourself,
and scream that you may know you're still alive,
and alive, and that life on this earth is
possible. Invent a hope for speech,
invent a direction, a mirage to extend hope.
And sing, for the aesthetic is freedom/
I say: The life which cannot be defined
except by death is not a life.
He says: We shall live.
So let us be masters of words which
make their readers immortal -- as your friend
He also said: If I die before you,
my will is the impossible.
I asked: Is the impossible far off?
He said: A generation away.
I asked: And if I die before you?
He said: I shall pay my condolences to Mount Galilee,
and write, "The aesthetic is to reach
poise." And now, don't forget:
If I die before you, my will is the impossible.
When I last visited him in New Sodom,
in the year Two Thousand and Two, he was battling off
the war of Sodom on the people of Babel...
and cancer. He was like the last epic hero
defending the right of Troy
to share the narrative.
An eagle soaring higher and higher
bidding farewell to his height,
for dwelling on Olympus
and over heights
farewell poetry of pain.