Book Review — Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?

From white bed sheets, if we must have
A flag, let it be blank,
Without fussy symbols… let us be peaceful
Lest we fly our dreams after the strangers’ caravan

Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? by Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish was a respected Palestinian poet and author who won numerous awards for his literary output and was regarded as the Palestinian national poet. The translation of this work is by Mohammad Shaheen. He has been a professor of English literature at the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan since 1985. Shaheen holds a Ph.D. degree in English literature from Cambridge University.

This collection of poetry reflects the Arabic tradition of poetry. Shaheen seems to use a literal translation of the poetry which is different than what the typical Western audience is accustomed to. Other translations try to put the work in a Western form and may be easier to read. There is a noticeable difference in word use and sometimes structure too between the translations. This collection seems to closer to the original intent. This also means that it is a bit more difficult read.

There are several reoccurring themes in this collection. Olive groves, trees, birds, flowers. There is a some history in the poems too, the Moors are an example used in “First Exercises on a Spanish Guitar.” Darwish also reminds the reader of the Palestinian people as many of the poems are about leaving home, sometimes under force. The theme is also carried out in the use of comparisons like “not alive and not dead” and “there is no nonexistence there and no existence.” There is a steady feeling of being trapped in limbo like a person without a country would feel.

Other poems translate well and could have their place with Western romantic poetry — “The Tartars’ Swallow” and “A Night Which Flows from the Body.” For those expecting a heavy political or religious text, you will be disappointed. There are only a few mentions of religion Islam or Christian, and when used it is used, its purpose is a cultural reference rather than dogma or advancement.

Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? provides a look into a culture that most in the West do not know or simply misunderstand. It is art from a culture that many have not experienced. A great collection, but something many will need patience while reading because of the translation.

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