Literature of the Middle East

From Behind a Kitchen Window: A Review of Memory for Forgetfulness

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East)  by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East) by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

I was first exposed to Mahmoud Darwish through an Israeli-Palestinian Literature course; his poem “In Jerusalem” was the first that I read. The poem, whose narrative voice perhaps transcends between sleep and wakefulness, chronicles his journey through the epochs of Jerusalem. As he wanders, remembering and not remembering the pathways, the mysticism of Jerusalem seeps into his narration. He expresses his love for Jerusalem, for its holiness, and his love is undying—even if he is displaced from those walls. It was with this eye, already exposed to the hypnotizing writing and familiar themes of Mahmoud Darwish, that I dove into Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982.

It is one of Darwish’s most notable works, and for a reason. It was first published in March of 1995, masterfully translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Its newer edition, published in May of 2013, includes a forward by Sinan Antoon, offering an extensive introduction to Darwish’s previous works and the historical context from which he writes. This collection of essays—really, a set of prose poems—reflects on Darwish’s experience during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In a meditative rendering, the collection touches upon the political and historical dimensions of the Palestinian exile, and particularly on “Hiroshima Day” during the Lebanese Civil War: witnessing the barrage of Beirut in August of 1982. Through recurring symbols of death, coffee, wakefulness, and memory, Darwish explores fear during conflict: a sentiment which is, as he recounts, constant, pervasive, and disturbingly routine.

The essays are war-ravaged, recreating the violence of a city under siege from behind Darwish’s kitchen window. It is hauntingly mundane, illustrating a ‘day-in-the-life’ of an individual during wartime; as he yearns for his coffee, his “morning silence,” (7), he evaluates whether the walls of his home will protect him from the bombshells. As he listens to the morning birds, awake at daybreak, he wonders “for whom do they sing in the crush of these rockets?” (9). Thoughts of death for Darwish, for a man encumbered by the normalization of war, are thoughts as commonplace as his morning coffee, as the 6am bird songs. It is this normalization - the disturbing interweaving of uncertain death among regular elements of life—that makes this collection so unsettling.

I thank God everyday that I’m unfamiliar with the distresses of war. Moreso, as an Israeli, much of the Palestinian narrative is muffled behind distortions of emotion, of cultural sentiment. On both sides, there is an overwhelming tendency to approach the conflict through biased eyes. When such a conflict involves family and identity, it’s easy for personal narratives to overpower those on the opposing side. But that’s why reading work like this is so deeply important. Beyond understanding from the standpoint of an Israeli, this work offers all readers insight behind the walls of Darwish’s kitchen. It translates experience - a distinct kind of suffering - across all borders, regardless of perspective. The reader is called upon to question the extent of their awareness, and to regard the experiences of those living in one’s periphery. I would argue that that’s the point of this kind of work, this striking, scarring poetry. The transmission of experience. And though I pray I’ll never be burdened by the normalization of war, never be wrought by fears of falling rockets as I brew my morning coffee, I am grateful to consider these burdens through Darwish’s haunting readership.