Books Essay - Autumn 2012

Prince of Poets

Mahmoud Darwish was the voice of the Palestinian people—chronicling not just the struggles and political injustices, but also the rhythms of daily life

By David J. Wasserstein | September 4, 2012


In August 2011, three years after the death of Mahmoud Darwish, a TV series depicting the Palestinian poet’s life began showing in the Middle East, and predictably, voices were raised against it. The actor playing Darwish was the wrong shape—Darwish was tall and lean, Firas Ibrahim shorter and plumper. Ibrahim was friendly in appearance, and Darwish was, well, more severe looking. The voice was all wrong, too—and as evidence, you could get Darwish reading his poetry all over the Internet. Websites and Facebook pages were created to protest against the series, and a petition to ban it acquired thousands of signatures.

Though Darwish would have relished the fuss—he loved a good fight—he would probably have considered the disagreements over Ibrahim’s appearance trivial. He would certainly have abominated the calls for any sort of ban or censorship. In Israel, his own work had been subject to just that sort of ban, for example in March 2000, when Yossi Sarid, then the country’s education minister, proposed including some poems by Darwish in the high school curriculum. Ehud Barak, the prime minister, facing an onslaught of right-wing vitriol at the idea, notoriously said that Israeli children were “not ready” for the Palestinian’s poetry.

Around the birth of Islam, 14 centuries ago, Arabs saw poetry as their most characteristic literary form. Because it was ideal for public recital, it was also a natural home for politics. Political propaganda for (and by) a ruler, praise of him, boasting about him, satire criticizing him, elegy for him, memorialization of him—all have found their expression in Arabic poetry from the earliest times.

In the past century, the Arabic language—its vocabulary, syntax, and sentence structure— has been deeply influenced by the West, and Arab poets have adapted to modernist thought and patterning, in large part abandoning the characteristic models and meters of the classical past while addressing new and different subjects in ways shaped by Western models. Yet the demand for poetry in Arabic remains strong, with current audiences, far more literate than previous generations, buying books of poetry in numbers that make Western poets and their publishers gasp. Perhaps in part because of those changes, poetry still has the capacity to fuel political aspirations and reactions, inspiring and arousing its hearers as nothing else except religion can. Political poetry in Arabic is thus still poetry—and politics.

This is why the death of Mahmoud Darwish, on August 9, 2008, was more than just the passing of a distinguished man of letters. Far beyond the history of literature in Arabic, the study of modern Arabic poetry, even the expression of the 20th-century Palestinian tragedy, Darwish incarnates and reflects the tradition of the political poet in Islam, the man of action whose action is poetry. Darwish spent his life wielding a pen, not a Kalashnikov, yet even in death he remained persona non grata for the Israelis, who were unwilling to grant him burial in his home village inside Israel. In 1966, before he left Israel, Darwish wrote “My father,” a poem that eerily prefigured his destiny: “He who has no country / has no claim to burial.” The ambiguities and shadows of poetry are more elusive than the battle cries of politics, and because of that, the death of a poet has a greater and a longer-lasting capacity to galvanize and to inspire than the ephemeral slogans and sound bites of a dead politician.

Born in the Galilee in 1941, Mahmoud Darwish was just old enough to apprehend something of the Nakba, the Palestinian “disaster” or “catastrophe” of Israeli statehood in 1948. His family, exiled in Lebanon because of the fighting, illegally crossed the border back into Israel a year later—too late to be included in the first census of the new state. As a result, they were given the status of “present absentees,” an anomalous Israeli legal invention, placing them in the interstices of being: present because they were, after all, physically there; absent because they had not been there at the right time.

After his native village was destroyed during the 1948 fighting, Darwish lived in a neighboring village, in sight of what had been his home and of the fields that had been his father’s. At 12, invited to contribute to his village’s observance of Israel’s independence day, he recited a poem in which he described finding others in his home, sleeping in his bed, working his family’s fields. The recitation drew a summons to the military governor and a warning to stop writing such poems or his father’s work permit would be revoked. The story may seem apocryphal, implying an unlikely precociousness, but it shows some of the themes—the image of both outcast and rebel that Darwish would later project—that would continue to inform his work.

That early work apparently does not survive, but “Identity Card,” written when he was around 20, does. Here, in what is probably his most popular poem, Darwish expresses not only the defiance of the victim, but also some specific themes of the Palestinian situation. Its opening word, the staccato imperative “Sajjil!”— “Record!”—neatly and precisely echoes the first word of the earliest revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad, “Iqra’ !—“Recite!” The poem asserts the speaker’s identity (the line “I am an Arab” occurs four times in the poem); boasts of his having eight children, with a ninth on the way; rejects the notion that he needs charity as he works in a quarry; stresses the antiquity of his claim to the land and his undistinguished ancestry (“my father descends from the family of the plough”); and equates the Zionist enterprise with theft (“You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors / And the land which I cultivated / Along with my children”). But though it emphasizes his peaceable character (“I do not hate people”), it also warns: “Beware … of my hunger / And my anger!” The poem is a clarion call, and was seen as that by its earliest audiences.

Darwish belongs to a gifted and politically significant group of 20th-century Palestinian writers, including Fadwa Tuqan, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habiby, Sahar Khalifeh, Samih al Qasim, and Tawfiq Zayyad—all Arabic speaking and Arabic writing but of varied Muslim, Christian, and Druze backgrounds. These writers helped give the Palestinians a literary voice in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, which placed the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation.

Darwish found his muse young, and in half a century of active writing he produced more than 20 volumes of poetry and some half-dozen of prose. He was translated into more than 20 languages and won more than the usual ration of international prizes and awards.

As a poet of exile, Darwish always sounds a dominant note of loss. Even when he is writing about something else, usually a woman, the woman is very often a trope, standing in for the lost homeland. Darwish experienced many of the vagaries of the Palestinian national experience after 1948: his flight and return, and then 17 years of the military rule that most Israeli Arabs suffered until 1966, succeeded by harassment for his political writing until his departure to study in Moscow in 1970. A year there was enough, and he returned to the Middle East, but not to Israel. He lived for some time in Cairo and Beirut, working at different periods for the PLO, in its research department, and editing a literary magazine. He also spent more than a decade in Paris. After becoming a member of the PLO in 1973, he could not return to Israel until the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, and subsequent visits to see his family were few and brief. At the time of his death he was living in Ramallah, the temporary West Bank capital of the Palestinian Authority.

Before his departure for Moscow, Darwish wrote as an insider, an Israeli Arab, deprived of home and lands and political identity, restricted in his movements, but still inside historic Palestine. Subsequently, he wrote not only about loss but also about his physical separation from the homeland.

Much of his poetry, of his writing in general—for his prose too is a form of free verse—takes Palestine for its subject. But because of the interconnectedness of Palestinian and Israeli fates and history in these years, his poetry is often as much about the Israeli enemy as about Palestine and Palestinians. Darwish is very direct about Israel, about the pointlessness of the unthinking cruelty of war and occupation, for example in “Victim Number 18,” one of a series of poems about an Israeli massacre at Kafr Qasim at the outbreak of the Suez War in 1956:

At the corner of the road,
they stopped the truck with the workers
they were calm …
Don’t be upset with me if I am a little late
they stopped me
… fifty victims …
O my love, don’t be upset with me
they have killed me, killed,

Yet Darwish also demands, and seizes, the privilege of the artist. When he resigned from the executive committee of the PLO in 1993, on the signing of the Oslo Accords, he said that he did so not because he did not want peace with Israel but because he foresaw that the agreement would fail. His attitude, though honest, carried a certain disingenuousness in it too. On one hand Darwish wanted a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; on the other he did not want to be held accountable for it when one was presented to him, even if it was accepted by his leaders and associates. On one hand he befriended and admired Israelis, especially Israeli writers; he was aware of the currents of Jewish history, both ancient and modern, including the awful events of the 20th century. On the other his poetry called for Israelis not only to recognize the suffering of the Palestinians and their own share of the blame for it but also to take on the job of resolving the tragedy. And the resolution implicit, sometimes explicit, in his verse, at least to some readers, was the dismantling of Israel and the departure of its Jewish population from the shore of the Mediterranean.

In 1988, at the beginning of the first intifada, Yitzhak Shamir quoted Darwish in the Knesset:

It is time for you to be gone
Live wherever you like, but do not live among us
It is time for you to be gone
Die wherever you like, but do not die among us
… So leave our country
Our land, our sea
Our wheat, our salt, our wounds
Everything, and leave
The memories of memory
those who pass between fleeting words!

At least one Arab commentator insisted that Darwish had been misquoted, or mistranslated, and Darwish himself said that the lines referred to the territories occupied in 1967, not to the whole of historic Palestine; but Shamir’s quotation was faithful to the Arabic original. Darwish may have been a political poet, but he was not a politician, and his direct words sound less realistic, perhaps, when voiced by someone practiced not in art but in the negotiation, compromise, and deal making necessary in the realm of politics.

An entire cycle of poems by Darwish draws on the theme of al-Andalus, Islamic Spain. The first of these finishes with the lines, “Was al-Andalus / here or there? On earth / or only in poems?” Al-Andalus, the 800-year moment of Islamic success in medieval Europe, remains vivid in the modern Arab imagination. Poets especially call upon the images of Islamic Spain, summoning the memory of the powerful Cordoban caliphate and the architectural wonders of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada to counter the later decline of the Arab world and its domination by Christian Europe. The similarities between Spain and Palestine are many: early conquest by Islam, followed by reconquest and settlement by Europeans, religious and ethnic discrimination, cultural and linguistic subjugation, alien rule and physical displacement. Similarities also exist between Palestine under Islamic rule and the Holy Land under Crusader rule, between 1099 and the fall of Acre at the end of the 13th century. But Islamic Palestine was never a political center or a cultural powerhouse. It was always a province ruled from elsewhere.

For Darwish, al-Andalus represents a lost ideal, a dream. He speaks, in a poem entitled “If I could choose again from the beginning,” of “paths that may or may not lead me to Cordoba.” But al-Andalus also has a more concrete and immediate reality in his poetry, standing in for Palestine: “All of my Andalus / is within your hands, so don’t leave a single string / for self-defense in the land of my Andalus.” Complaining of the failure of other Arab states to help the Palestinians, he writes, “My people betray my people / in wars defending salt. / But Granada is gold, / silken words embroidered with almonds, / tears of silvery glitter on lute strings.” And he continues, “Granada is a law unto herself, / proudly becomes whatever she wishes … If someone loses a gazelle in green meadows / he screams, ‘Granada is my land. That’s where I’m from.’ ”

In “The last evening in this land,” he writes, “Enter, O invaders, come, enter our houses, / drink the sweet wine of our Andalusian songs!” Here he draws on the image, made famous for American readers in the 19th century by Washington Irving, of the fall of Granada and the lonely ride into exile in North Africa of its last king, Boabdil, to illustrate the parallel with the exile of the Palestinians. The connection is made more exact still by the insertion, elsewhere in the same sequence, of another detail: “the keys belong to me, as well as the minarets and lamps”; “Castile raises her crown above Allah’s minaret. / I hear the jangling of keys / in our golden history’s doorway / Goodbye to our history / Who’ll close the last door to heaven?” The lines recall the stories of descendants of Muslims who, exiled from Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492, like Palestinians exiled in 1948, still possess the keys to the houses from which they were evicted, hopeful one day to return and reclaim them.

Two notable works speak to Darwish’s experience of being under Israeli military siege. The first, “Dhakira lil-Nisyan” (“Memory for Forgetfulness”), written in a 90-day spurt in Paris in 1985, is a prose poem in the form of a diary entry for a long day—symbolically chosen as August 6, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima—during the Israeli bombardment of Beirut in 1982. It opens with a striking image of the dawn: “Daybreak riding on fire.” This could almost be the prophet Ezekiel. But Darwish devotes much more space to the intensity of his desire for a cup of coffee and to the difficulty of staying alive long enough to make one, under a barrage of shelling and without access to water: “One second is not long enough to light a match. But one second is long enough for me to burn.”

The work succeeds, less perhaps as poetry than as documentary. Darwish expresses bitterness, not just over the plight of the Palestinians in the besieged city but also over the reaction, or lack of it, of the Palestinians’ fellow Arabs and their leaders:

I didn’t rejoice over the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, which continue to rob us of all our roles. … Is there anything more cruel than this absence: that you should not be the one to celebrate your victory or the one to lament your defeat? That you should stay offstage and not make an entrance except as a subject for others to take up and interpret. … Scores of Hebrew poems, but no Arabic poems, address the siege of Beirut and protest the massacre. From them the sin, and from them the forgiveness. From them the killing, and the tears. From them the massacres, and the justice of the courts.

The second work, “Halat Hisar” (“State of Siege”), is a series of short poems written shortly before the Israeli assault on Ramallah in 2002, when life in the city was already constrained and unnatural. These poems are far more direct than the earlier work, reflect emotions of the time more sharply, and are in consequence sometimes more rugged, coarser, in their expression and their message. “In siege, life becomes the time / between remembering life’s beginning / and forgetting its end …” The Holocaust, rarely mentioned in Darwish’s poetry, is brought up against the Zionist occupier: “(To a killer): If you had contemplated the victim’s face / and thought / you would have remembered your mother in the gas / chamber, you would have freed yourself from the rifle’s wisdom / and changed your mind: this isn’t how identity is reclaimed.” He reminds us yet again of the lack of help from other Arabs, again in accusatory mode: “Alone, we are alone to the dregs, / but for the visits of the rainbow.” The work ends with a chorus of 16 powerful stanzas all beginning with the word salam (“peace”):

“Peace is two enemies longing, each separately, / to yawn on boredom’s sidewalk,” culminating in, “Peace is the lament of a young man whose heart a woman’s beauty / mark has pierced, not a bullet or a bomb / Peace is the singing of life here, in life, / on the string of an ear of wheat.”

Darwish’s attitude toward Israel was complex— political, but also intensely personal, the product of his own experience of the conflict with Israel over more than six decades, including the process of exile and, later, of different periods and changes in the character of the struggle. He was more militant in his youth, but he became more willing to accept compromise later in his life. He was clear about his desire for a state for the Palestinians, for redress for their wrongs and compensation for their sufferings, but he also came to be clear that the state of Israel was a fact and could not be undone. He accepted the notion of a two-state solution, ideally emerging via negotiations, not violence. Darwish’s experience of the dreadfulness of violence and destruction fed not only into his poetry but also into his understanding of what violence meant for a future necessarily shared between today’s occupier and today’s occupied. Nevertheless, he was clear that the Palestinian state should not come as a favor granted by Israel; talks should be tough and realistic, between equals, the implication being that violence might be a necessary step along the way to the negotiating table.

Palestinian and Israeli poets have much in common. They are attached to the same land; they often use similar images of it in their writing; their shared history in it is reflected in what they write. Yet they do not read each other very much, in part for political reasons, in part, too, for personal ones: frequently they cannot read each other’s language, though more Palestinian poets read Hebrew than Israeli ones read Arabic.

Having grown up in Israel and received an Israeli education, Darwish knew Hebrew well. The language was not simply a tool for Darwish; Hebrew, as he often said, was part of him: not merely its words, but also its texts—ancient, like the Bible, and modern, like the verses of Yehuda Amichai. In a 1996 interview with an Israeli literary journalist, Darwish said that Hebrew “opened the door to European literature. I read Lorca in [Hebrew] and Nazim Hikmet, the Greek tragedies … [I]t is also the language of my childhood memories.”

Nonetheless Darwish was not a normal bilingual—as he said in the same interview, he learned Hebrew only when he was 10 or 11. Hebrew was, he said, “not the language of the conqueror, because I spoke it as a language of love.” And yet, those to whom he spoke it—whether policeman, teacher, military governor, or lover—all enjoyed different sorts of authority over him. They all represent the Jewish state, while he is the Arab subject; and the Jewish lover represents at the same time a lost idyll and a dominating figure in his life.

In the work of this most political of poets, the Israeli is present—as soldier, as governor, as unseen bureaucrat, as first love, as woman more generally—but is faceless and silent. Darwish’s Israelis appear stereotyped. Because he stereotypes little else, it is tempting to see this as an instance of politics trumping art. Darwish’s departure from Israel in 1970, when he was still under 30, and the few visits he paid to that country thereafter, probably have something to do with this too, but, especially given his political views throughout his life, a puzzle remains. Should we see his portrayals of Israelis as a deliberate device, anonymity distancing the enemy so as to avoid having to give him too real, and hence variable and human, a character? Certainly it is unusual to find names in his verse, and the one Israeli woman’s name that we do find, Rita (in reference to his lover), was anything but common in his generation.

Darwish was not just an Arab, not just a Palestinian, but also a Muslim. In the past two decades the connection between Islam and Palestinian identity has become far tighter, visible most strongly in the emergence of Hamas as a leading voice of the Palestinians. Although Darwish was not religious, he knew the Qur’an well, respected religion, and used religious themes frequently in his work. (Darwish refers often to Jesus and to the New Testament, as well as to the Old Testament and the Qur’an.) But he clung to the older ideal of a secular Palestinian state and protested at the violence that pitted Hamas against the more secular-minded supporters of the Palestinian Authority, both because of the damage done to Palestinian unity and because of his own deep commitment to the openness and freedoms promised by secularism.

One of his poems, “I am Joseph, O my father,” set to music and sung by Marcel Khalife, the well-known Christian Lebanese oud player and supporter of the Palestinian cause, aroused the anger of the Islamic religious authorities in Lebanon. They charged the singer on two occasions with blasphemy and publicly insulting religion because of the Qur’anic quotation at the end (“My father, I have seen eleven stars, and the sun and the moon, I saw them bowing down before me”—as in so many of Darwish’s poems, the allusion is to the Palestinians, personified in Joseph, persecuted by his brothers). Quoting from the Qur’an is, of course, permissible, but singing Qur’anic passages is considered by many religious Muslims to be blasphemy. On the first occasion the charges were dropped following intervention by Lebanon’s then–prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri; on the second the singer was found innocent. It did not help the prosecution’s case that Iranian revolutionaries, equally religious Muslims, had included verses from the Qur’an in their songs since before the fall of the shah. Darwish, who was not directly implicated in the case, spoke out against the trial. “Fundamentalism,” he said, “is stifling culture and creation in the Arab world.”

Darwish is preeminently the poet of Palestine—Yasser Arafat called him “the prince of poets,” with clear reference to his national status—but for him that did not mean grand pictures of popular monuments or descriptions of heroic battles. He was always a poet of the daily, humdrum facets of Palestinian life. Darwish’s poetry dwells lovingly on the commonplace. He builds his subjects and images out of the simplest elements—clouds, sky, the color white, birds, wings, butterflies, dreams, memory and forgetting, yesterday and tomorrow, a person’s name, coffee.

The trivial details help to explain Darwish’s popularity as a poet. In speaking to the national concerns of his people he described their lives for them, not just by chronicling political disaster and humiliation, but also by recording (we recall that initial word “Record!”) the pettiest aspects of their day-to-day existence. Yet though he devoted his art to his people and their struggle, he had no illusions that poetry could change things. In a poem published five years before his death he wrote, “What will remain of the Arab poet’s speech? / A chasm … and a thread of smoke.”

Watch Mahmoud Darwish read his poetry

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