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Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me: Poetry by Palestinian Poet Ghassan Zaqtan

Renowned Palestian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and translator Fady Joudah visit UCLA for a poetry reading on October 25th, 2012. The event was organized by Nouri Gana, Professor in the Dept. of Comparative Literature and the Dept. of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

by Suleiman Hodali, Levi Thompson and Rawad Wehbe

On October 25th, 2012 the G. E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles hosted a poetry reading by the renowned Palestinian poet, novelist and journalist Ghassan Zaqtan (b. 1954) and his translator, Fady Joudah (b. 1971), a Palestinian-American medical doctor and poet in his own right. In alternations between the original Arabic and the translated English, the audience first heard a number of poems from Zaqtan’s ninth collection of poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me.

The reading began with a selection from the various “Rememberings” in the title work. The first presents a grandmother surviving in traces of memory like a sea known only through hearsay. In this, Zaqtan’s poetry challenges our expectations of what Palestinian poetry should or might be. Just as all poems rely on images, metaphors, and representations of our experience of life in language, Zaqtan’s poetry is able to construct an aura around the most banal of household items, glimpses of natural topographies, and passing strangers, constructing and contributing to a distinct historiography that is uniquely Palestinian. Since Palestine is a modern nation defined by a series of dislocations from its homeland, any Palestinian effort to capture that origin becomes a means of cataloging and archiving a memory of the absent, the lost, and that which Israel’s settler colonial project and ethnic cleansing threaten with a forced amnesia.  As a poet who also works artistically in visual mediums, Zaqtan’s poems are often titled as “pictures” or “graphics” of various places, travels, and internal lapses into distant memories of feelings involved with smell, touch, and sight.  In “A Picture of the House in Beit Jala,” a poem describing a return to a house in the same town where Zaqtan was born, the act of “filling in the cracks” becomes an ‘exhausting’ endeavor for the poet’s narrator. Mending fences, wiping glass, cleaning edges; inspecting doors, window latches and the condition of the plants; wiping the dust

that has not ceased flowing

into the rooms, on the beds, sheets, pots

and on the picture frames on the walls

The poem becomes not only a narrative of return to an old abode and an attempt to physically rearrange things as they were before, but also operates metaphorically in a representation of Zaqtan’s role as a poet.  Zaqtan’s poetry is itself a constant return to memories as a means of archiving that which is lost in/to time, “filling in the cracks” of a land, its people, and their histories through the poetics of memory.

The reading moved from selections included in the title work to others from the 2003 collection, Biography in Charcoal, in which memory itself is eulogized through the recounting of the experience of dispossession. The audience heard about

Four sisters from Zakariyya

by the hill


in black clothes.

The tal (pl. tilāl), or “hill”, becomes a landmark for memory and provides the backdrop for many of Zaqtan’s poems. For instance, in “The Canyon” we heard the verses echo,

The forgotten hills on the boredom of slopes

the mountains that exhale to the west

the parading carriages of those who were murdered

and the total faith of one who’s dead.

The audience also heard the poem “Salty Hills” from the 1998 collection Luring the Mountain, which included images Zaqtan later described as reminiscent of the path going from Jericho to Jerusalem. In conversations after the reading, Zaqtan also spoke fondly of the hilly scenes that spread across the landscape as one moves from the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea up to the rising countryside and into the interior of Palestine.  This ascension from eastern to western Palestine is where “we became the soil of the story / and its mud.” Zaqtan’s poetry provides us with the map where that story is recorded.

While Zaqtan’s poetry can be read as a recounting of his own personal history—a series of exilings preserved in fragmented memories of places, people, and time—his works are strung together in a way that makes clear their allegorical signification for the wider Palestinian experience of dispossession. Like millions of other Palestinians made refugees or forbidden from returning to their homes, Zaqtan’s life is a sequence of movements from place to place: from Amman to Beirut, from Damascus to Tunis, among others, before returning to live under military occupation on the West Bank in 1994. In his laudable introduction to the collection of Zaqtan’s poetry in English translation, Joudah writes that, “This desire and design to move past traditional representation is a coup not only at the individual level for the poet but also at the collective level for the Palestinian who is still bound or defined through historical dates and expressions such as 1948, Nakba, 1967, PLO, occupation, settlements, refugees, right of return, and the like.”

In further conversations over dinner, Zaqtan expanded on his conception of the role of exile/s in the Palestinian experience, pointing out that the Nakbah, while generally the focal point for the genesis of Palestinian exile, is only one node in a series of exiles Palestinians have endured. In comments following the reading, Joudah gave his own interpretations of the thematic strains in Zaqtan’s poetry and said that exile is a condition felt existentially not only by Palestinians, but by all Arabs.  “We do not need to maintain exile as a geographical entity or essence, but also as a daily thing, an existential thing,” remarked Joudah.  Exile is “not the monopoly of Palestinians,” and the effect of loneliness that is oftentimes associated with Zaqtan’s exilic poems “belongs to every human in the world as a daily human condition.” Much like the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who spoke of Palestine as a metaphor, Zaqtan’s set of experiences is intertwined with the collective experience of  all Palestinians. His poetry—particularly with the efforts of Joudah’s translations into English—is capable of transcending the limits of a specific national poetry and moving towards universal understandings of the overall human condition.

“A Small Hostel in Genoa” positions the exile as a travelling stranger, documenting the interactions of people, glimpses of foreign newspapers, and coffee machines through the lens of an outsider passing through an unfamiliar place.  This movement from different places and times through a cataloging of memory is achieved through simultaneous movements between different poetic and artistic traditions. The long poem from Like A Straw Bird, “Alone and the River Before Me”—a title suggested to Zaqtan by the late Mahmoud Darwish—is a demonstration of the virtuosity and worldliness  of Zaqtan’s formal abilities as a poet.  Weaving between metrical and free verse while never losing its driving lyrical prosody, the poem follows a narrative of peripatetic travels through different places, sights of men on horses or in boats, or memories of childhood. The different poetic forms he melds into one single poem construct a journey through the history of various Arabic literary traditions. From the revolutionary poetry of Iraq to the introduction of the prose poem in Lebanon, Zaqtan is able to move seamlessly across various literary forms belonging to a 1500 year old Arabic literary tradition.  It is “an employment of various dictions, and various forms of aesthetics –Arabic, mostly contemporary, or relying on the maqāmāt, [Riḥlat] Ibn Baṭūṭah, Alf Laylah wa Laylah, Sufi literature,  as well as classical literature in contemporary diction, ” Joudah explained following the reading. The poem demonstrates Zaqtan’s skill as a poet, drawing from the shimmering well of Arab poetic tradition and blending, as Joudah describes, “intense lyricism, direct narrative, [and] a sort of ordinary chatter.” And it is this amalgamation of Arabic poetic traditions and forms that constitutes the difficulty of translating Zaqtan’s poetry into English.

Joudah, whose 2006 The Butterfly’s Burden, a translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, won the 2008 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, gave the audience an opportunity to ask about his approach to translating poetry. As a Palestinian American born in Texas, he spent time in Libya and Saudi Arabia as a child, where he became intimately familiar with the Arabic poetic tradition. However, he says his experiences with English at an early age enabled him to begin working with verse in that language as well. Still, he was never separated from his grounding in Arabic poetics, and after a time he found himself moving back to his poetic roots. When asked about his experiences as a poet and a translator of poetry, Joudah puts it simply, albeit no less deceptively: “You do not choose poetry; poetry chooses you.” For him, poetry is part of one’s essential being.

As both poet and translator, Joudah’s abilities in the two different, yet entangled, professions was critical to his success when translating Darwish’s poetry five years ago as well as when working with Zaqtan’s today. Also, his capability is further supplemented by his philosophy of translation as well as the particularly close bond he shares with the poet. Joudah is a staunch advocate of the idea of a text’s untranslatability. Essentially, he believes that literal translation or, more acutely, a linguistic equivalent of a line of poetry or prose cannot exist. Simply put, every translator, no matter how skillful, leaves traces of his handiwork behind.

Though this may appear to be a pessimistic treatment of translation, it is actually fundamental to his success. If we adopt this perspective, a translation becomes a creative product separate from, but just as important as, the original in understanding the poetry itself. Thinking about translation in this way allows us to ask questions like, “What does translation tell us about poetry?” and “How does the translation mirror, compliment, or supplement the original?” More importantly, it allows us to move away from simplistic and tautological questions that lead us to answers we already know. Questions like, “What difficulties did you encounter translating from Arabic into English?” are dry and unproductive. Also, Joudah believes that “translation is one of the closest forms of reading.” And just as several different readings of a text could potentially exist, so could multiple translations. While one translation may veil certain meaning, another could highlight it. This is a good thing since it reflects the active, colorful elements that exist in poetry.

What was more fascinating than Joudah’s English renditions was the active translation that took place beyond the text. When the alternation from Arabic to English poetry came to an end, the translation—or interpretation—did not. Transcending the literary space of the text, the roles of translator and poet remained visible during the Q&A. After Zaqtan responded to a question from the audience, Joudah followed up with an English interpretation of the poet’s answer. In some cases, facts or opinions were added to the poet’s original response. It was as if Joudah was extracting ideological and political nuances embedded in the source language (Arabic) and delivering them in the target language (English) in order to bring his audience closer to the heart of the ideas in Zaqtan’s responses.

While it was surprising to see a translator so committed to contextualization, it revealed something even more important: the bond between poet and translator. Oftentimes, a translator might never get to meet the original author, but here we witnessed an interactive relationship between the two. This positive chemistry is what allows Joudah to assume the voice of the poet in English, either orally or textually. One question asked from the audience was, “Was there a level of collaboration between the two of you, particularly for Like a Straw Bird?” Joudah responded that the relationship between Zaqtan and himself was the collaboration but that moments did indeed take place when questions specific to the poetry were asked. However, those moments only influenced a particular line or word, not the finished project as whole.

Joudah’s background in the poetic tradition, his professional experience, and the powerful bond he shares with Zaqtan create a rare combination of elements that make his translation unique. The result is a contribution not only to Palestinian poetry in English translation, but to poetry and translation overall.

Poetry is composed to be heard. It is not customary that an audience is given the opportunity to experience a poem being read in its original language by the original author and then immediately hear the same poem in translation, read by the translator. The multiple levels of exchange underlying such a situation serve to give the original work a new life as it is not only moving from page to mouth to ear, but from one wholly different language to another, which has an entirely new context of reference. The presence of both poet and translator at the event allowed the audience to explore how these multi-directional exchanges work to create something entirely new through the movement of images created in one language into another. Even one language’s contextual reference is subject to continual development, becoming exiled from earlier iterations of itself as time goes on. The inevitable force of time continually separates us from our past. Zaqtan’s poetry, and our experience of it, works both against these tyrannies that are beyond our control and those which are imposed upon us now but can be resisted and overcome through the process of memory. Zaqtan’s poetry is the embodiment of a vanishing memory, a memory yet to return, a return yet to come!



Center for Near Eastern Studies