In Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief–published in 1973 as Yawmiyyat al-Huzn al-'Adi and now available in English translation–the narrator shapes his personal, Palestinian memories against the insistent push of Israeli and Western-dominated history. The book thus presents itself not as an official record, but as a collection of individual wounds.
Although Darwish is best-known for his verse, Journal of an Ordinary Grief was the first of three major prose works. His second was Dhakira lil-Nisyan (Memory for Forgetfulness), published in 1985, and the third, Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab (In the Presence of Absence), appeared just two years before the poet’s death in 2008. Journal is probably the most autobiographical of the three, telling fragments of Darwish’s life story, beginning with his earliest, pre-1948 childhood and ending with his exile.
Journal has an exceptional stylistic range, moving from the reportorial to the philosophical to the poetic. But the book’s predominant mode is dialogue: between the poet and a taxi driver, the poet and a judge, the poet and a lover, the poet and himself. In this, the book doesn’t resemble a ten-chapter memoir so much as a ten-act play–a yet more abstract version of the “theater of the mind” once practiced by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim.
Throughout the Journal, Darwish’s narrator finds himself confronting the absurdities of internal and external exile that make him a “present absence,” unable to prove he exists. These sorts of griefs may be ordinary, but Darwish underlines that their banality is unacceptable:
"In ordinary, very ordinary, news bulletins whole fields of children were mowed down because they were Arabs and had the power to grow up."
The book’s opening section, “The Moon Did Not Fall into the Well,” is a conversation between two unnamed characters, who we later discover are the author and his childhood self. It begins with a story of how, when the narrator was five years old, he left home in search of his mother. The boy does not find his mother, who has already returned from her errands. But he does find his way home, much to the relief of his parents.
Soon, however, the speaker finds himself on a journey from which he and his family never return. Throughout this first section, the narrator is interrogated by his childhood self, who wants to know why they left, why they stayed away, and whether paradise is lost.
At the end, the child asks:
—Are you going to kill me?
—When a person kills his childhood he commits suicide. And I have need of you as witness to a generation. Don’t come back often, for ugliness fills the cities, and many of my friends are dying these days.
Then the child demands:
—Don’t forget me!
The sections that follow address the narrator’s school years and young adulthood, the massacres happening around him, the June 1967 War, and his push-and-pull with the world. Throughout the work, the narrator struggles against a history that erases individual memories and consolidates all into a singular, collective narrative of the powerful.
History, to the narrator, is a way of abandoning the past, when “what is required is to call the past to account.” This journal, then, is a process of calling on different memories and voices rather than presenting a single, seamless story. Sections are often interrupted, multi-genred, and multi-voiced.
The section about the 1956 massacre at Kufr Qasem, “He Who Kills Fifty Arabs Loses One Piaster,” uses trial transcripts and eyewitness reports, but also has an almost folkloric feel. When court transcripts are used, the names are often removed and characters become archetypes: “Judge,” “Soldier” and “Lawyer.”
After eyewitnesses present their evidence from the massacre, the narrator dialogues with what feels like an Israeli chorus:
"They say: We will bring the matter to court–and be done with it. The law will speak, and issue its judgment."
"They: Let’s leave all this to the law. Is that not enough?"
"No. That is not enough."
"Justice is an exhausted alphabet because it is not possible for the crime to awaken the law."
The sentences in these dialogues are often small poems onto themselves. And indeed, in his foreword, translator Ibrahim al-Mutawi–who has done an excellent job with a very complex work–says that the unit of this book is neither the paragraph nor the word, but the sentence. He says, “I was guided in the process of translation by two precepts from Darwish himself: rhythm and the sentence as a unit of meaning.”
The rhythm often works in English, and one gets the feeling that–although this is prose–the text is meant to be read and savored aloud.
But Journal’s language is always more than a method of communication. The book’s final section is titled, “Going to the Arabic Sentence on May 15 .” This is one of the few places where the poet-narrator finds some measure of security:
"Go to the Arabic sentence, and you will find self and homeland."
The book ends by asking: Who is responsible? It is: “the condition of undeclared peace in Arab practice, and the condition of declared war in the Arabic sentence.” And, in locating himself within the sentence, the narrator makes his allegiance clear.
Journal of an Ordinary Grief. By Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Archipelago: New York, 2010. 175 pages.