Absent Presence by Mahmoud Darwish – a fascinatingly undefinable piece of beauty

Described by the author as “a baffling text”, this is an entirely unique piece of literature. Admittedly, it’s quite difficult to grasp at the outset, written in the second person where the narrator seems to be addressing other forms of himself – but the beauty of the language and the phrasing compelled me to persevere. 

From the opening parts, it’s clear that this is the journey of an exile, moving from the recollections of a young boy exiled from his homeland across the Middle East. However, it’s not just a simple narrative – the narrator explores the very notions of life and each chapter philosophises on some of the most basic concepts of human existence. In the opening, he examines the notion of language and how we learn to work with letters and what worlds are opened up to us as a result. 

Each chapter is between six and ten pages, which means it never dissolves into navel-gazing. Many of the observations work as aphorisms in their own right and some of the descriptions of the world of the Middle East are incredibly vivid. The narrator feels the call of the sea and draws some very interesting parallels early on:

“Words are waves… words have the rhythm of the sea and the call of the mysterious”.

Even when the narrator is telling the story of refugees moving under cover of darkness and the consequences of statelessness in airline travel, he keeps coming back to poetry and its reason for existence: “poems and twilight have this in common.”

The text weaves personal experience, recollected snippets and also the classics. In chapter 8, Darwish draws comparison between the plight of refugees and the journey of the Aeneid, using literature to shine a spotlight on the cyclical nature of human suffering.

Returning to cities devastated by bombing campaigns, Darwish still manages to pull beauty from the wreckage with observations like “an idea is a coal burning.”

In the second half of the text, there is less movement and each chapter focuses more on an emotion or human need – there’s an examination of the concept of love, one on sleep, one on nostalgia, one on the shadows of the past. There are also some more whimsical chapters, like the treatise on grass given in chapter 17.

It’s difficult to define this text – it feels like a collection of beautiful aphorisms and philosophical obersavtions woven around the recollections of a Palestinian exile remembering the journey of his life – which makes it difficult to read from cover to cover. It’s more of a slow journey from chapter to chapter, pausing to fully engage with the language. Unsurprisingly, it finishes on a question, suggesting that even the writer hasn’t fully convinced himself of the purpose of poetry.

It’s easy to enjoy the journey when it includes observations such as these:

“The stars look down, friend on us like the glittering gold buttons on the coat of eternity. They look down on us from a distant death which has not yet reached us.”

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