Sharon Jacobs on translating Mahmoud Darwish

Sharon Jacobs

on translating Mahmoud Darwish

I didn’t first encounter this poem as a literary translator, but rather through the Darwish-Rita love story. As a student of Arabic in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, I’ve often found myself in conversations about my own Jewishness, my changed relationship with Zionism and how learning Arabic helped me both to better understand my own religion and to connect with the most direct victims of the Zionist political project. In these conversations, people have often brought up Rita, how Palestine’s most revered poet loved a Jew, and I started seeing myself (for better or worse) in her character.

While on Covid lockdown in Athens, Greece, I decided to gather Darwish’s Rita poems as a personal project. The hardest one to come by was “Rita… love me!” The only English translation was published in a rare 1973 book. Reading the poem in Arabic, I was caught up in its hardened, oppressed, and oppressive setting; Darwish’s words reached me in a 21st-century Greece in which the pandemic had provided cover for police surveillance and brutality that particularly targeted Middle Eastern migrant bodies. The poem also resonated with my dissertation research, imagining solidarity—in this case, between Greece and Palestine—across experiences of disempowerment.

In translating “Rita… love me!” I tried to hew as closely as possible to the original Arabic. I chose to use a high, formal register of language in the translation. Darwish’s style is lyrical and direct. For the most part, I held to literal translations of the vocabulary and simple, direct syntax. Darwish’s imagery throughout the poem is vaguely Mediterranean, but since terms like kohl and caliph are widespread, I left these in the translation. Only the two stringed musical instruments—the rebab and the santouri—I put in italics to emphasize their specificity, since they are not so well known.

about the author

Often considered Palestine’s national poet, Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of al-Birwa, which was captured by the Israeli military in 1948 and depopulated. As displaced Palestinians inside Israel’s 1948 borders, Darwish’s family was classified as “present absentees” and prevented from returning to al-Birwa, their land expropriated by the state. For his poems and acts of resistance, Darwish was frequently imprisoned and placed under house arrest. He spent much of his adult life in exile, and he served on the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from 1987 to 1993 before returning to Palestine in 1996. Darwish died in 2008 in Houston.

Darwish is known for the lyricism and emotionality of his resistance poems. One of his most celebrated poems, “Rita and the Rifle”—put to music by Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife in 1976—laments the poet’s real-life impossible romance with an Israeli Jewish dancer, whom Darwish met in the Communist Party. Darwish and “Rita” were together for two years; she later joined the IDF. Rita appears in five poems and two prose passages, oscillating between Darwish’s lover, object, and oppressor.

In “Rita… love me!” (1969), the pair are in hiding in Athens, Greece, facing the impossibility of their relationship and dreaming of freedom. Yet, the Athens of the poem bears little resemblance to the classical city of ancient lore. Instead, Darwish’s Greece is a place of captivity, surveillance, and fragmentation. At the time this poem was written, Greece was ruled by a military junta; in an early draft, Darwish titled it, “A poem not written by Mikis Theodorakis,” referencing that famous composer, communist, and resistance figure of 20th-century Greece. In its themes as well as its imagery, then, the Greek setting of “Rita… love me!” recalls Palestine, drawing parallels across the Mediterranean to connect left-wing struggles against oppressive state structures.

about the translator

Sharon Jacobs is a PhD candidate investigating the European refugee solidarity movement in Athens, Greece between 2015 and 2019. Her project asks: What does it mean to produce new social and political collectivities in the world made in the wake of the 2015 “summer of migration”? Previous anthropological research has focused on U.S. linguistic nationalism as recently resettled Iraqi refugees experience and participate in it. Outside academia, she is a writer with work published in National Geographic, The Washington Post, and other outlets, and a contributing editor for the Society for Cultural Anthropology's AnthroPod.

photo by Andrea Barajas