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Tracing Baḥr in Mahmoud Darwish’s Poetry: From 1982 to the First Intifada
This paper will discuss Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s employment of baḥr in his oeuvre between the 1982 War and the First Palestinian Intifada. While Darwish’s use of the term may simultaneously connote the “sea” and “a meter of poetry,” this study will examine how baḥr is deployed for creative possibility, to seek stability, and for political critique amid mourning and dispossession. That is, it explores how the word conjures the vastness of the sea, the potentiality of the poem, along with balance and predictability in contexts surrounding upheaval and lament. In Madīḥ al-ẓill al-ʿālī (In Praise of High Shadow), which was composed amid Israel’s bombardment during the 1982 siege of Beirut, lyric verse and al-baḥr serve as a means of preservation amid daily devastation and spatial and temporal loss. As Darwish writes in this poem, “baḥrun for the banner of the dove, our shelter, our individual weapon.” For the Palestinian author living in exile, a meter of poetry operates as a form of protection and stability through its consistent cadence and rhythmic form in the wake of ongoing unrest. A decade later, Darwish’s Aḥada ʿashara kawkaban (Eleven Planets) advances melancholic musings through verse, ruminating upon the nostalgia and grief associated with the history of the Islamic golden age in the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages (711-1492 CE). He summons the devastation following the Muslims’ fall from power and their eventual expulsion after the ascendency of Christian forces in 1492. Specifically, in his poem, “Khuṭbatu ‘al-hindī al-aḥmar’ – mā qabl al-akhīra – amām al-rajūli al-abyaḍ” (“‘The Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man”), Darwish calls upon Christopher Columbus’ initial arrival to North America. The poet suggests that the conqueror will not only commit violent acts through physical force, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, but also through the recording of history and the manipulation of “al-baḥri” (“the sea” or “meter”). By probing examples such as these, and the variable ways in which baḥr ramifies in the poem, I will investigate how the term becomes a generative reference and node in Darwish’s lyrical and elegiac works, which may provide insights for translation studies and the capacious quality of words. Accordingly, rather than arguing for untranslatability, I will discover the connection between moments animated by sorrow and the use of baḥr for artistic potential, constancy, as well as political censure in conditions of protracted violence and precarity.
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