Mahmoud Darwish: “We sow hope”

August 15, 2008

Snehal Shingavi gives tribute to Mahmoud Darwish, a poet who gave voice to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

MAHMOUD DARWISH--a Palestinian poet who could consistently sell out football stadiums for his poetry recitals--passed away on August 9, 2008, in a hospital in Houston, Texas, after complications from heart surgery. His death was commemorated by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians when his body was moved to Ramallah a few days later.

Darwish was probably the second most recognized Palestinian figure behind Yasser Arafat, and perhaps the poet most commonly associated with the cause of Palestinian self-determination. The reason for his enormous reputation was not only the wonderful quality of his stunning verse, but also his unflinching commitment to the idea that Palestinians had a right to return to their homes, homes from which they were expelled in order for the state of Israel to be founded.

Darwish was born on March 13, 1942, in al-Birweh, a village near Acre. In 1948, when the state of Israel was established and more than 400 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground as part of the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under Plan Dalet, al-Birweh was erased from the map.

Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008
Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008

His family was forced to flee to Lebanon where he joined the ranks of the enormous refugee population. Darwish recorded the experience of this flight in his recent collection of poetry, Why Have You Left the Horse Alone?

Later, his family would sneak back into Israel, where Darwish spent the majority of his childhood as part of the population of "present absentees," the nebulous legal category given to Palestinians in Israel who had no legal standing to own property or participate in civic life but whose presence was indisputable.

Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel, once famously said, "There are no Palestinians," implying that the idea that there was a Palestinian nation was a hopeless fiction. It was in response to official attitudes like these which refused to recognize the rights of Palestinians to return to their homes and the humiliating fact that Palestinians were required to carry identification at all times while living in Israel that Darwish penned his most famous poem, "Identity Card," (Bitaqit Hawiyya) in 1964.

I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?

I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks...
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

"Identity Card" appeared in Darwish's first collection of poetry, Leaves of Olives, and it launched his reputation as a poet of the Arab resistance to Zionism. Between 1964 and 1970, Darwish was imprisoned and put under house arrest several times for his political activism as well as for reading poetry from that collection as he traveled from village to village in Israel.

In 1961, Darwish joined Rakah, the Israeli Communist Party, and traveled to the Soviet Union in 1970--a trip that made it impossible for him to return to Israel. (He was, incidentally, not allowed to return to Israel until 1996, to attend the funeral of his friend, the writer Emile Habiby).

He first went to Cairo, where he briefly wrote for Al-Ahram, before settling in Lebanon and joined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Beirut in 1973. His experience as a refugee in exile would inspire numerous collections of poetry: I love you, I love you not (1972), Ode to Beirut (1982), Splinters of Bone (1974) and Victims of a Map (1984).

He lived in Beirut until 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and drove the PLO and thousands of Palestinians from the country. Darwish's experience of that period are recounted in his haunting memoirs, Memory for Forgetfulness (1995), and his remarkable long poem, A Eulogy for the Tall Shadow (1983) which recounts the heroism of the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli invasion.

AFTER LEBANON, Darwish spent time in Cyprus, Lebanon, France and Tunisia, before returning to Ramallah in the West Bank in the 1990s. During that period, Darwish was a member of the executive committee of the PLO, a position from which he resigned in 1993 in disgust with the compromises made by the leadership of the PLO during the Oslo Accords.

In 2002, Ramallah was heavily bombarded by Israeli forces who were hoping to use the attacks on the city to crush the second Intifada. Darwish described the unfaltering resistance of the Palestinian population in his long poem "State of Siege":

Here, where the hills slope before the sunset and the chasm of time
near gardens whose shades have been cast aside
we do what prisoners do
we do what the jobless do
we sow hope

In a land where the dawn sears
we have become more doltish
and we stare at the moments of victory
there is no starry night in our nights of explosions
our enemies stay up late, they switch on the lights
in the intense darkness of this tunnel

Here after the poems of Job, we wait no more

This siege will persist until we teach our enemies
models of our finest poetry

It was, certainly, his political convictions that made Darwish popular. But his poetry revolutionized Arab poetry more generally, not only through formal innovations in the conventions of the lyric but in the range of materials that could be incorporated into Arab poetics.

But moreover, the one thing that set Darwish apart was his ability to unite an otherwise divided population. Palestinians have, since the creation of the state of Israel, been split into three categories: the Israeli Arabs (Palestinians inside of Israel); the Palestinians in the occupied territories and Gaza; and the Palestinians living in the ghurba (the Arabic word for diaspora). Darwish's poetry was unique in its ability to join the experiences of these various populations through the subtle and powerful oscillations between his descriptions of the land and his sensitivities to the experience of exile, displacement and dispossession.

With the death of Edward Said, George Habbash, and Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Darwish's death marks the last in a long list of Palestinians who contributed much to the cause of Palestinian self-determination. His poetry moved generations, inspired Arabs everywhere, and gave voice to the experience of the Palestinian people. His loss is felt not only in Palestine but in the hearts of those fighting for justice, lovers of the finest poetry, everywhere.

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