On August 9, an icon of
Palestinian poetry passed away, leaving behind a
legacy of passionate critique and humanist idealism
Mahmoud Darwish has become a larger than life voice of a larger than history political struggle – the struggle for a sovereign state of Palestine and the right of the Palestinian Arabs to return to their usurped land. His own life was intricately linked with his homeland, its losses and all the political tribulations it has had to undergo. He was born in Al-Birwa in 1941 and by June 1948 the town had witnessed Operation Dekel, an Israeli military campaign to cleanse the town of its Arab inhabitants. After the operation, only three houses, two shrines and one school were left intact. All the other buildings were destroyed. Most of the Arabs became refugees in other lands. Darwish’s family sought refuge in Lebanon but stayed there for only a year. The next year they sneaked back. Now they were internally displaced Palestinians and were called “present absent” people. Till 1966, all the non-Jewish persons in Israel were subject to martial law and existed as aporetic beings – they were in Israel only as bodies but not as officially existing residents/citizens. They even needed special permits to travel within the country. Mahmoud Darwish experienced all these forms of oppression firsthand and he turned to poetry as a form of political resistance. Like other non-Jewish persons, Darwish was paperless and, because of his defiant words and politics, he was often imprisoned. He kept on honing his words as if they were weapons and the Arab world welcomed his words as revolutionary chants.
His poem “Identity Card,” written in 1964, shows Darwish’s frustration with the bureaucratic nightmares, with the condition of existing and non-existing, in Isreal and there are echoes of the Fanonian violence of the colonised:
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?!
Record on the top of the first
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper's flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger!
By 1971, Darwish had moved to Cairo and started working for Al-Ahram. By 1973, he had joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation and by 1984 he was the editor of the journal Palestinian Affairs and the director of the Palestine Research Centre in Beirut. At this moment in his life, as he joined the Executive Committee of the PLO, the highest political authority of Palestine, he was at the peak of his creative output. In 1985, he barred himself in an apartment in Paris for three months and wrote an entire book, The Memory of Forgetfulness, describing a single day (August 6, 1982) of the siege of Beirut. On the 6th of August, Israel had unleashed a “scorched earth” war strategy in West Beirut. The sea, the air, and the earth seemed on fire. The book describes the horrendous details with a feverish intensity of the imagination of a survivor:
“Two hours ago I went to sleep. I plugged my ears with cotton and went to sleep after hearing the last newscast. It didn’t report I was dead. That means I’m still alive. I examine the parts of my body and find them all there. Two eyes, two ears, a long nose, ten toes below, ten fingers above, a finger in the middle.”
The Memory of Forgetfulness was hailed as a unique document in Arab literature: part memoir, part poetry, part fictional narration, yet all emotionally, politically and historically true about the effects of the blitz on Beirut on the Arab world and sheer psychological resilience needed to survive and maintain an ordinary, everyday life. Banality became heroic. The book displayed, with a disturbing acuteness, how brave the Palestinians were in the maintenance of their apparently humdrum lives. As the bombs are raining on Beirut, the protagonist is only trying to concentrate on his first cup of coffee for the day, perhaps to continue his simulation of normalcy:
“I want the aroma of coffee. I want nothing more than the aroma of coffee. And I want nothing more from the passing days than the aroma of coffee. The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being.”
This desire for a peaceful, normal life – for the entire Palestinian people – fuelled his work throughout his life. Though often angry, always resilient, and frequently subversive, he wanted peace for both Palestinians and Israelis and a sovereign identity for his homeland. He was for the two-state solution of the Palestine question but, like Edward Said, Darwish was against the Oslo accords because there was too much at stake for the people of Palestine and there were no clear guarantees provided by the agreement. As a sign of his disagreement with the Oslo accords, he gave up his membership of the PLO.
At the time he gave up his PLO membership, he was also trying to grapple with the issue of his own identity as a poet and the kind of relationship he wanted with his readers. He had turned Palestine into a metaphor, a trope, for existence in exile but he did not approve of the infighting between Hamas and Al-Fatah. He did not think militancy was going to solve any problems even though his poetry sometimes evinced sympathy for those who resort to violence in moments of despair. The clearest and unequivocal statement from him against terrorism came after September 11, 2001: “nothing, nothing justifies terrorism.” Still, he said, he could understand how despair can contribute to the making of a suicide bomber.
By 2003, Darwish had shifted his focus from the specific problem of Palestine to the general problem of imperialistic occupation. Now Iraq and other Muslim lands were also under occupation. He tried to corrode the monolith of imperial hubris with his defiant words by writing against the invasion of Iraq.
I remember as-Sayyab screaming into the Gulf in vain:
Iraq, Iraq. Nothing but Iraq.
And nothing but an echo replies
I remember as-Sayyab, in that Sumerian space
A woman triumphed over the sterility of mist
She bequeathed to us earth and exile . . .
For poetry is born in Iraq,
So be Iraqi to become a poet, my friend.
This poet of myriad metaphors of resistance, who infused a new poetic intensity into the critique of imperialism and occupation, has left his readers last week for ever. But his more than twenty books translated in all the major languages of the world are going to inspire the wretched of the earth for decades to come. The question of Palestine will remain alive as long as the words of Mahmoud Darwish are available to his readers..
All that remains of Al-Birwa, the birthplace of Darwish.
Don’t apologize for what you’ve done…
By Mahmoud Darwish
Don’t apologize for what
you’ve done - I’m saying this
in secret. I say to my personal
Here all of your memories
Midday ennui in a cat’s
the cock’s comb,
a scent of sage,
a straw mat with pillows,
the iron door to your room,
a fly buzzing around Socrates,
the cloud above Plato,
your three brothers and three
your childhood friends -
and a klatch of meddlers:
“Is that him?”
The witnesses disagree:
“It seems to be.”
“And who is he?”
I get no answer.
I whisper to my other:
“Is he the one that was
you… that was me?”
He looks away.
The witnesses turn to my
mother to confirm
he is me and
she readies herself to sing
her unique song:
“I’m the one who bore him,
but the wind brought him up.”
And I say to my other: “Don’t
apologize, except to your mother.”
Published in The News on Sunday
dated August 17, 2008