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Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems

Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems

by Mahmoud Darwish

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Mahmoud Darwish is a literary rarity: at once critically acclaimed as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language, and beloved as the voice of his people. A legend in Palestine, his lyrics are sung by fieldworkers and schoolchildren. He has assimilated some of the world's oldest literary traditions while simultaneously struggling to open new


Mahmoud Darwish is a literary rarity: at once critically acclaimed as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language, and beloved as the voice of his people. A legend in Palestine, his lyrics are sung by fieldworkers and schoolchildren. He has assimilated some of the world's oldest literary traditions while simultaneously struggling to open new possibilities for poetry. This collection spans Darwish's entire career, nearly four decades, revealing an impressive range of expression and form. A splendid team of translators has collaborated with the poet on these new translations, which capture Darwish's distinctive voice and spirit. Fady Joudah’s foreword, new to this edition, addresses Darwish’s enduring legacy following his death in 2008.

Editorial Reviews

Adrienne Rich
These translations of Mahmoud Darwish's marvelous poems reveal the lifelong development of a major world poet. The book is a gift to other poets and lovers of poetry. It's also an important contribution to current and future discourse on culture and politics.
Village Voice
Unfortunately, It Was Paradise offers poems, rooted in ancient traditions, that map his voyage as a Palestinian and poet (equally problematic identitiesŠ. Deserving of more prominence in a literary scene still accustomed to Eurocentricity, Darwish is to be read with urgency, in the night, when nothing else moves but his lines.
Naomi Shihab Nye
At this critical moment in world relations, cultural, creative projects feel more necessary than ever. Celebrate this most comprehensive gathering of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry ever translated into English. Darwish is the premier poetic voice of the Palestinian people, and the collaboration between translators Akash and Forché is a fine mingling of extraordinary talents. The 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.
Adam Shatz
As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has observed, Palestine is a metaphor for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and exile, for the declining power of the Arab world in its dealings with the West. Mr. Darwish, who is widely considered the Palestinian national poet, has developed this metaphor to richly lyrical effect . . . . Like Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet he read in Hebrew as a young man, Mr. Darwish has given expression to his people's ordinary longings and desires.
New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
This book's publication is a major event. . . . Darwish is a literary giant whose voice is passionate and universal.
Publishers Weekly
When Darwish's selected The Adam of Two Edens was published by Syracuse in late 2000, the second Palestinian intifada was not yet bound up in "the war on terror," and the book did not get much play, perhaps partially due to its disparate translations (and an uninviting cover). That should not be the case with this second selection of work by the poet often spoken of as the national poet of Palestine. Darwish, who lived more than 25 years in exile from his native Haifa, is currently living in Ramallah, and these selections, covering five books and 20 or so years, are uncompromising and powerful. Akash is the editor of Jusoor: The Arab American Journal of Cultural Exchange and co-editor of Post Gibran: An Anthology of New Arab American Writing (2000), but the key here is Forch (The Angel of History, etc.), who brings out the thorny immediacy and consistency in Darwish's complex linguistic negotiations of deeply contested places-places on the earth and in the mind. It is difficult to summarize those spaces here, but suffice to say that Darwish, as rendered in this English-only edition, demands, and sustains, serious reading and discussion, as in the magisterial long poem "Mural" from 2000: "I will dream, not to correct any meaning beyond me,/ but to heal the inner desolation of its terrible drought." (Jan.) Forecast: Darwish won the Lannan Foundation's $350,000 Prize for Cultural Freedom last year, and the foundation also underwrote this edition. Darwish was profiled last December in the New York Times; expect serious review attention for this book, and extensive attention to Darwish himself, though he is unlikely to travel to the U.S. as the book pubs. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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University of California Press
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New Edition
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5.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Unfortunately, It Was Paradise

By Mahmoud Darwish

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23754-4


Mahmoud Darwish is a literary rarity. Critically acclaimed as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language and beloved as the voice of his people, he is an artist demanding of his work continual transformation and a living legend whose lyrics are sung by fieldworkers and schoolchildren. Few poets have borne such disparately bestowed adulation, nor survived such dramatic vicissitudes of history and fate as Mahmoud Darwish; even fewer have done so while endeavoring to open new possibilities for poetry while assimilating one of the world's oldest literary traditions. His poetry has been enthusiastically embraced since the publication of his first volume, Leaves of Olive, in 1964. After the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, Darwish raised his voice in searing lyrics confronting the pain of everyday life for Palestinians. In a realism stripped of poetic flourish, the "poetry of resistance" was born. With Nerudian transparency, his poems of the sixties and early seventies reflected his pain over the occupation of his homeland and his lingering hopes for its liberation. In the intervening years, the poetry of Darwish exemplified a brilliant artistic restlessness, with each volume opening new formal territory and poeticconcerns. With the publication of this collection, Darwish will celebrate his sixty-first birthday and nearly four decades of writing. He is the poet laureate of Palestine-a poet sharing the fate of his people, living in a town under siege, while providing them with a language for their anguish and dreams. Any serious study of his work must take into account the context in which it was written: the years of exilic wandering and survival; the aesthetic, metaphysical, and political struggles particular to this poet.

Mahmoud Darwish was born in the village of Birwe, in the district of Akka (Acre) in upper Galilee, Palestine, on March 13, 1942. When he was six years old, the Israeli Army occupied and subsequently destroyed Birwe, along with 416 other Palestinian villages. To avoid the ensuing massacres, the Darwish family fled to Lebanon. A year later, they returned to their country "illegally," and settled in the nearby village of Dayr al-Asad, but too late to be counted among the Palestinians who survived and remained within the borders of the new state. The young Darwish was now an "internal refugee," legally classified as a "present-absent alien," a species of Orwellian doublethink that the poet would later interrogate in his lyric meditation "The Owl's Night," wherein the present is "placeless, transient, absurd," and absence "mysterious," "human," and "unwanted," "going about its own preoccupations and piling up its chosen objects. Like a small jar of water," he writes, "absence breaks in me." The newly "alienated" Palestinians fell under military rule and were sent into a complex legal maze of emergency rulings. They could not travel within their homeland without permission, nor, apparently, could the eight-year-old Darwish recite a poem of lamentation at the school celebration of the second anniversary of Israel without subsequently incurring the wrath of the Israeli military governor. Thereafter he was obliged to hide whenever an Israeli officer appeared. During his school years, and until he left the country in 1970, Darwish would be imprisoned several times and frequently harassed, always for the crimes of reciting his poetry and traveling without a permit from village to village.

Birwe was erased from land and map, but remained intact in memory, the mirage of a lost paradise. In 1997, the Israeli-French filmmaker, Simone Bitton, went to what had been Birwe to film Darwish's childhood landscape, but found nothing but ruins and a desolate, weed-choked cemetery. On April 16, 2001, Israeli bulldozers began paving a new road through the graves, unearthing human remains throughout the site. The vanished Palestinian village became, for the displaced poet, a bundle of belongings carried on the back of the refugee. Denied the recognition of citizenship in the new state, Darwish settled on language as his identity, and took upon himself the task of restoration of meaning and thus, homeland:

Who am I? This is a question that others ask, but has no answer. I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language. I am my language ... ("A Rhyme for the Odes," 91)

We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing ... Ours is a country of words: Talk. Talk. ("We Travel Like All People," 11)

In 1996, after twenty-six years of exile, Darwish was granted a permit to visit his family and was warmly embraced by his compatriots, the "internal refugees." Thousands of cheering Palestinians greeted him in a festive way, chanting his popular poems. Darwish later reflected on the pain and longing he felt for his homeland: "As long as my soul is alive no one can smother my feeling of nostalgia for my country which I still consider as Palestine."

Darwish's twentieth book of poems, the recently published Mural, fuses lyric and epic in an impassioned meditation on the whole of his life and his own confrontation with mortality. The realized ambitions of this poem exemplify the poet's impressive range. 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. He has, as an artist, repeatedly confounded expectations, without shirking the role assigned to him by his peoples' historical experience. Perhaps no poet in our time has borne this weight: to be the esteemed and revered voice of a people, while remaining true to poetry itself, however hermetic and interior-to be at once culturally multiple and spiritually singular. His poetry is both the linguistic fruit of an internalized collective memory and an impassioned poetic response to his long absorption of regional and international poetic movements. As much as he is the voice of the Palestinian diaspora, he is the voice of the fragmented soul.

It is the soul of Palestine that Darwish has made resonant in his work, giving it presence in the midst of suffering and hardship. Moving from city to city, exile to exile, he has written out of a distinctly Palestinian sensibility and conscience, out of the richness of Palestine's cultural past and a belief in its common destiny. At the same time, he has become a poet and citizen of the world.

Darwish's poetic fraternity includes Federico García Lorca's canto hondo (deep song), Pablo Neruda's bardic epic range, Osip Mandelstam's elegiac poignancy, and Yehuda Amichai's sensitive lyric responsiveness to the contemporary history of the region. As a poet of exilic being, he resembles C. P. Cavafy, and shares with other poet-exiles of the past century a certain understanding of the exilic condition of literary art. Although his later collections became more universal in outlook, they are also a powerful outcry and statement of anguish-both of the topography of the soul and the calamity of his people. They lament the degeneration of the human condition and strive to stimulate latent forces to create a new destiny. If any particular obsession is sustained throughout his oeuvre, it would be the question of subjectivity itself, not only the mutability of identity, but its otherness. It is the spiritual dimension of what was, unfortunately, paradise, that he has most sustained in his life and work.

"I have found that the land is fragile," he said in Palestine As Metaphor:

and the sea, light; I have learned that language and metaphor are not enough to restore place to a place.... Not having been able to find my place on earth, I have attempted to find it in History, and History cannot be reduced to a compensation for lost geography. It is also a vantage point for shadows, for the self and the Other, apprehended in a more complex human journey.... Is this a simple, artistic ruse, a simple borrowing?

Or is it despair taking shape? The answer has no importance. The essential thing for me is that I have found a greater lyrical capacity, a passage from the relative to the absolute, an opening for me to inscribe the national within the universal, for Palestine not to be limited to Palestine, but to establish its aesthetic legitimacy in a greater human sphere.

It is our hope that this volume, and the recently published collection, The Adam of Two Edens, will extend his readership in the English-speaking world in this time of calamity in the poet's homeland.

Munir Akash Carolyn Forché Bethesda, Maryland August 2001 (Continues...)

Excerpted from Unfortunately, It Was Paradise by Mahmoud Darwish Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Mahmoud Darwish (1941 - 2008) was the author of over thirty books of poems, including Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (California, 1995), The Adam of Two Edens (2001), and Psalms (1994). He received the 2001 Prize for Cultural Freedom from the Lannan Foundation.

Munir Akash is a founding editor of Jusoor, The Arab American Journal of Cultural Exchange, and coeditor of The Adam of Two Edens (2001) and Post Gibran: Anthropology of New Arab American Writing (2000). Carolyn Forché is Professor of English at George Mason University and author of The Angel of History (1994). Sinan Antoon is coeditor of Arab Studies Journal. Amira El-Zein is the author of Bedouin of Hell (1992) and The Book of Palm Trees (1973).

Fady Joudah is a prize-winning poet, translator, and physician. He is the author of The Earth in the Attic (2008) and Alight (2013), and the translator of two volumes of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, The Butterfly’s Burden (2007) and If I Were Another (2009).

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