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Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s Greatest Poet, Dies

Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish, the greatest living Palestinian poet, died after open heart surgery in Houston.  He was 67, a heavy smoker, and had previously undergone similar surgeries in 1984 and 1998.  He had a near death experience during his last operation.  His loss is a deep and severe blow to all who loved his magnificent poetry and the example of humanity and decency he represented.  I join the Palestinian people in their sadness.

For those who may not be aware of Darwish’s role in Palestinian culture and society but who may know something of Israeli society, the nearest poet I can think of in stature would have been Yehuda Amichai.  And though the two came from different cultures, the roles they played as progressive voices of conscience and poets of their respective nations are quite comparable.  In the U.S., you might have to go back to either Robert Frost or Ezra Pound to find someone of comparable stature.

One of the supreme ironies of Darwish’s career is that he should be considered a quintessentially Israeli poet, since he was born and raised there.  In fact, the poet’s obsession with home, land, forced exile and national suffering are the same exact themes of some of Israel’s greatest poets.  Chaim Nachman Bialik comes immediately to mind.  Were Israel a country of all its citizens, Darwish would be a national poet not only of the Palestinians, but of Israelis as well.  When Yossi Sarid suggested in 2000 that the poet’s work be included in the national education curriculum, prime minister Barak said it was “too soon.”  This exemplifies how far Israel has to go before it encompasses all its ethnic communities.
The Butterfly's Burden
It is sad that Darwish will not be buried in his native village as Haaretz reported initially.  He will be given instead a state funeral in Ramallah where a monument will honor him.

Darwish was born in the upper Galilee village of Birweh in 1941.  In 1948, Israel occupied (and eventually razed) his village and his former landowning family was forced to flee to Lebanon.  A moshav called Amihud replaced Birweh in 1950.  The move to Lebanon was the first of many such exiles for this poet of dislocation and uprootedness.  His family eventually returned to Israel and settled once again in a village near Acre called Deir al-Asad.  After graduating from high school, he moved to Haifa.

He published his first book of poetry, Wingless Birds, at age 19.  The following year he turned to journalism, joined the Israeli Communist Party (Rakah) and became editor of its newspaper, Al-Ittihad.

During this period he published Identity Card, one of his most famous early poems:

Record!
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?

Record!
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?

Record!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew

My father.. descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!

Record!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Therefore!
Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware..
Beware..
Of my hunger
And my anger!

Ethan Bronner’s NY Times obituary describes Darwish’s poetic style:

…While he wrote in classical Arabic rather than in the language of the street, his poetry was anything but florid or baroque, employing a directness and heat that many saw as one of the salvations of modern literary Arabic.

“He used high language to talk about daily life in a truly exceptional way,” said Ghassan Zaqtan, a Palestinian poet and a close friend. “This is someone who remained at the top of Arabic poetry for 40 years. It was not simply about politics.”

In the mid-1960s he joined Al Ard, an Arab nationalist movement founded by rebellious young Israeli Arab intellectuals devoted to the teachings of Gamel Nasser. The movement rejected the traditional Arab politics of the Communist party in favor of a more authentically nationalist politics. Israeli intelligence saw Al-Ard as a serious threat and when it put forward a list for the 1965 Knesset, the party was banned. The Shin Bet waged a war of persecution against Al Ard, a campaign it continues to this day against similarly nationalist Israeli Arab groups. Darwish was regularly imprisoned or placed under house arrest, experiences which also informed his poetry. Several members including the poet eventually went into exile.

In 1970, Darwish spent a year of study in Moscow and the following year he left Israel for good, moving first to Cairo to write for Al-Ahram.  In 1973, he moved to Beirut where he became active in the PLO.  In 1987, he was elected to the PLO executive committee, but resigned six years later in protest against the Oslo Accords.

A Progressive Magazine profile (2002) describes his political beliefs:

Darwish says that real peace means [Arabs and Jews] being equal with[in] the Israeli society, and that the Palestinian people should have the right to return, that the question of the refugees, of Jerusalem, of the settlements should be resolved, and of course, Palestinians must have the right to self-determination.

In 1995, the poet returned to Israel for the first time for the funeral of a friend.  But he was not allowed to visit his hometown for more than a few days:

He still longs to go home, “although I might realize that the harshest exile is in my homeland,” he says. Thus, Darwish remains a stranger passing through.

Israel did allow him to return to the Occupied Territories and he moved to Ramallah. But he only rented a house and even there felt in exile.

Darwish supported a two-state solution (Bronner typically writes, “he said he fully supported a two-state solution” as if the reporter didn’t believe him) and rejects Palestinian terror. But he understands that the motivation for such a heinous act springs from the desperation of Palestinian life under Occupation:

Darwish insists that terror is not a means to justice. “Nothing, nothing justifies terrorism,” he wrote, condemning the September 11 attack on the United States in the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam.

Concerning the current situation, he tells me: “We should not justify suicide bombers. We are against the suicide bombers, but we must understand what drives these young people to such actions. They want to liberate themselves from such a dark life. It is not ideological, it is despair.”

… I ask whether a Palestinian state will exist. In a firm voice he tells me, “A Palestinian state already exists.” He adds, “The Palestinian people feel that they are living the hours before dawn. Their national will is stronger in reaction to the challenge. They do not have another option but to continue to carry the hope that they are going to have a normal life.”

He says there is a simple solution that only seems complicated and that the two sides can resolve the questions of the borders and all the other issues under negotiation. He repeats a number of times, “There is hope.”

Darwish believed at one time in poetry as an agent for social change. But he now has a more chastened view and believes itq can only change the poet and as we say during the seder: dayeinu (“and it sufficed for us”):

On many occasions he has expressed the notion that only poetry can bring harmony to a world devastated by war: “Against barbarity, poetry can resist only by confirming its attachment to human fragility like a blade of grass growing on a wall while armies march by,” he has written. I ask him if he still believes that.

“I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe,” he responds, “but now I think that poetry changes only the poet.”


One of Darwish’s most productive artistic collaborations was with the Lebanese oud-player, Marcel Khalife.  He composed music for many of the poems and recorded an entire record devoted to Darwish.  Among the most tender (listen as the singer repeats the plaintive words “Umi, Umi”), touching, and heartbreaking is My Mother (hear it), whose lyrics are:

I long for my mother’s bread
My mother’s coffee
Her touch
Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day
I must be worth my life
At the hour of my death
Worth the tears of my mother.

And if I come back one day
Take me as a veil to your eyelashes
Cover my bones with the grass
Blessed by your footsteps
Bind us together
With a lock of your hair
With a thread that trails from the back of your dress
I might become immortal
Become a God
If I touch the depths of your heart.

If I come back
Use me as wood to feed your fire
As the clothesline on the roof of your house
Without your blessing
I am too weak to stand.

I am old
Give me back the star maps of childhood
So that I
Along with the swallows
Can chart the path
Back to your waiting nest.

In 2001, Darwish received the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom.  It is a pity that he now has no opportunity to win the Nobel Prize he deserved.

Last year, he returned to Israel for what turned out to be the last time and gave a reading of his poetry.  The YouTube video above is one of the multi-part videos from that reading. It has been uploaded to the site in approximately 12 parts. AFP describes the event:

In July 2007, Darwish decried the Islamist Hamas movement’s bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip a month earlier in his first poetry recital in Israel since quitting the Jewish state in 1970.

“We woke up from a coma to see a monocolored flag (of Hamas) do away with the four-color flag (of Palestine),” Darwish said before some 2,000 people who attended the reading in the northern port city of Haifa.

“We have triumphed,” he said with thick irony. “Gaza won its independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two prisons who don’t greet each other. We are victims dressed in executioners’ clothing.”

“We have triumphed knowing that it is the occupier who really won.”

I would’ve given much to have attended.  I never heard Darwish read his poetry and it is something I will always regret.

A condensed version of this post has been published at Comment is Free.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • ellen August 10, 2008, 4:21 AM

    sorry to hear this.
    a great loss.

  • Rupa Shah August 10, 2008, 7:13 AM

    It is a very sad day for the Palestinian people and for those who support their cause. It feels like the day when Prof Said passed away.
    Sadder still is the fact, he was sort of in exile in his homeland then he had to pass away on foreign soil!

  • Michael Weis August 10, 2008, 7:23 AM

    Wasn’t Prof. Edward Said from a wealthy Egyptian family?

  • Sally Bahous August 10, 2008, 2:59 PM

    we hope, with the swallows, he has found his way home to his waiting nest.

  • Richard Silverstein August 10, 2008, 11:29 PM

    @Michael Weis: Well, that’s the claim of the Palestine haters who try to denigrate his claim to being Palestinian. So if you’re Daniel Pipes or someone of that ilk I guess the answer is yes. But if you’re anyone reasonable, the answer is no:

    Saïd was born in Jerusalem (then in the British Mandate of Palestine) on November 1, 1935. His father was a wealthy Protestant Palestinian businessman and an American citizen who had served under General Pershing in World War I, while his mother was born in Nazareth, also of Christian Palestinian descent.
    Wikipedia

    His family fled to Egypt after his Jerusalem neighborhood was occupied by Jewish militia during the 1948 war.

  • misspoem August 11, 2008, 4:48 AM

    the loss of Mahmud Darweesh is not less than the loss of palestine. He was and still a great palestinian symbol that would not ever die…

    P.S. Edward Said is a palestinian christian thinker, though he lived in Egypt.

  • Ms. Tee August 12, 2008, 5:41 AM

    Mahmoud Darwish had a good relationship with the Hebrew language and Hebrew literature. He liked Amichai’s poetry and kept in touch with Israeli friends, such as Yitzhak Laor. All in keeping with his ability to transcend boundaries and emphasize his political identity all in one stroke. There is a good comprehensive obituary in The Guardian.

    A great loss, indeed. But his contributions to poetry in general and to Palestine in particular will live on for a long time.

  • Abhilash August 18, 2008, 11:32 PM

    Its very sad news. I was reading an article abt him (and translation of some of his poems) in a malayalam weekly, (kerala, India) MY Mother is really a touching one, and was searching over the web to get more info on him. Its realy heartbreaking to know he passed away. Oh man! how that can be? am really really sad!

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