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Good Morning Gaza

The untranslatable Palestinian flesh

“You cannot guide those you love to the light. Only God’s will can.”
—Quran: 28:56

In 1981, Israeli Mossad agents assassinated Palestinian Liberation Organization member, writer, and intellectual Majed Abu Sharar in his hotel room in Rome. Abu Sharar was a close friend of the Palestinian poet and writer Mahmoud Darwish. In 1984, in his collection A Siege for the Eulogies of the Sea (Hissar li-Mada’h el-Bahr), Darwish included the final version of his long elegy to his friend, “The Final Meeting in Rome.” This poem in particular is largely untranslatable in English. The untranslatability is not so much due to the technical demands of the surreal lyric’s transformation of song into an act of liberation. Instead, the untranslatability relates primarily to the question of audience. There remains little room in English to receive openly, unequivocally, the freedom song of Palestinians in its myriad forms.

But I can simplify all this jargon in a single word, a name: Majed. Majed’s name permeates the text of “The Final Meeting in Rome.” In a moment of genius, in the penultimate section of the text, Darwish explodes language with his friend’s name through an unexpected refrain—as if Darwish had been writing the previous pages for the sole purpose of arriving at this stanza: “Good morning, Majed, / good morning, / get up to recite Surat al-‘Aaed.”

In the Quran, there is no chapter, or Surah, titled al-‘Aaed—a word that means the returnee. Some may argue that one solution for translating the stanza would reside in changing Majed’s name to Ali, for example, so that the impact of the rhyme is maintained: Ali/the Surah of the returnee. But that is self-deluding. English, much as it likes to argue otherwise, still struggles to accept at least two major points about this linguistic construct in Arabic. The first is the beautiful, divine presence of the Quran to elegize a Palestinian martyr (irrespective of their religious affiliation, if any). The second is the Palestinian right of return, dead and alive.

Darwish stuns his audience by blurring the boundaries of blasphemy. He is not echoing a specific Quranic text. He elevates the Palestinian question to touch the moral arc that bends toward justice in the universe. He delivers a mystical experience no one objects to in Arabic. He invents a Surah in the Quran and attributes its title to his “friend, brother, and last love.” The entire Palestinian body in one named Majed. The entire human history of return in a Surah.

Among the poem’s memorable lines, there is this couplet: “As if I could protect my heart / from hope. My heart is ill.” This ailing heart arrives near the end of the poem and disseminates into Palestinian flesh. What Darwish manages to describe, in topical yet visionary manner, is astounding, precisely because the poem does not claim to see the future. Yet here we are, more than forty years later, and every word of the closing salvo that I have translated is true.

I took liberties with this last, translatable section of “The Final Meeting in Rome.” Since one aspect of the original untranslatability is in the name—Majed—I clearly see that today, Gaza is the untranslatable name in the poem.

And for those who know, there is no “Good morning” to anything “Palestine” that does not invoke Naji al-Ali’s drawing Good Morning Beirut, made during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, after one of the most hellish nights of bombardment the city and its people had endured.

Naji al-Ali, Good Morning Beirut (1982)

Good morning Gaza,
get up, drink my coffee, and rise.
Our funeral has arrived.

Good morning Gaza,
get up and recite
the verse of return
to a land we have carried
like a tattoo on the hand.

Good morning, you stranger to your house.
Not all God’s earth is Rome
even if your flesh is a window-shop
for the masters of words. Your flesh,
is it Christ’s brittle bread?

Good morning, you offering on the altar of the Mediterranean basin,
cut your path short. You’re a prayer rug for idolators,
a cave of ancient civilizations, a tent for bedouin rulers,
you’re the armor of the poor and the alms of millionaires.
They auction you as surplus to the market’s demands.
And you are the dream of Palestinians on the streets,
a river of bodies in one.

Good morning Gaza. Get up. Gather your one arm. The one you have left.
Good morning Palestinian flesh on the tables of ministers and presidents.
You’re a stone
of solidarity and balance
among your executioners.
Not even your language protects you, so take a short cut.
Your flesh legitimates the police and the saint,
they swap names, take turns, merge, bond, and sometimes split
into two kingdoms that war over you,
but when you rise,
they reunite over your flesh.

You’re the geography of chaos, the history of this East, so take a short cut.
You’re a field of experiments for both heavy industry and light.
An encyclopedia of gunpowder, from the age of the catapult to the rage
of missiles that were manufactured in the West.
Palestinian flesh, in tribal nations and suited states
that disagree over the price
of potatoes, leather shoes, beets, crude oil, but agree
on expelling you from your blood,

gather in one arm,
gather as one, and write
the verse of return.

From “The Final Meeting in Rome” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah