Some of the most important Arab poets in the twentieth century have paid homage to and evoked the memory of the Spanish Andalucian poet, Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). They include the Iraqi poets, Badre Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964) and Abd Al-Wahab Al-Bayati (1926-1999), the Egyptian poet Salah Abd Al-Sabour (1931-1981) and the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008). Their poems are a testament to Lorca’s genius and far-reaching scope of insights which touched people and poets on a profound level. At heart, Lorca is a symbol of passion, defiance to oppression and a champion of freedom. He is particularly special to the Arabs for this, as well as for his unique vision of Andalucía as a tolerant fusion of cultures and civilisations.
Besides the vivid homage of the Arab poets to Lorca, there are clear traces and influences of Lorca’s poetry in their work. But Lorca’s influence on Arab poets was not unreciprocated. There is a cycle of poetic migrations which connect Lorca to the Arabic tradition in notable and exciting ways. This is particularly evident in Lorca’s great poetry collection, the Gypsy Ballads, which he published in 1928, catapulting him to further fame and admiration. Moreover, Lorca’s poetry continues to influence and be echoed in contemporary Arab poetry, including the late Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. His lines exude metaphor similar to Lorca – olive trees, besieged creatures, gypsies, and lovers and beloved.
Spanish and Arab brothers in poetry
Lorca and Darwish both lived through turbulent times, which influenced their poetic vision. In an early poem entitled ‘Lorca’, Darwish addresses Lorca directly:
Forgetfulness has forgotten to walk on your radiant blood
So the roses of the moon were drenched in blood
The noblest of swords is a letter from your mouth
About the songs of the gypsies
The Gypsy Ballads is anchored in Andalucía. It is a superb continuation of an important Spanish ballad tradition tracing back to the Renaissance and continuing through to the nineteenth century. What adds to the sensual distinction and visionary lyrical quality of the poems, however, is the diversity of influences that feed and emanate from them. They are influences which translate Lorca’s vision of Andalucía as a diverse seat of civilisations. Lorca himself describes one strand of these influences as follows:
‘From the very first line [of the Gypsy Ballads] we note that the myth is mixed with what we might call the “realistic” element. But, in fact, when this “realism” touches the plane of magic it becomes as mysterious and indecipherable as the Andalusian soul, which is a dramatic struggle between the poison of the Orient and the geometry and equilibrium imposed by Roman and Andalusian civilisations.’
Lorca’s interaction and dialogue with the Arabic tradition appears in his great poem, ‘Romance Sonámbulo’ (Dreamwalker Ballad), where he declares repeatedly:
Pero yo ya no soy yo
Ni mi casa es ya mi casa
These two lines of ‘I am no longer who I am/nor is my house my house’ have an interesting history of migration. From the great ninth-century Arab poet, Abu Tammam, to the twelfth-century Ibn Khafaja, in his elegiac ode to the fall of Valencia when it was conquered by El Cid. In the original Arabic, however, it appears as ‘you are not you, and the abodes are not abodes’.
These lines, which Lorca echoes, represent a well-known sentiment in classical Arabic poetry. They evoke loss and psychological unsettlement. It could be the loss of a place, or a change in the order of the place or country, which engenders disorientation. It gives rise to cries of longing and nostalgia for a semblance of stability and settlement – emotions with which the poetry of Lorca brims:
Compadre, quiero cambiar
Mi caballo por su casa,
Mi montura por su espejo,
Mi cuchillo por su manta.
(friend, I wish to trade
my horse for your house
my saddle for your mirror
My knife for your blanket.)
There are several interpretations of this most famous of Lorca’s poems, ‘Romance Sonámbulo’, which he considered his greatest; and though it is difficult to settle on any one interpretation, the voices of rebellion against the social and political order of the time ring clear. It is a cry for freedom – of expression and behaviour – from institutional or social repression. Though there is focus on the sexual dimensions of the poem, there are political hints in it that make it diverse in its meanings and effects:
Drunkard Civil Guards
Beat at the door.
Green how I love you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
Boat on the sea,
And horse on the mountain.
Here we are confronted with the image of the Spanish civil guards disrupting the simple lives of the gypsies. Followed with seeds of hope, green wind and branches, the sea is befriended, and the mountain is surmounted. It is as if green speaks for a ripened, responsible freedom – freedom that leads to the openness and possibilities that the gypsies represent. It lies beyond anything the civil guards could understand in their regimented strictures, and is integral to the desire for freedom inherent in all great poetry. But the poem has a lyrical dimension which, irrespective of the meaning, is assured. In its very lyrical, mystical quality, it establishes houses of visions from within the language, places of liberation and ascendance, in the seemingly disjointed structure of the poem.
Lorca drifts east
The beautiful opening line of the ‘Romance Sonámbulo’, Verde que te quiero
verde, migrates in notable fashion to the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s epic poem, ‘The Dice Player’. Like Lorca, Darwish’s late style is one of rupturing and opening spaces, while bonds are deepened between people and land, between voices and souls, between lived experiences, consciousness and dreams, reality and imagination. There is an inspired message to individuals to rise above pettiness and provincialism and realise instead the wholesomeness of their being. It is also characteristically open to expansive interpretations, as with Lorca’s poem.
Green, O land, how I love you green. An apple.
Waving in light and water. Green.
Your night green.
Your dawn green.
So plant me gently, with a mother’s kindness, in a fistful of air.
I am one of your seeds, green…
Greenness is what unites these two poets. Their openness and attachment to existence attain vividness with this eternal signature of life. They also share similar symbols and references in their evocations, having parallel histories of injustice and harsh political and emotional repression. The following, from Lorca’s Book of Poems, calls on Jesus to return his lost innocence:
I will say to Christ,
Lord, give me the child’s soul I once had.
A divine appeal is also to be found in Darwish’s long poem, A State of Siege. It was written in the wake of the Israeli siege of Ramallah and other West Bank cities in 2002, and is reminiscent of Jesus’ outcry on the cross, as narrated in the Christian tradition:
My God, My God,
Why have you forsaken me!
While I am still a child
And yet to be tested?
Meanwhile, one notices the lyrical motion inherent in the poems – the symbols and visions that render language a free world in its own right. It is not all about life in Lorca’s poetry, however. Passion and death preside over much of what he wrote. Hence many interpretations have paid attention to these themes in his Gypsy Ballads:
Friend, I want to die
Tucked up in my bed:
A steel bed, if possible,
With the finest linen sheets
It is perhaps unsurprising that the last works of Mahmoud Darwish are also devoted to or concerned with death, domesticating death, making it less of another world. Lorca’s poetry is imbued with a desire for a particular type of death: a peaceful one. He wanted to die in his bed. Unfortunately, his fate was one of the cruellest. Lorca was taken away from the peace of his home by the Spanish ultra-nationalists, arrested in his beloved Granada in August 1936 and executed three days later.
An inspiring legacy of defiance
What Lorca achieved in his relatively short, but eventful life confirms his passionate engagement with the causes of his time, despite his attempts to shy away from demonstrating a partisan inclination. His poetry remains a testimony to a time of oppression and fear. Yet, the tyranny was defied and surmounted by the sensitive aesthetics Lorca championed. Further, such sensibilities have survived in various traditions, notably the Arabic one. After all, Lorca was a defender of the assured place of the Arabs in his native Andalucía. In 1936, the year of his assassination, he described their expulsion in 1492 as, ‘un momento malísimo … se perdieron una civilización admirable, una poesia … una arquitectura y una delicadeza únicas en el mundo’. At a time of great upheaval and revolutionary hope in the Arab world, Lorca serves as a passionate voice for freedom and liberation from multiple sources of oppression:
Verde que te quiero verde
Verde viento, verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
Y el caballo en la montaña
From a personal perspective, I had read several Spanish-speaking writers and poets before stumbling upon Federico Garcia Lorca. There is a poetic quality even to his name. But beyond the name there is the extraordinary
talent which brims with vitality and sensuousness. It feeds the brain and the body with sheer wonder. I visited Spain and Granada for the first time in 2011 and found that magically tender place which Lorca made vivid as the jewel of the Andalucía in his poetry. I identified with Lorca’s metaphors and emotions. I felt inspired by his presence to follow in his footsteps and sing for Andalucía. For this part of Spain, of the world, inspires singing. What could one do in paradise except sing and meditate, make companions of its objects, its verdant landscape, its running water, its steadfast stones, warm moon and sun? One can only embrace such a delightful patch of this mysterious earth called Andalucía, with its capital, Granada, at its heart – and Lorca, one of its great eternal seeds. More than that, it invites hope and optimism to think of Lorca and Granada, a figure who cried out for an Andalucía ripe in its ideals of freedom, justice and tolerance.
The Instituto Cervantes and Poet in the City hosted the launch of the new English translation of the Gipsy Ballads (Enitharmon Press) on 26 September 2011 at Kings Place. Atef Alshaer’s interview with Lorca’s nieces will appear in the next issue of The London Magazine.