World Water Day and Gaza

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Bringing together this year’s theme “Water for Peace,” indigenous poetry and Gaza.

This year’s theme, “Water for Peace,” resonates with us at Anera amidst the horrifying circumstances in Gaza right now. Where disease and pollution have skyrocketed from Israel’s stranglehold on water access, millions of Gazans are now experiencing the violence that comes from restrictions on water. Access to drinking water is both an essential human right and a progenitor of peace.

Poets Mahmoud Darwish and Natalie Diaz, among many others, have long known this truth. Both indigenous, to Palestine and the Mojave/Akimel O’odham tribes respectively, their work holds the awareness that the opposite of access to water is violence.

Water itself, however, can never be violent. In 2019, Fady Joudah, the predominant translator of Darwish’s work, wrote a piece for the LA Review on Darwish’s perspective on water.

“I remember asking Darwish on the phone about his ‘trust in water’,” Joudah writes, “whether he intended a clandestine layer that speaks…to water as a weapon used against the Palestinians.

“Israel has come to bind its settler occupation to the annexation of groundwater…limiting the livelihood of Palestinian landowners, farmers, and society’s development. Darwish’s denial was instant and emphatic: ‘No, no, water stands for life, it stands for itself.’”

“Who Am I, Without Exile?” – Mahmoud Darwish

A stranger on the riverbank, like the river ... water
binds me to your name. Nothing brings me back from my faraway
to my palm tree: not peace and not war. Nothing
makes me enter the gospels. Not
a thing ... nothing sparkles from the shore of ebb
and flow between the Euphrates and the Nile. Nothing
makes me descend from the pharaoh’s boats. Nothing
carries me or makes me carry an idea: not longing
and not promise. What will I do? What
will I do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?

Water
binds me
to your name ...
Nothing takes me from the butterflies of my dreams
to my reality: not dust and not fire. What
will I do without roses from Samarkand? What
will I do in a theater that burnishes the singers with its lunar
stones? Our weight has become light like our houses
in the faraway winds. We have become two friends of the strange
creatures in the clouds ... and we are now loosened
from the gravity of identity’s land. What will we do … what
will we do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?

Water
binds me
to your name ...
There’s nothing left of me but you, and nothing left of you
but me, the stranger massaging his stranger’s thigh: O
stranger! what will we do with what is left to us
of calm ... and of a snooze between two myths?
And nothing carries us: not the road and not the house.
Was this road always like this, from the start,
or did our dreams find a mare on the hill
among the Mongol horses and exchange us for it?
And what will we do?
What
will we do
without
exile?

The Butterfly’s Burden, 2007, Trans. Fady Joudah

Water is older and truer than any history or myth. An exile from his homeland, Darwish saw water as an entity that runs through his existence as deeply as his memory of home. His understanding of water denies that it can be a weapon of violence. Water, he says, is more fundamental than any such human-made binary of peace and violence. 

In this sense, water cannot be viewed as a mere resource, no matter how valued that resource is. Instead, water has a mind of its own: it is slippery and it carries inherent resistance to direction. By declaring water’s autonomy and its closeness to himself, Darwish resists the definition of water that allows it to be used to hurt others. 

Darwish believes water stands for itself just as Natalie Diaz, a poet from a different part of the world, believes water is inextricable from the body. For water to be the same as body means a drastic redefinition of water’s role in the world. But where, Diaz asks, does such a different perspective lead?

“The First Water is the Body” – Natalie Diaz

The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United 
States—also, it is a part of my body.

I carry a river. It is who I am: ‘Aha Makav. This is not metaphor.

When a Mojave says, Inyech ‘Aha Makavch ithuum, we are saying 
our name. We are telling a story of our existence. The river runs 
through the middle of my body.
…
↞

‘Aha Makav is the true name of our people, given to us by our 
Creator who loosed the river from the earth and built it into our 
living bodies.

Translated into English, ‘Aha Makav means the river runs through 
the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle of 
our land.

This is a poor translation, like all translations.
…
↠

Jacques Derrida says, Every text remains in mourning until it is 
translated.

When Mojaves say the word for tears, we return to our word for 
river, as if our river were flowing from our eyes. A great weeping 
is how you might translate it. Or a river of grief.

But who is this translation for and will they come to my language’s 
four-night funeral to grieve what has been lost in my efforts at 
translation? When they have drunk dry my river will they join the 
mourning procession across our bleached desert?

The word for drought is different across many languages and 
lands. The ache of thirst, though, translates to all bodies along the 
same paths—the tongue, the throat, the kidneys. No matter what 
language you speak, no matter the color of your skin.

↞

We carry the river, its body of water, in our body.

I do not mean to imply a visual relationship. Such as: a Native 
woman on her knees holding a box of Land O’ Lakes butter whose 
label has a picture of a Native woman on her knees holding a box 
of Land O’ Lakes butter whose label has a picture of a Native woman 
on her knees . . .

We carry the river, its body of water, in our body. I do not mean to 
invoke the Droste effect—this is not a picture of a river within a 
picture of a river.

I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving within me right 
now.

↠

This is not juxtaposition. Body and water are not two unlike things
—they are more than close together or side by side. They are same—
body, being, energy, prayer, current, motion, medicine.
…
↞

In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same. The words are 
separated only by the letters ‘ii and ‘a: ‘iimat for body, ‘amat for 
land. In conversation, we often use a shortened form for each: 
mat-. Unless you know the context of a conversation, you might 
not know if we are speaking about our body or our land. You 
might not know which has been injured, which is remembering, 
which is alive, which was dreamed, which needs care. You might 
not know we mean both.

If I say, My river is disappearing, do I also mean, My people are 
disappearing?

↠

How can I translate—not in words but in belief—that a river is a 
body, as alive as you or I, that there can be no life without it?
…

A river is a body of water. It has a foot, an elbow, a mouth. It runs. 
It lies in a bed. It can make you good. It has a head. It remembers 
everything.

↠

If I was created to hold the Colorado River, to carry its rushing 
inside me…
how can I say who I am if the river is gone?

What does ‘Aha Makav mean if the river is emptied to the skeleton 
of its fish and the miniature sand dunes of its dry silten beds?

If the river is a ghost, am I?

Unsoothable thirst is one type of haunting.
…
To thirst and to drink is how one knows they are alive and 
grateful.

To thirst and then not drink is . . .

↞

If your builder could place a small red bird in your chest to beat as 
your heart, is it so hard for you to picture the blue river hurtling 
inside the slow muscled curves of my long body? Is it too difficult 
to believe it is as sacred as a breath or a star or a sidewinder or 
your own mother or your beloveds?

If I could convince you, would our brown bodies and our blue 
rivers be more loved and less ruined?
…

We think of our bodies as being all that we are: I am my body. This 
thinking helps us disrespect water, air, land, one another. But 
water is not external from our body, our self.

My Elder says, Cut off your ear, and you will live. Cut off your 
hand, you will live. Cut off your leg, you can still live. Cut off our 
water, we will not live more than a week.

The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our 
body but is our body. What we do to one—to the body, to the water
—we do to the other.
…

Postcolonial Love Poem, 2020
Read Diaz’s full poem

By translating her body into water for the sake of the reader, Diaz commits a type of vulnerability. She enters the no man’s land of translation with only the hope and desperation that someone will meet her there. And the more she translates, the more Diaz conveys the catastrophe that led her to this point.

“If I could convince you,” Diaz writes, “would our brown bodies and our blue rivers be more loved and less ruined?” 

All over the world, water seems to contain a duality of peace or violence. We celebrate its peace-making capacities but witness its devastation when people don’t have enough. In Gaza, where clean water has been cut off for months, the world watches how children are now dying from thirst. 

It is impossible to see a crisis and not focus on restoring water access. But across the world, the issue is much larger than one isolated catastrophe. Water is not a resource that can be given and taken away, like the plastic that surrounds all our food. Water is alive, both part of us and older than us.

In our understanding, water must be free. We have the responsibility to define water in terms that prevent it from ever being minimized into a possession or something separate from ourselves.

Darwish writes to “trust in water.” For all of our efforts to control and understand it, perhaps water, like the universe, may still help us create something new. If we open ourselves, like Diaz, to take a leap of faith and trust in water, perhaps water will meet us there.

“I Have the Wisdom of One Condemned to Die” – Mahmoud Darwish

I have the wisdom of one condemned to die,
I possess nothing so nothing can possess me
and have written my will in my own blood:
'O inhabitants of my song: trust in water'
and I sleep pierced and crowned by my tomorrow…
I dreamed the earth's heart is greater
than its map,
more clear than its mirrors
and my gallows.
I was lost in a white cloud that carried me up high
as if I were a hoopoe
and the wind itself my wings.
At dawn, the call of the night guard
woke me from my dream, from my language:
You will live another death,
so revise your last will,
the hour of execution is postponed again.
I asked: Until when?
He said: Wait till you have died some more.
I said: I possess nothing so nothing can possess me
and have written my will in my own blood:
'O inhabitants of my song: trust in water.'
The Butterfly’s Burden, 2007, Trans. Fady Joudah
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