Modern Poetry in Translation (Series 3 No.9) Palestine

Modern Poetry in Translation (Series 3 No.9) Palestine

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Modern Poetry in Translation Third Series, No. 9 is dedicated to Palestine, to the place itself, its changing geographical shape; and to Palestine as a location in the mind, the idea of the place, for an Arab, an Israeli, a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, an unbeliever. Palestine: place, aspiration, myth and reality, through many centuries.

Original and translated poetry, anecdotes, photographs, all of the highest quality, deal with the topic of Palestine in its terrible complexity. This issue of MPT presents a variety of perspectives, and seeks through poetry and translation to promote an understanding of different points of view. Individual contributors see things from their own perspective. All together, they may perhaps illuminate one another and be an image of a necessary co-existence.

Cover by Lucy Wilkinson. Editorial by David and Helen Constantine.


Instead of an Editorial

• Joe Sacco, from Palestine

Jonathan Holmes, Israel/Palestine: a Century of Violence

Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Mural’, translated by Rema Hammami and John Berger

• Deema Shehabi, two ghazals

• Marilyn Hacker, two ghazals

• Jack Hamesh, two letters from Palestine to Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by David Constantine

• Agi Mishol, ‘Parent Poems’, translated by Vivian Eden

• Alan Hart, ‘Volunteer 1969’

• Salman Masalha, three poems translated by Vivian Eden and the author

• John Berger, Concerning Identity

Dvora Amir, three poems, translated by Jennie Feldman

• Jennie Feldman, ‘Sage Tea’

• Ghassan Zaqtan, ‘Alone and the river before me’, translated by Fady Joudah

Tal Nitzan, three poems, translated by Vivian Eden and the author

• Vivian Eden, From Arabic to Hebrew and Hebrew to Arabic: Poetry Translation as a Microcosm of How the World Ought to Work
• Yosef Sharon, ‘The Shelter’, translated by Gabriel Levin
• Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Like a Hand Tattoo’, translated by Fady Joudah

• Rivka Miriam, four poems translated by Linda Zisquit

• Samih al-Qasim, four poems, translated by Nazih Kassis

• Welcome to Bethlehem

• Josephine Balmer, The Word for Sorrow

• Bertil Malmberg, five poems, translated by Bill Coyle

• Carlos Marzal, four poems, translated by Nathaniel Perry

• Eeva-Liisa Manner, three poems, translated by Emily Jeremiah

• Kristiina Ehin, six poems, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere

• Dannie Abse, ‘Dafydd ap Gwilym at Llanbadarn’

• Jerzy Harasymowicz, three poems, translated by Maria Rewakowicz


• Belinda Cooke on Ted Hughes’s translations

• Jo Balmer, Shorter Reviews

David and Helen Constantine

An Extract from 'Instead of an Editorial' Seventeen notes and quotations having to do with Palestine

12. During the nineteenth century fragments of Palestine, in the form of place-names, were scattered through Britain, sparsely in some regions, densely in others, by the builders of non-conformist chapels. They shine on maps, as they do in the verses of hymns, with a strange beauty and poignancy, for the hope and aspiration they represent.

Some have to do with water: Rehoboth, where Isaac dug a new well that no one would dispute or seek to rob him of; Siloam, where Christ gave sight to the man born blind (he spat in the dirt, rubbed the wet dirt in the blind man’s eyes and said, ‘Go wash in the pool of Siloam’); Bethesda, the pool, where ‘lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water’, where Christ healed the man who could never get into the pool when the angel came; and Bethania, which may be ‘Bethabara beyond Jordan where John was baptizing’, or, more likely, Bethany, the home village of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus, the leper, whom Christ fetched back from the dead. These potent places! Transplanted into the locations of ordinary hardworking lives.

Others have to do with vision and promise, they are the hills and mountains: Horeb, where God spoke to Moses out of the Burning Bush; Nebo, from where you could see the Promised Land; Hermon, where Christ was transfigured. Such naming must raise aspirations very high indeed. Carmel, for its fertility; Sharon for its legendary beauty; Beulah, a name that means marriage, so the wedding of people to a beloved native land. And Salem – the word means peace – taken by most commentators to mean Jerusalem itself, the New Jerusalem of peace and justice, built by believing men and women in a promising homeland.

There are clusters of such names on the slate in Gwynedd: Carmel and Bethlehem by Bethesda; Carmel, Nebo and Nasareth in among the quarries of Nantlle. The workings are long since finished, the wreckage remains, as do the slate graveyards and in them the quarrymen dead of the dust. The light glints off the slate heaps as it does off a crow’s wings. Any footstep on them sounds with a clatter. But there is always a trickle, a whispering or a din of the surviving streams. Of the chapels themselves, giant survivals, too big for what commuity is left, many have gone to ruin or have been put to such modern uses as selling antiques. But I know of at least one Bethel – the name means house of God – with a smokey flue and flaking plaster where they act the Nativity every year with believing children and a real lamb. What miracles the choirs in unison sang for in their heyday! For health, prosperity, peace, the keeping of promises.


Jonathan Holmes

An Extract from Israel/Palestine: a Century of Violence

There has never been an autonomous Palestinian State. For four centuries until 1916, the region between Aquaba in the south and Lebanon in the north, the Jordan river in the east and the Mediterranean in the west was contained within separate provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

Despite efforts by Zionist philanthropists such as Philippe de Rothschild and young zealots like David Ben-Gurion to encourage Jewish immigration to the Holy Land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, 99% of the three million Jewish émigrés from Russia and Europe between 1880 and 1914 chose to head elsewhere – mainly to America. Zionism was a booming creed, but nobody wanted to live in the desert.

World War One changed this. The Ottomans threw their lot in with Germany, and it became central to the Allied interest to undermine the vast and crumbling empire from within. Britain began openly to promote indigenous Arab independence movements as a means to this end, most famously in the expeditions of T.E.Lawrence. The Arab tribes, with no history of nationalism or centralised government, were often at variance in their agendas, a situation exploited by Westminster, where the deeper policy was to share the whole Middle East out among the victorious powers.

By the time of the final Ottoman collapse, three separate and contradictory plans had been drawn up in Europe for the future of the region. The most notorious of these was the Balfour Declaration, a grand name for a rather ad hoc statement by former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. It raised the notion of a permanent Jewish settlement in what he called Palestine, a name which had little geographical meaning and by which he meant roughly somewhere between Baghdad, Sinai, Damascus and the Mediterranean.

Balfour had been influenced by British Zionists represented by Chaim Weizmann, a distinguished scientist and future first President of Israel. Simultaneously aware of Jewish interests in both the US and in the new Russian revolutionary leadership, the British government allowed the Declaration to gain valuable publicity, and ultimately a degree of continuing infamy.

At a seminal meeting of the new League of Nations at San Remo in 1920, Palestine was defined for the first time in history: it was to cover what is now Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and bits of Lebanon. In 1922, bowing to Arab pressure, the League redefined Palestine as the area west of the river Jordan and prohibited Jewish settlement anywhere else in the Middle East. At the same time, it reinforced the terms of the Balfour Declaration and stated the right of Jews to migrate to the redrawn area of Palestine, which was to be placed under British Mandate.

The Mandate of Palestine was governed from Westminster until the end of World War Two. From the beginning it pleased no one. Jews and Arabs alike resented British rule, and the Arabs resented also the influx of Jewish settlers in their land. Sporadic violence on both sides erupted throughout the interwar period, culminating in the Arab Revolt of 1936-9, to which Britain vigorously responded with the deployment of an extra 20,000 troops and much bloodshed. Despite anti-Arab feeling among the governors, in 1939 a British White Paper proposed that the future of Palestine be as an Arab state annexed to the Empire, with Jewish immigration limited to 75,000 souls over five years, a policy that remained unchanged even in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Jewish leaders were unsurprisingly enraged, and the region was on the verge of a Jewish revolt to match the Arab one when world war once again intervened.

By 1948 the British had had enough. The garrison in Palestine was larger than that in India, placing severe strain on the post-war exchequer, and constant bilateral terrorist attacks punished both British troops and international standing. The problem was passed to the newly-formed United Nations, which voted in favour of the region’s partition between a Jewish and Arab State.

On 14 May 1948 the British left and Jewish leader David Ben-Gurion immediately declared an independent state of Israel. That same day Jewish settlers swept through the desert and staked their claim in a well-orchestrated land grab. Dozens of Arab communities were forcibly appropriated, their inhabitants summarily evicted. Thousands of Arabs were made refugees, their homes occupied by the new Israelis. Those who could not flee to surrounding states were housed in temporary camps: sixty years on, their descendents still live in these same camps. The next day the surrounding Arab states attacked in a hastily formed alliance, and only a combination of Jewish desperation and Arab disorder prevented the nascent nation from being strangled at birth.


Mahmoud Darwish, 'Mural', translated by Rema Hammami and John Berger

An Extract from 'Mural'

I want to live…
I have work to do on deck
not to save birds from our famines or sea sickness
But to study the deluge close-up
And after?
What do survivors do with the ancient land?
Do they take up the same story?
How did it begin?
What's the epilogue?
No one comes back from death to tell us the truth…

Wait for me Death beyond the earth
Wait for me on your land
until I finish my talk with what's left of my life
not far from your tent
Wait for me til I finish reading Tarafa bin al Abed

The existentialists who drew up from the well of each moment
the wine of the gods…
they seduce me

So wait Death til I have settled the funeral arrangements in the clear spring of my birth
and have forbidden the orators to lyricise again
about the sad land and the steadfastness of figs and olives in the face of time's armies
Dissolve me I'd say in all the femininity of the letter ‘nuun’
Let me gulp down the Sura of the Merciful in the Qur'an
And walk with me in my ancestors’ footsteps
silently to the rhythm of a flute
towards my eternity
And don't place a violet on my grave
it's the flower of the depressed
and reminds the dead of how love died too young
Place seven ears of green wheat on my coffin and a few red anemones should you find them
otherwise leave the church roses for churches and newly-weds

Wait till I pack my bag Death
my toothbrush soap after-shave and some clothes
Is the climate warm over there?
Do the seasons change in the eternal whiteness?
Or does the weather stay fixed in autumn or winter?
Will one book be enough to read in non-time?
Or should I take a library?
And what do they talk over there?
vernacular or classical?


Dvora Amir, three poems, translated by Jennie Feldman

On the Rim of Abu-Tor

On the rim of Abu-Tor an Arab boy is walking
across his roof. A schoolbook in his hand,
he goes sure-footed right up to the edge.
All around is quiet, houses anchored to the slope
like the ships of some giant.
A brown cow lazing on the path
could be a rusted scrap from a stolen car.
In front of the house a drainage stream gapes wide
moistens its throat as if waiting for its prey.
Why do his confident steps cast such terror upon me?
Something intimately foreign creeping
through me like the vine that weaves
entwined between our courtyards.
He walks, and I dare not take my eyes off him,
as if my gazing were bidden to protect his soul.
I tend to the flowers in my plot, I water them
but my heart is on watch for his every step
dangling like my life before my eyes.

(Abu-Tor is a mixed Jewish-Arab neighbourhood on the south-eastern edge of Jerusalem.)


Tal Nitzan, three poems, translated by Vivian Eden and the author

The target

They closed their non-aiming eye
and watched the target
and chose an aiming point
and brought the edge of the blade
to the notch of the rear sight
with all the gunsights upright
and leaving a white thread
they shot.
But missed.
Managed to kill Muhamad El-Hayk, 24,
and severely wound his father Abdalla, 64,
all ‘as needed and according to procedures’,
but missed Maisun El-Hayk,
only slightly wounded her
in spite of her big belly
that happened to be a perfect aiming point
(but hadn’t they made her undress at the roadblock before
to ensure the belly was a belly indeed
and the labour pains – labour pains
before it occurred to them
to proceed with
‘suspect arrest procedure'?)
and also failed to hit
her foetus daughter
and send her to heaven
before she came to this world
– must have overlooked that white thread –
but did manage to inseparably seam
her birth day to her father’s burial
and reinforce the promise
‘in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children’
– no greater sorrow has been! –
as the shooting ceased
and Maisun called out for Muhamad
and the terror or the excruciating pain
twisted her voice
(‘Breathe slowly and deeply,
find the most comfy position,
think of something nice and pleasant,
ask your partner to dim the lights,
play your favourite music,
gently massage your lower back’)
and he, suddenly, stopped answering,
for if you haven’t seen Maisun’s photo,
her hands quivering over her daughter,
pink, calm, innocent
the way newborn babes are
– however, she was lucky
to have given birth to her on the hospital bed
rather than crouch like her sisters before her
like an animal in front of the soldiers
and then stumble ten kilometers,
walking and bleeding,
carrying the dead infant as an offering –
if you haven’t opened a non-aiming eye
to look at Maisun El-Hayk’s face,
you’ve never seen
bringing children forth in sorrow.