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Readings — From the November 2018 issue

Woman with the Beauty Spot

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From A Rebel in Gaza, published last month by DoppelHouse Press. Translated from the French by Mike Mitchell.

Among the memories I brought back home is a meeting with our national poet, Mahmoud Darwish. He was the guest of honor at a festival of Asian literature, a large-scale event organized in a town outside Seoul, South Korea. I had only just arrived when I saw him in the hotel lobby with two female translators, who were translating from Korean into Arabic for him. I dropped my suitcases and went over to introduce myself. He asked in slightly sharp tones, “What brings you here?” I didn’t dare admit that I had been invited as a writer; I told him I was a journalist. I knew that he was cold and wary toward people he didn’t know, especially young girls who swarmed around him—how could he have known I wasn’t like that? I also knew that he didn’t like Gaza very much. In his books he called it “the land of strength and despair.” The next day I ran into him in the lobby again. He didn’t look very well. He called out to me, “What is it with these Koreans? I can’t stand their food. They don’t give you any choice.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to get out of here.”

“Okay, but on the condition you let me be your tour guide.”

He could leave the festival because he had appeared in the opening session and thus fulfilled his obligations. . . . We set out with the two friends who were accompanying him.

The festival had reserved hotel rooms for us in Seoul. When they gave us our keys, he asked, “How is it that your room is next to mine while the others are on a different floor?” I told him I had no idea, but I could see he didn’t believe me. Despite that, we became friends. We went out every day, we looked for the restaurants serving the best non-Korean food, we walked . . . I talked to him about Gaza and Hamas, about which he didn’t know very much. He told me he’d read the short stories in my first collection and gave me a copy of Memory for Forgetfulness, his book about the 1982 siege of Beirut, inscribing a nice dedication. He talked about the young Arabs who criticized him, calling him the “poet of the powers” because he had written some speeches for Arafat before renouncing him. One evening when we were walking in the dark together, I asked him, “Is Seoul not the most beautiful city in the world?” He said, “No, the most beautiful one is Paris.”

He had a bad back, and I found a masseuse for him. One hour later in the lobby, one of his accompanying friends asked him what it had been like, and he said, “Very odd. She was old and blind. She massaged me as if there was no problem, she used the telephone as a matter of course. How could she see the number of my room?”

We checked—the numbers on the door were not in relief. That mystery has never been solved. I made fun of him. “You come to this country full of young, beautiful Korean girls and all you get is an old, blind woman?”

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You see?”

At night there was just a thin wall between us. In the morning I said, “I heard you coughing.”

“How did you manage that?”

“The wall’s not that thick.”

“So why didn’t I hear you?”

He told me the story of an American billionaire who loved himself so much that he kept his poop in receptacles and refused to throw it away. Mahmoud took everything lightly, always making jokes. I wanted to take him to a flower festival—the Koreans work wonders with flowers, transforming them into all sorts of things. On the way there, the traffic jams irritated him: “Who told you I wanted to go to a festival? I don’t want to go anywhere!” I remained silent. Then I told him that in our schools we studied his famous poem “Write Down: I Am an Arab.” He burst out, “I don’t like that poem! It’s enclosed me in a frame that I reject. I’m not like that! I don’t bear all that suffering, all that sorrow on my shoulders!” We finally arrived at the festival and walked around the stands. All at once he was amazed and said, “I must thank you . . . and apologize.”

“Write Down: I Am an Arab” is a proud affirmation of identity as a reaction to humiliations and suffering. All Palestinians are proud of that poem—except for the poet who wrote it, because he very quickly sensed that there was something other than the militant position to express, something less clear and more difficult. When a poet starts out, he doesn’t define the identity of his poetry in advance, he doesn’t know where he is going to end up—how could he? Mahmoud Darwish started out as a patriotic, nationalistic poet, embracing the cause of Palestine. Later on it became clear that his identity was more generally humanistic. He even wrote about the American Indians. Those who criticize him say that he changed his position, notably with regard to Israel. I don’t believe that at all. He simply came to understand the extent to which poetry and literature are more important than everything else. Why should they carry a message serving a nation, a country, a village, or a family? When he was asked what peace was, Mahmoud Darwish replied, “Peace is planting the garden behind my house and loving the woman with the beauty spot.” His aim was not necessarily to throw stones at the occupier.

On my blog, the things that happened to me or that I imagined, the events of political life and private (or indeed fantasy) life naturally blended in with what I considered literary texts. I put a lot of myself into them. But journalism has left its mark on it, imposing its scrupulous respect for the facts, and it has slightly ruined their delicate construction. I have given up my blog, I’ve stopped composing poems, I don’t write short stories anymore—even if I haven’t entirely abandoned the genre. I know that there is something at work inside me. All the time. There is not one moment in which my mind stops working or closes down.

I told Mahmoud that two months ago I’d met a French writer in Korea who had talked about him—Le Clézio.

“It was at a literary colloquium. I saw this tall, handsome man coming over to me, he introduced himself, I didn’t know his name or that he was famous, I had only noticed the attention he was attracting. He was very elegant. He talked about the island where he lived, about you, Mahmoud, whom he’d met, his love for Palestine . . . I told him about the contradiction between my life in Gaza and my life abroad and how I felt I had two different personalities. He asked, ‘How do you mean?’ and I explained. He couldn’t stop asking me questions about my split personality. I’m sure he was looking for characters for his next novel.”

We laughed. When we left, we stood without moving for a long time before we said goodbye. The next day I sent him a message to make sure that he had arrived safely in the West Bank. After he died, I heard that he’d been looking for my telephone number to call me—just to say hello. He couldn’t find it and I, obviously, didn’t dare telephone him. He died just like that. I was deeply moved.

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