On This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living

By Mahmoud Darwish

Translated by Karim Abuawad

On this earth what makes life worth living:

the hesitance of April

the scent of bread at dawn

an amulet made by a woman for men

Aeschylus’s works

the beginnings of love

moss on a stone

the mothers standing on the thinness of a flute

and the fear of invaders of memories.

On this earth what makes life worth living:

September’s end

a lady moving beyond her fortieth year without losing any of her grace

a sun clock in a prison

clouds imitating a flock of creatures

chants of a crowd for those meeting their end smiling

and the fear of tyrants of the songs.

On this earth what makes life worth living:

on this earth stands the mistress of the earth

mother of beginnings

mother of endings

it used to be known as Palestine

it became known as Palestine

my mistress:

I deserve, because you’re my mistress

I deserve life.

Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008): is a Palestinian poet born in the village of al-Birweh, in Galilee. A few months before the declaration of the State of Israel, Darwish’s family was expelled to Lebanon. Upon their “illegal” return to Galilee in 1949, the family found their village razed, their property appropriated by the state. Darwish went into exile in 1970, returning to live in Ramallah, Palestine after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

He’s considered one of the most prominent poets writing in Arabic in the twentieth century. He made many contributions among which helping to popularize free-verse, a project championed by earlier poets to free modern Arabic poetry from the strict meter and rhyme that characterized the earlier traditional poetry.

Many of his poems have become lasting, and quite recognizable, songs, the most famous of which is the poem he wrote for Rita, the Jewish girl who was Darwish’s first love. The first line of the poem, which reads “There’s a rifle between Rita and me,” encapsulates this romantic encounter between a Palestinian living in Israel without citizenship and his lover who enlists in the Israeli army.

More recently, Darwish published the long poem Mural (2000), an extensive monologue where the poet talks to, and argues with, Death which has come to claim him several times before finally succeeding in 2008.

In June, 2010, the Council of Paris inaugurated “Mahmoud Darwish Square” in honor of Darwish and his artistic legacy. In the words of Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, Darwish “is not just any poet [but] a Palestinian poet, a poet whose inspiration is born of his suffering in exile.”

About karimabuawad

Karim Abuawad earned a BA in English literature form the University of Illinois at Chicago and an MA in comparative literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He taught English literature at Al-Quds University in the West Bank, Palestine. He's currently working on a PhD in comparative literature.
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5 Responses to On This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living

  1. Kathleen Culhane says:

    Thank you so much for posting this profoundly moving, and beautiful poem.

  2. Sivan Butler-Rotholz says:

    Wow, Karim, thank you for sharing such a lovely poem and Mahmoud’s story. I love that he helped to free modern Palestinian poetry from strict form and ushered in free verse. It is wonderful that you are translating him. Can you post “There’s a rifle between Rita and me”? I’d love to hear more about that story!!!

  3. oemoc00 says:

    I really love this poem.
    Can you help me understand these parts:
    the mothers standing on the thinness of a flute
    and the fear of invaders of memories
    and also this part:
    and the fear of tyrants of the song

    how do these phases relate to what makes life worth living,
    thanks so much

    • Sivan Butler-Rotholz says:

      In the English, both the word “flute” and the word “invaders” could have double meanings here.

      A flute could be a champagne glass, representative of celebrations, of weddings and other reasons to toast. In this capacity the poem could be saying that one of the things on this earth that makes life worth living is a mother standing on a champagne glass: standing in a position of pride, overseeing her child’s marriage or cause for celebration. But note that the poet says the “thinness” of a flute. Life is fragile. Joy, like sorrow, is fleeting. Those things that give cause to celebrate today are delicate and may not last. A flute can also be a musical instrument, which would give this image a whole different meaning. I wonder if it is clear that the author meant one or the other of these items in the original Arabic.

      As for the fear of invaders of memories, this ties in with the idea of the celebratory nature of the champagne flute coupled with its delicate and breakable nature. Here is a beautiful memory; a mother taking pride in her child’s celebratory moment, but even as she celebrates she fears the person who might take those memories from her. Is it old age, is it death, or is it the true meaning of the word “invader,” an oppressor who will come and rob the mother of moments like these, in this case, that invader likely would be the Israelis, as this is a poem about the life of a Palestinian.

      As to “the fear of the tyrants of the song,” I would again say that probably refers to the fear of oppressors. The fear of Israelis taking Palestinian land and treating Palestinians inhumanely. A song is a joyful experience, a way to celebrate life and country, and a tyrant of the song might be one who is there to try to take that joy and national pride away.

      These phrases make life worth living because life is always beautiful and fragile. There is always the yin yang of joy and suffering. The good is precious because it exists in relation to the bad, and the bad is bearable because it exists in relation to the good. It is the fact that life is comprised of both the good and the bad that makes it worth living, that makes the sweet taste sweeter and the bitter easier to swallow.

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