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Mahmoud Darwish and the Loss of Palestine
By Issa Boullata
Mahmoud Darwish has been writing poetry since his teenage years, more than 40 years ago. His first collection of poems was “Asafir bila Ajniha” (Birds Without Wings), published in 1960. He is a prolific and appealing writer with 20 books of poems to his name and is arguably the most popular Palestinian poet in the Arab world today. He is also well known in the West through many translations and, in April 2002 in Philadelphia, he was awarded the 2001 Lannan Foundation “Prize for Cultural Freedom,” established in 1999 to recognize individuals whose extraordinary and courageous work celebrates the human right to freedom of imagination, inquiry, and expression.
Reading his “Diwan,” the volume collecting all his books of poems, one is immediately struck by the passionate love that figures as a main theme. Sometimes it is a love for a woman, named or unnamed, real or imagined, but mostly it is love for his homeland, Palestine, even if he often symbolizes it with a beloved woman. Palestine lives in Darwish’s poetry, animating the majority of his poems, but poetry is also his homeland, and in it he lives every meaningful detail of Palestine in reality and in memory. Knowing the extremely high political and cultural importance of Palestine for all Arabs, and their innate susceptibility to an enchanting style like his, one can easily understand Darwish’s great appeal and popularity in the Arab world today.
Darwish was born in al-Birwa, a little village east of Acre in the north of Palestine, in 1942. When Israel was established in 1948, he and his family were forced to leave his village and take refuge in Lebanon; al-Birwa was literally razed to the ground. A year later, he slipped back to his homeland and grew up elsewhere in Israel, becoming proficient in Hebrew as well as his native Arabic. After finishing high school in 1960, he worked as a journalist in Haifa. He was jailed and put under house arrest many times by the Israeli authorities for his poetry and other writings, and for his leftist political activities. He finally left Israel in 1971, lived in exile in Cairo, Beirut, and Tunis in turn, then Paris. In 1995 he moved to Amman and in 1996 to the truncated rump of Palestine known as the West Bank. In Ramallah, he resumed editing Al Karmil, the quarterly literary journal he had edited in Beirut and Paris.
The trauma of losing his home as a child and therefore growing up in Israel as a stranger in his own homeland was the single most influential force in his life, with the deepest effect on his personality; all his poetry and other writings reflect this wound. In Israel, he wrote poems about the victimization of his fellow Palestinians and about their resistance to the sundry injustices they were subjected to by the Israeli authorities. However, after leaving Israel and living in the Arab world, he became disenchanted with the Arab regimes because of their undemocratic practices and their virtual inaction on the Palestinian cause.
His belief that Palestine was his only homeland became stronger, and he knew it was the only homeland he could ever have. But the Palestine of his childhood and of his ideals was gone. Large sections of Palestine were transformed into Israel in 1948 and have been that way ever since. Other areas have a more tumultuous history: they were annexed to the Kingdom of Jordan as the West Bank, or administered by Egypt in the Gaza Strip, then occupied by Israel in 1967 and used to establish new Israeli settlements; and after the Oslo Accords in 1993 some came under the Palestinian Authority of Chairman Yasser Arafat, only to be virtually re-occupied by Israel later and used to establish additional Israeli settlements. All are far from the free homeland he wanted for his people. Hence his struggle for the ideal homeland persistently projected itself onto his poetry, and he became a national icon by being the most eloquent poet to express the hopes of the Palestinian and Arab masses everywhere, who were frustrated by the long-lasting political deadlock and inaction regarding Palestine, and by the perverse indifference of the world at large to the injustice and sufferings sustained by the Palestinians.
In a poem titled “Rihlat al-Mutanabbi ila Misr” (al-Mutanabbi’s Trip to Egypt) in his collection “Hisar li Mada’in al-Bahr” (Siege of Cities of the Sea) published in Tunis in 1984, Darwish says:
My homeland is my newest poem.
The poet fully identifies homeland with his poetry: his newest poem is the homeland in which he lives. His real homeland, of course, is Palestine, historically speaking; but as long as he continues to write poetry, his homeland exists in every new poem he writes. Even if one suggests that his homeland has been taken away from him, he responds by writing another poem, thus regaining his homeland, invoking the memory of it that his enemy wants to obliterate. Memory preserves identity and all the cultural and historical realities associated with the homeland and inherited from the ancestors, including one’s language, values, and ideals.
In a long poem entitled “Ma’sat al-Narjis wa Malhat al-Fidda” (The Tragedy of Narcissus and the Comedy of Silver), first published in London in 1989, Darwish says:
One’s homeland is inherited like one’s language.
He repeats this idea three more times in the poem. The homeland is not only where you are born and raised, but it is born in you the moment you come into being. It lives in you, and it is part of your cultural inheritance handed down to you from your ancestors. It is inherently part of you: you cannot be conceived as separate from it, and when you express yourself, you even express yourself through its manifestations, very much as you express yourself in your native language. Your homeland, Darwish says, is inherited like your language.
At one point in this long poem, Darwish explains:
Our homeland is that it be our homeland
And our homeland is that we be its homeland,
It is that we be its plants and birds,
and its inanimate things.
Our homeland is our birth,
Our children, our hearts
walking on the thorns of the
aspalathus and on the down of the grouse.
And our homeland is that we fence
its fire and ashes with violets.
It is that we be its homeland,
It is that we be its homeland.
It is a paradise
Or an ordeal:
Both are alike.
In his 1970 collection, “Habibati Tanhadu min Nawmiha” (My Sweetheart Rises from Her Sleep), he—while still in Israel and probably with primarily Palestinians in Israel in mind —says the following in one of its poems addressed to Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan of Nablus in the West Bank:
We are in no need of memory:
For Mount Carmel is in us
And the grass of Galilee is on our eyelashes.
Don’t say, “We wish we could run to it like a river.”
We are in the flesh of my homeland... It is in us!
And yet, when he left Israel in 1971 and felt the pangs of yearning for his homeland, he wrote:
My homeland is far.
Like vapor, its soil has passed off
Into my innermost being.
I don’t see it.
The physical aspects of the homeland are important in keeping the fire of love for it burning. When the homeland is physically far, the poet has to depend on memory to keep this love alive in him, as well as in all the Palestinians who were forcibly chased out of it. Without memory, any human love will wither and die; likewise any culture inherited from the forefathers must be bequeathed to the upcoming offspring. Mahmoud Darwish and all the Palestinians understandably reject the loss of Palestine because it is so deeply felt as a loss of their community and their rightful share of life, both of which they had sustained in their country for centuries before the loss. They feel that Palestine should continue to live in their hearts and memories. Hence, in Darwish’s poetry, love for Palestine is constantly reinforced by memories of the past and by continual reminders of the physical aspects of the homeland—its lakes and rivers, its mountains and plains, its sea and shores, its fauna and flora, its olives and oranges, its trees and birds, its folk and folklore.
Darwish also strengthens these memories by recalling stories of ordinary Palestinian people he knew, who loved the homeland and suffered and died for it, or of Palestinian activists who likewise met their fate in the service of the homeland. The Palestinian man who decides to return to Jaffa rather than remaining an exiled refugee is then put to death. The Palestinian soldier who returns home from war to his wedding, dies in an enemy air raid. Izz al-Din Qalaq, who represented Palestine in Paris, was assassinated, and Majid Abu Sharar likewise was killed in Rome. And Darwish mentions several other real events and persons in his poems; they are all points of reference for this great love for Palestine and the great hope of regaining it. The love of Palestine in his poetry is also reinforced by the memory of those Palestinians who died innocently in specific massacres, such as the one perpetrated by the Israeli army in 1956 at Kafr Qasim in Israel, or the one by the Phalangists in 1976 at Tall al-Zatar refugee camp in Lebanon. Memory and the homeland are inseparable twins for Darwish and this is one reason his poetry becomes his homeland.
It is clear from this brief survey that poetry as homeland for Mahmoud Darwish does not only mean that he writes poetry so that he may live in its emotional atmosphere as though he were in his homeland. Poetry for him is actually a bridge to regaining his real homeland by committing himself and his readers to a vision of restoring Palestine and removing all injustice done to the Palestinians. He personally believes that Israel as a nation and a state should be recognized and allowed to live in peace; but he also believes that Palestine as a nation and a state should be equally recognized and allowed to live in peace.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 44 (Summer 2003)