The Palestinian Wedding: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Resistance Poetry, collected and translated by A.M. Elmessiri, illustrated by Kamal Boullata, Arabic calligraphy by Adel Horan, (Washington DC: Three Continents Press, 1982).

In “The Path of Affection,” included in The Palestinian Wedding, Layla ‘Allush describes the return to Haifa of one of its former inhabitants following 20 years of separation from the city. The return takes place “Along the amazing road drawn from the throat of recent dates, / And the amazing road drawn from the earrings of the century.” Unlike Said S., the main character of Ghassan Kanafani’s short novel Return to Haifa (1969), who likewise returned to Haifa after 1967 to find his home now inhabited by Jewish immigrants from Europe and his son a recruit in the Israeli army, ‘Allush’s traveller discovers a transcendent eternity projected in the city:

Everything is Arab despite the change of tongue,
Despite the trucks, the cars and the carlights,
Despite all the hybrid green and blue signs.
All the poplars and my ancestors’ solemn orchards
Were, I swear, smiling at me with Arab affection.

The difference between ‘Allush’s poem and Kanafani’s story is not only generic, the difference between lyric and narrative. It is ultimately an ideological difference, located here in the contradictory relationships posited to the demands of history. Whereas Allush in her poem seeks recourse in transcendence, Kanafani elicits the possibilities for change from the historical situation itself.

Abdelwahab Elmessiri has translated and assembled here a volume representing the major speakers of poetry, both under occupation and in exile, who have emerged from the Palestinian movement. The volume, which is dedicated to Kanafani, the first to apply the term “resistance” to Palestinian literature, [1] commemorates as well a historical moment in a national struggle which must in the end discover its significance in the larger confrontation with the forces of repression, both political and cultural, throughout the modern world. The poems have been arranged in reference to this broader ideological context. The Palestinian Wedding combines, in a tense juxtaposition, the transcendence of the symbol with the immanence of narrative. In “On the trunk of an olive tree,” Tawfiq Zayyad writes

I shall carve the number of each deed
Of our usurped land.
The location of my village and its boundaries…
All the chapters of my tragedy,
And all the stages of the disaster,
From beginning
To end,
On the olive tree
In the courtyard
Of the house.

In their struggle with the assaults of history, the poets proceed like “the flock of canaries,” in Salma al-Jayyusi’s poem, “Dearest Love II,”

Straying away in flight,
Cutting its path;
Away from old roads, straying away,
Cutting a path.

Although The Palestinian Wedding is not the first such anthology to appear (numerous others are listed in its representative bibliography), it distinguishes itself in its definition, “Contemporary Palestinian Resistance Poetry,” as well as by its inclusion, on facing pages, of the Arabic originals. The calligraphy of Adel Horan contributes much to this presentation. The original Arabic verses are emblematic of the critical impetus of this anthology: Arabic literature is demanding its legitimate place within the world arena of letters.

Contemporary literary studies in the US are currently being subjected to a critical scrutiny and a consequent “opening of the canon.” Arabic literature, like other “marginal” literatures such as American Indian, Chinese, or Black literature, is being introduced into the curricula of the literature departments of US universities. These changes are not taking place, however, without a certain intransigence from the practitioners of “humane letters.” At the same time, from the other side, there is the danger of sloganistic acceptance of a given literature or work of art on the same basis. Palestinian literature is perhaps especially prone to a critical consideration and identification of this sort, fated either to rejection or admission for the very fact of its being “Palestinian.” Hanan Ashrawi signals the danger:

[T]his national definition has become the rationalization for the lack of any objective study or criticism of the literature which is in itself a source of national pride, a symbol as well as a means of resistance.

Ashrawi goes on to call for a

ruthless scrutiny of a field that has long been denied its rights to responsible criticism, like a child or a mentally disturbed person who is not held responsible for his actions. Our literature has the right to demand of its critics responsible analysis and evaluation combined with the essential intellectual integrity that other literatures of the world have “enjoyed.” [2]

The Palestinian Wedding poses a significant challenge to literary critics, Western or Arab, to recognize in Arabic literature in general and in Palestinian poetry in particular, a literary corpus which is something more than the slogans of an ideological persuasion or an infantile demand for attention.

Mahmud Darwish finds that the poet “must reject the roses that spring / From a dictionary or a diwan” (“The roses and the dictionary”). For Samih al-Qassim, the poet must “dip into the depths of the virgin well,” and in so doing he warns of “Woe to the tumbling ivory towers, / And to the captives of the mimics” (“To Najib Mahfuz”). Such are the “Aesthetics of the Revolution” as presented among the poems contained in the first section, which announce the meaninglessness of conventional meanings. The poets of the Palestinian resistance movement reformulate as well the chronicles of events. Deir Yassin, Kafr Qassim, the disaster of 1948, the defeat of June 1967 — all serve as nodal points within the poetic configurations and commemorate significant events in recent Palestinian history. They also betray an elegiac nostalgia for the idylls of a time past. Jabra Jabra remembers Deir Yassin and the

Mouth of the well,
Where the hands of playful young maidens
met in friendship, pouring
Spring water into the jugs
Amidst merriment and song. (“Mouth of the Well”)

For Rashid Hussein,

Jaffa’s heart is silent, locked in stone,
And through the streets of heaven passes the funeral of the moon. (“Jaffa”)

Mahmud Darwish recalls Kafr Qassim, where “once the olive trees were green,” at a time “before they stopped the workers’ trucks at the curve of the road” (“Victim Number 18”). In commemorating the day of Zionist occupation, Fadwa Tuqan asks, “Can it be true that in the season of harvest, / Grain and fruit have turned to ashes” (“My Sad City”). In poetizing the June War of 1967, however, Salma al-Jayyusi writes that “June extends to her a bridge / As though June were a new book, erasing all books before” (“Dearest Love II”). These commemorative evocations of a lost past thus contain more than the nostalgic laments of destitution. They participate in a re-creation of historical significance. As the narrator of an early story by Ghassan Kanafani, “The Owl in a Distant Room,” recalls, “I don’t know what day the incident occurred. Even my father has forgotten, as if the ill-omened day were greater than any name or number could accommodate. It was in itself a sign of the time cast into the course of history, and thus people would say, ‘That happened a month after the day of the massacre.’” [3]

Mahmud Darwish elaborates, in the two poems “My Father” and “Awaiting the Return,” a classical allusion to the Homeric epic of The Odyssey, transforming the Greek legend in such a way that it is now Telemakhos, the son, who has remained behind, who becomes the hero, and not the wandering Odysseus. “Once upon a dream…once upon a death,” Darwish writes in “Blessed be that which has not come.” It is from this poem that the anthology takes its title:

This is the wedding without an end
In a boundless courtyard,
This is the Palestinian wedding:
Never will lover reach lover
Except as martyr…or fugitive.
— What year did this grief begin?
— It started in that Palestinian year without end.

Elmessiri’s critical introduction, tracing the major phases of the poetry’s development within its context of Arabic literature and the recent history of the Middle East, together with the appendices which provide notes to the poems, biographical sketches of the poets, as well as an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources in both Arabic and English, constitute a significant contribution to a critical study of the poetry. Given the polemical engagement of the poems with history and the questions they pose for issues of historiography, a dating of the poems, of their composition or of their publication, at least where possible, would have been useful. [4] And yet Elmessiri’s sense of history is powerfully communicated, not only through the arrangement of the poems and the provision of critical material, but in the translations themselves. Wa liyakun / la budda li, the first words of the first poem in the volume, “The roses and the dictionary” by Mahmud Darwish, are rendered there into English as “Be that as it may / I must…” and thus set the scene for the struggle which inevitably ensues. The acceptance of historical determinism here contends with the poet’s insistent demands for historical significance. A different translation of the same lines yields a different vision, as in Denys Johnson-Davies’ perhaps more fatalistic version: “So be it. / For me it is essential.” [5] The tension implied in the two translations is inherent in the poems themselves and their relationship to history.

Palestinian poetry, no less than the Palestinian people, is being challenged by current events. In “My Father,” published by Mahmud Darwish in 1966, the poet had reveled in the steadfastness of a Telemakhos:

My father once said:
He who has no homeland
Has no grave on earth;
…And forbade me to leave.

Sixteen years later, the same poet saw in the departure of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian fedayeen from Beirut the image of Odysseus leaving the windy city for long trials on the Mediterranean waters after the war with the Trojans: “The Palestinian is a new Ulysses, wandering from the Phoenician coast to the Greek shore, and no Arab port to receive him.” [6] The poets continue to respond to the events of the year 1982. The poems themselves propose new parameters and directions emerging from within the corpus of Palestinian resistance poetry. Samih al-Qassim composed “Qatr al-nadi” [7] and wrote there “because your passion reminds him of a language that languages have forgotten.” Mahmud Darwish’s poem “Madih al-Zill al-‘ali” appeared in the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir. [8] The “amazing road” is a torturous one, “drawn from the throat of recent dates.” For the poets of the Palestinian resistance, however, the situation looms critical, warranting a rethinking of poetry’s role and relevance in the struggle.

The poetry of the Palestinian resistance has long challenged the conventions of criticism and thus it is that here too the critics, no less than the poets, feel the crisis. Elias Khoury, upon his return to Beirut in the fall of 1982, wrote in the newspaper al-Nada‘: “The critical priority as I understand it is the attempt to situate the literary text in its temporal context…. How do you write criticism in a time of upheaval like the Arab time in Lebanon? This very upheaval is what gives to criticism a new significance, a meaning of search and acceptance of temporal emptiness and the disintegration of standards of measurement.” [9] The poems collected and translated by Abdelwahab Elmessiri in The Palestinian Wedding bear eloquent witness to the historical tension along “the amazing road drawn from the earrings of the century.”



[1] Ghassan Kanafani, Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine 1948-1966 (Beirut: Institute for Arab Research, 1982). [Arabic] [2] Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi, “The Contemporary Palestinian Poetry of Occupation,” Journal of Palestine Studies 7,4(1978), pp. 83-84.
[3] Ghassan Kanafani, “Al-bu’ma fi ghurfa ba’ida,” Maut sarir raqm 12 (Beirut, Institute for Arab Research, 1980), p.20.
[4] A chronological ordering of the poems of Mahmud Darwish and Samih al-Qassim, the poets most represented in the anthology, is provided among the appendices.
[5] Mahmud Darwish, The Music of Human Flesh, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (London: Heinemann, 1980), p.18.
[6] Kui al-arab, October 13, 1983.
[7] Kui al-arab, March 16, 1983.
[8] February 13, 1983.
[9] November 1982.

How to cite this article:

Barbara Harlow "The Amazing Road," Middle East Report 131 (March/ April 1985).

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