In the Presence of Absence

By Mahmoud Darwish, Sinan Antoon

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"Darwish is to be read with urgency, in the night, when nothing else moves but his lines." —The Village VoiceBy one of the most transcendent poets of this generation, a remarkable collection of prose poems that explores themes of love, pain, isolation, and connection. In this self-eulogy written in the final years of Mahmoud Darwish's life, Palestine becomes a metaphor for "Darwish is to be read with urgency, in the night, when nothing else moves but his lines." —The

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Book details

Paperback, 171 pages
November 29th 2011 by Archipelago Books

(first published 2006)

Original Title
في حضرة الغياب
1935744011 (ISBN13: 9781935744016)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


But words are beings: the game will bewitch you until you become part of it; you will spend your life defending the right of the game to lure you into the maze, to lure you into humour. You read and you do not understand what you read, and so you read more, enjoying the power of words to differ from the mundane. Words are waves. You learn to swim out of the tempting wave which covers you with foam. Words have the rhythm of the sea and the call of the mysterious: “ Come to me, to me in search of what you know not,” the blue calls to you. Luck and the coastguard saved you from certain death with the sound of words. But the lamp of the sea still scratches, but you have not shunned your love to the sea, the source of the primal rhythm. How is the sea imprisoned in three letters, the second of them overflowing with salt? How do letters expand to make room for all these words? How do words expand to embrace the world?


No matter how near you come, you will remain distant. No matter how often you are killed, you will live. So do not think that you are dead there, and alive here. Nothing proves this or that but metaphor. Metaphors that teach beings the play of words. Metaphors that form a geography from a shadow. Metaphors that will gather you and your name. So ascend with your people, higher and farther than what the myths have prepared for you and me. Write yourself, the history of your heart, from the moment Adam was struck with love, until the resurrection of your people. And write, yourself, the history of your kind, from the time you borrowed the sea's rhythm and manner of breathing, until your return to me alive. You lie before me, like a rhyme that cannot carry the rush of my words. I elegize and I am the elegized. Be me so I can know you! Rise up so I can carry you! Come near so I can know you! Go far away so I can know you!


Be a child again. Teach me poetry. Teach me the rhythm of the sea. Return to words their initial innocence. Give birth to me and take me back to a world before meaning, so I can embrace you on the grass. Do you hear me? A world before meaning.


So sleep peacefully, peacefully if you can
Sleep peacefully in your words
and dream that you are dreaming
Sleep as peacefully as possible
I will ward off mosquitoes
crocodile tears
and friends who loved your wounds
but abandoned you when you made
your cross a writing desk
Sleep quietly at your side
sleep quietly
I will guide your dreams
I am alone as you are alone at this hour
The earth is lofty
lofty as thoughts
The sky is a metaphor, like the poem
Blue, green, white


Far away our dreams have nothing to do with what we do. The wind carries the night and goes on, and there is no destination.

The destination differs from one road to another. But many and rugged are the roads and life’s supplies are scarce.

Scarce are the songs.

Songs, we need only to listen closely to hear death apologizing to those it has tapped, and to steal a glance at the riches of prose.
Stars gaze down at us, my friend, like golden buttons shimmering on eternity’s coat. They gaze down at us from a distant death that has yet to reach us. As I recite my address to you, a star slips into my words and illuminates my darkness: Perhaps death is a metaphor to remind us of a secret of life we failed to notice. So what is it?


One must be careful when witnessing a self-elegy. Too sentimental or nostalgic and the piece becomes saccarine and cloying, even self indulgent. Too brusque or critical and it becomes an allegory to the reader, not self-elegy at all but the adoption of a perceived voice in the presence of obsequious self-consciousness, and unpleasant to read at all that. Darwish's In the Presence of Absence falls into neither of these camps but rather, navigating between whirlpools, strikes at a beautifully moving reflection on life and writing from the margins. How does he do this? By recognizing the uncanny duplication of writing, not in surprise but, accepting such mirroring, exploring the potential relationships of an elegy to the person elegized. In an apostrophe to his own corpse laid out on a burial stone, Darwish writes
If you are the one saying what I am not saying in your silence, then death will be no more than a means for the soul to find the journey awaiting it. If I am the one saying what I say to you now, on this stone, then I am death's ultimate excuse to introduce life to its obscure antagonist. An antagonist incapable of introducing life to its opposite in another place, or non-place, which those who fear nothingness have called immortality.

No surprise that Darwish proved so inspirational for Breyten Breytenbach, the displaced Afrikaner poet. In this memorable and gracefully written self-elegy the best of Palestinian poets demonstrates a formidable command of words and brilliance of mind. Reflections on love, on exile, and on mourning prove the fulcrums of this meditation on dying. But Darwish always keeps his prose poetry accessible and hospitable. In the presence of his own death, the knowledge of his coming absence, he keeps a mindful and equanimous hospitality to the reader who, he knows, participates in the prosopopoeia of his own mourning work. And, finally, for all his confidence, he knows better than to give an answer to death's universal question, a question that constitutes life and writing alike.
Stars gaze down at us, my friend, like golden buttons shimmering on eternity's coat. They gaze down at us from a distant death that has yet to reach us. As I recite my address to you, a star slips into my words and illuminates my darkness. Perhaps death is a metaphor to remind us of a secret of life we failed to notice. So what is it?

Manuel Alberto Vieira

"[...] Stars gaze down at us, my friend, like golden buttons shimmering on eternity's coat. They gaze down at us from a distant death that has yet to reach us. As I recite my address to you, a star slips into my words and illuminates my darkness: Perhaps death is a metaphor to remind us of a secret life we failed to notice. So what is it?

What is it? Were we to know, our plans would have changed, for what we do not know exists and what we do know is limited and bound to change. Grass, stronger than you and me, grows on your grave and I do not know whether or not to grieve, because life is a dancing widow who only takes interest in what she needs."


This is a book of poetic prose and poetry written when the popular Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish knew there was nothing that could be done to save his life - he knew he would die of a heart ailment. The book is therefore almost his epitaph - a farewell - a summation of his life. It's truly powerful, filled with unexpected metaphor and insight.

A theme running through the book is the poet's years of wandering - since he was the child of Palestinian refugees. Darwish's poetry touches on universal themes - joy in walking down a country road, the sea, the mountains, travels to European capitols, a love affair, and would be accessible to all. Darwish's stunning writing is dense with meaning. There is often a lot to unpack or consider in each sentence; this is not an easy or quick read (although much more accessible than an elliptical or cryptic poem) because it's thought-provoking. Readers will get insight into the life of a Mid-Eastern poet and his mindset prior to the end of his life.

Some quotes from this wonderful book:

"Ants narrate and the rain erases."
"But the regimen of familiarity is what ultimately makes life possible."
"Time, which we feel only when it is too late, is the trap waiting for us a the edge of the place where we arrive late, unable to dance on the threshold separating beginning from end!"
"You grow up quickly hearing big words, you grow up at the edge of a world falling apart behind you, and yet to form before you, a world tossed like a stray stone in the game of fates."
"You wonder, as someone else has: Are we what we do with time, or are we what time does with us?"
"No enemy is stronger than time and no rival nobler than the mirror."
"Yet you love sleep and salute Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, and forget that he is death's brother."
"Like being happy in a prison cell you see as larger than a public garden, or like the past that stands waiting for you tomorrow, like a loyal dog."
"Longing is not a memory, but rather what is selected from memory's museum."
"When a sparrow perches on the balcony and seems to be a message from a country you did not love when you were in it as you love it now that it is in you."
"You do not know if you are happy or sad, because the confusion you feel is the lightness of the earth and the victory of the heart over knowledge."
"Places might move if infatuation were allowed to rage the way it wants to and reduce you to a feather, just as you are now on this coastal road that points north like an arrow."
"The eye of insight sees yet cannot be seen."
"You said to me: Love is neither happiness nor misery, but rather the senses finding the harmony and discord of resemblance though ever-renewing desire."
"Had I rushed or slowed down a bit, I would have died on behalf of another and he would have lived my life on my behalf."
"Stars gaze down at us, my friend, like golden buttons shimmering on eternity's coat."


“Longing is a scar inside the heart and a country’s fingerprint on the body. But no one longs for his wound, no one longs for pain or nightmare, but for what was before. For a time where there was no pain except of primary pleasures that melt time, like a sugar cube in a cup of tea, and for a time of heavenly images.”?

Christopher Iacovetti

'When one letter is brought together with another, that is to say one absurdity with another, an obscure form reveals the clarity of a certain sound. This slow clarity opens a path for meaning to take the shape of an image. Three letters become a door or a house. Thus, lethargic letters, which carry no value when separate, build a house when they come together. What a game! What magic! The world is gradually born out of words' (p. 27)

‘You ask: What is the meaning of “refugee”? They will say: One who is uprooted from his homeland. You ask: What is the meaning of “homeland”? They will say: The house, the mulberry tree, the chicken coop, the beehive, the smell of bread, and the first sky. You ask: Can a word of eight letters be big enough for all of these, yet to small for us?’ (p. 38)

'Everything here is proof of loss and lack. Everything here is a painful reminder of what had once been there. What wounds you most is that "there" is so close to "here"' (p. 44)

'The past was born suddenly, like mushrooms. You have a past that you see as distant. Distant is the house that the past alone inhabits. The past was born out of absence. [...] The past was born, like the teats of a bitch about to give birth. Out of your fear of tomorrow. The past was born, able and ready to kidnap the bride and ride the tale's horse. Out of all that you feel, out of all the misery of the present, which hungers for your identity to be defined . . . the past was born' (p. 45)

'You see yourself in a long film slowly narrating what befell your people whose tongue, wheat, houses, and proof of existence were stolen from the moment the gigantic bulldozer of history descended upon them and drove them away, leveling the place according to the dimension of a sacred myth, armed to the teeth. Whoever was not in the myth at that time will not be now. You wondered: Is there a sacred executioner?' (pp. 52-3)

'We, who have no existence in "the Promised Land," became the ghost of the murdered who haunted the killer in both wakefulness and sleep, and the realm in-between, leaving him troubled and despondent. The insomniac screams: Have they not died yet? No, because the ghost reaches the age of being weaned, then comes adulthood, resistance, and return. Airplanes pursue the ghost in the air. Tanks pursue the ghost on land. Submarines pursue the ghost in the sea. The ghost grows up and occupies the killer's consciousness until it drives him insane: Israel's new king sits on the balcony of a psychiatric institute, looking out on the remains of Dayr Yasin, and hallucinates: Here, here is the beginning of my miracle. Here I killed them and saw them dead. I saw and heard them die. Here I heard the wailing of human beasts, which did not disturb my music. From here, to terrify the rest of the herd muddying the waters of the holy land, I scatter their voices northward. From here I spread fright among what remains of the bipeds . . . to make them begin the journey into the wilderness. No, no, "wilderness" is not the appropriate word for their fate. Wilderness is my specialty. Wilderness leads to guidance. Wilderness leads to return. Wilderness is my monopoly, just as God is. The king takes tranquilizers and remembers: Were it not for my heroism, for what I did to Dayr Yasin, my kingdom would not have been established. Were it not for absence, their absence, I would not be present. For them not to be, is for me to be. Whence did they emerge when I did not accept them as neighbors or slaves, woodchoppers or water carriers? The king clenches his glass of water nervously and crushes it. A trickle of blood flows from his hand and he starts to hallucinate: I did not see the blood of the ghost that my army is pursuing in Lebanon, yet I see my own blood! I killed them and saw them dead here, so how did they cheat death and disobey my orders, when I am the one who bestows life and death? I am the king, the new king of Israel. How have the dead become ghosts and how can ghosts defy me? Is this a dream or a nightmare? Is there no balcony in this world looking out on a different end? Take Dayr Yasin away from me again, take the cries of those ghosts away, or take me away from them. For I cannot apologize to them, nor do I want to! O Hiram, Hiram, king of Tyre, save me! My people have become angry with me. They say that my war is a waste, that killing the ghost is a waste, that my peace is a waste. O Hiram, Hiram, save me, even if with a false peace, to numb my mind, my heart, and my people, and be cured of my sorrows. Do you not know me? Do you not hear me, you son of a dog! No one listens to the king secluded in his house looking out on the scene of his first crime. When he goes out leaning on a cane to visit his wife's grave, he does not speak to a soul. The ghost is his sole companion, his enemy who will not leave him. His enemy who returns in his delirium and guides him to their first encounter: You killed me right here and buried me in this pit. He cannot ward him off. He collapses: the murderer falls into the grave of the murdered!' (pp. 68-70)

'Has the journey ended or begun? Has [the returnee] come closer to the place, or has the place departed from his imagination? The older returnee is prone to making comparisons, perplexed as to whether he should prefer the imagined over the real. As for the one born in exile and reared on the beautiful attributes of exile's antithesis, he might be let down by a paradise created especially for him, composed of words he soaked up and reduced to stereotypes that would guide him to difference. He inherited memory from a family that feared forgetfulness, upon which the others had wagered. He inherited memory from the steady refrain of anthems glorifying folklore and the rifle, which eventually became an identity when the "homeland" was born far away from its land. The homeland was born in exile. Paradise was born from the hell of absence' (p. 124)

‘Three decades of the self’s absence from its roots turns the place itself into an orphan, and the self into a wandering piece of land’ (p. 135)

Whitney Blank

So far, I've not been let down by opening to a random page and reading whatever I find out loud. Beautiful!


If possible I would put 5++++ stars for this book