Mahmoud Darwish: My god, why did you forsake me? (From Arabic)

The name "Mariam" and the many resonances behind it caused me a great deal of consternation in rendering this poem.

My god, why did You forsake me?
By Mahmoud Darwish
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Arabic

My god, my god, why did you forsake me? 
          Why did you make Mariam your bride?
Why did you promise my only vineyard to the soldiers? Why?
I am the widow, daughter of this silence, your forsaken Word's own child.
Why did you forsake me, O god, my god...
          Why did you make Mariam your bride?
You as a Word within me came alive 
          brought forth two nations from one stock,
Wed me to an idea. I complied
          taking your future wisdom as my one true guide.
Have you divorced and denied me? Gone to save
           my enemy instead of me from the chopping-block?
Is it not the right of one such as I 
          to ask for God as spouse, ask why
My god? My god...why did you forsake me? 
Why did you make me your bride, my god? Why, 
          why did you make Mariam your bride?


Excursus on "Mariam"

Maryam, which in my translation is naturalized into English as Mariam, is the Arabic equivalent of "Mary" and in a context where God is invoked (especially in a way that cites Jesus' cry of despair in Matthew 27:46 or Mark 15:34) would easily call to mind the Virgin Mary, for the Qur'an like the Gospels claims Jesus' mother to have been a virgin. Maryam however can refer to a variety of Biblical characters known in English variously as Mary and Miriam.  Mary is the name found in English translations of the New Testament, (e.g. The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene etc) and Miriam in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the sister of Moses and Aaron.) Mary and Miriam are variants of the same name, taking different forms due to being filtered, for historical reasons, through different languages when referring to different people. The same is true for, among others, James/Jacob, Jesus/Joshua, Yochanan/John, Simon/Simeon and Jude/Judah/Judas. The Gospel's Christian translators didn't particularly care to fully acknowledge that Jesus and many of his followers had typically Jewish names. In any case, the various Maries of the Gospel would have probably understood themselves to have the same name (pronounced Maryām in Aramaic) as the person English-speakers call Miriam.

It is not altogether clear whether the poem intends the Miriam of the Old Testament or the Mary of the new, which is reason enough to suspect that Darwish intends both. There's Maryam in the sense of Miriam representing Israeli Jewry which God and circumstance seem, from one perspective, to be favoring over the largely Muslim but also Christian populations of the Levant, in which case the "two nations" mentioned in the poem would be Jews and Arabs. Then there's Maryam in the sense of Mary, the woman God "married" and inseminated thereby spawning Christianity and, in an important sense, Islam. In this reading the "two nations" would presumably be Christians and Muslims. (Had God not impregnated some teenage girl in Nazareth, the world might have been spared a good deal of competitive monotheistic absurdity.)


As we eventually realize, the speaker in talking about Mariam is talking about herself. In the final lines, the poem reveals itself to be in the voice of Miriam/Mary who is herself is crying out to God, asking why He ever took up with her in the first place if he was just going to abandon her. Ultimately, no sides are fully distinguished, let alone taken. It is Mary, and Miriam, and neither. What is left is the voice of one who once enjoyed God's blessing, but now no longer seems to (and has now had her land taken by soldiers.) It could be a metaphor for anybody, or everybody, in the long history of subjugation and dispossession. The way I read it, it could easily be a stand-in for Jews who lived as a subject people wherever they were from Roman times till 1948, for Muslims who after ruling over Christians for so long found themselves ruled by Christian colonial empires after the fall of the Ottomans, or for the many Christians in late antiquity suddenly under new masters as huge swathes of formerly Byzantine territory were swiped by the Caliphate with what must have seemed apocalyptic swiftness.


I went with the third, and perhaps least satisfying, yet only appropriate, option in translation - which is to leave Maryam transliterated as Mariam rather than translated as Mary or Miriam. The polysemy of the name felt key, and I like to think that it might help preserve something of Darwish's cultural universe. "Mariam" also seemed appropriate as a graphemic blend of Mary/Maria and Miriam.


A further note is in order on the reading of Maryam as referring to Jesus' mother as well as Moses' sister. This reading is, for many reasons too numerous and obvious to enumerate, one that many Arab critics have been eager to reject as a possibility in favor of a reading that equates Maryam with Miriam exclusively. This allows one to read Darwish as placing Israel and Jews alone in the role of antagonist. To be sure, my dual reading doesn't make overmuch biographical sense if one assumes, as many (whether to demonize or lionize him) seem willing to assume, that Darwish wanted Israel to cease existing, that he resented Jews as a religion or ethnic group, that he was a more or less orthodox Muslim, that he thought particularly highly of political religion, or that he had a high opinion of the modern Arab world. 


However a thorough and honest reading of Darwish's work over the course of his life would reveal that he usually made a point of reserving his greatest venom not for Israel but for Islamists and for the Arab countries which had transformed Palestine from a homeland into a slogan, piling victimhood on Palestinians while denying them passports, and acting as though the oppression of Arabs and Muslims were alright as long as it's also Arabs and Muslims doing the oppressing. With regard to Jews and Israel, three things strike me when I consider Darwish's work in its entirety. First, the man shared my love and appreciation for Hebrew literature and is constantly engaging in intertextual (albeit often antagonistic) dialogue with modern Hebrew poets. Second, the profusion of poems addressed to an Israeli Jewish lover suggests anything but anti-semitism. And third, the man was indeed no lover of the State of Israel. And he had absolutely no reason to be. But neither was he so sadistic as to wish millions of Israelis to suffer the kind of soul-wounding bereavement he had. And as for religion, if anything, Darwish comes across as an atheist or agnostic.



The Original:

الهي لماذا تخليت عني ؟
محمود درويش

إِلَهِي..إِلَهِي ’ لِمَاذَا تَخَلَّيْتَ عَنِّي؟ لِمَاذَا تَزَوَّجْتَ مَرْيَمْ؟
لِمَاذَا وَعَدْتَ الجُنُودَ بِكَرْمِي الوَحِيدِ..لِمَاذَا؟ أَنَا الأَرْمَلَهْ
أَنَا بِنْتُ هَذَا السُّكُونِ ’ أَنَا بِنْتُ لَفْظَتِكَ المُهْمَلَهْ
لِمَاذَا تَخَلَّيْتَ عَنِّي إِلهي ’ إِلَهِي...لِمَاذَا تَزَوَّجْتَ مَرْيَمْ؟
تَنَزَّلْتَ فِيَّ كَلاَماً , وَأَنْزَلْتَ شَعْبَيْنِ مِنْ سُنْبُلَهْ ,
وَزَوَّجْتَنِي فِكْرةً فامْتَثَلْتُ ، امْتَثَلْتُ تَمَاماً لِحِكْمَتِكَ المُقْبِلَهْ
أَطَلَّقْتَنِي ؟أَمْ ذَهَبْتَ لِتُشْفِي سِوَايَ / عَدُوِّي مِنَ المِقْصَلهْ
أَمِنْ حَقِّ مَنْ هِيَ مِثْليَ أَنْ تَطْلُبَ الله زَوْجاً..وَأَنْ تَسْأَلَهْ
إلَهي..إلَهِي..لِمَاذَا تَخَلَّيْتَ عَنِّي ,
لِمَاذَا تَزَوَّجْتَنِي يَا إلَهِي , لِمَاذَا ...لِمَاذَا تَزَوَّجْتَ مَرْيَمْ؟

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