Mahmoud Darwish: The Expropriated Poet
To a reader: Do not trust the poem
The daughter of absence
It is neither intuition nor is it
But rather, the sense of the abyss…
(State of Siege)
Born Born on 13 March 1941 in Al Birweh, a quaint village in the Galilee, Mahmoud Darwish went on to live a life that is a poignant example of how far talent and determination, combined with a precarious life, can carry an individual from a simple background into the international halls of fame. At the early age of seven, Darwish and his family were forced to flee to Lebanon to escape the ongoing massacres by the Israeli Army as it occupied Palestine and, in the process, destroyed the poet’s village (in addition to over 400 other Palestinian villages). Returning “illegally” to their country the following year, he and his family were subjected to military rule and emergency regulations of the State of Israel established over expropriated Palestinian land. They were given the status of “present-absent alien,” a status that will mark the poet from that point onwards, preventing him from ever finding his homeland, except in his language and his ever-loving audience.
It was as early as 1950 that the poet first realized how the poem can be “a threat to the sword” as he was harassed by the Israeli military governor for writing and reciting poetry that expressed his strong sense of Arab and Palestinian identity. These “harassments” were to continue until 1970 when he left to Moscow and then to Egypt, to finally settle for a while in Beirut until the Israeli invasion in 1982. After Beirut he became a “wondering exile” in Arab capitals, settling in Paris for a while, then Amman, and finally Ramallah, moving a step closer to the home which he still cannot reach. The circle is not yet complete….
“There is no age sufficient for me
to pull my end to my beginning.”
His life in the exodus somehow helped to ignite the poetic flame within him and exile became one of the sources of his literary creation. However, despite his geographic separation from his homeland, Darwish continued over the years to disrupt the status quo in Israel through the medium of poetry. In 1988, his widely circulated militant poem “Passers by in Passing Words,” a poem that he does not think highly of in literary terms but that nevertheless was met with great acclaim amongst the Arab public, was cause for a great uproar in Israeli circles, both the right and left wing alike. A book in French entitled “Palestine Mon Pays: L’affaire du Poeme,” published by Les Editions de Minuit in 1988, documents some of the articles that were written in defence of Darwish and his poem. In a similar manner, but this time in March 2000, Yossi Sarid, then the minister of education in Israel, suggested the inclusion of Darwish’s poetry in the Israeli high school curriculum. This suggestion resulted in a very close no-confidence vote for the Barak government.
The year 2000 witnessed the publication of Darwish’s twentieth book of poetry, Mural, a masterpiece epic poem which synthesizes his experience and poetry spanning 36 years as he contemplated impending “eternity” in a hospital bed after having undergone life-threatening surgery in 1998. In addition, he has five books of prose, and his work has been translated into more than 22 languages.
His most recent translations in English, “Mahmoud Darwish: Adam of Two Edens” (Jusoor and Syracuse University Press, 2000) and “The Raven’s Ink: A Chapbook” (Lannan Foundation, 2001) include a host of Darwish’s most acclaimed poems written between 1984 and 1999. Even though “he is known the world over as the poet of Palestine,” as Margaret Obank says in her review of “The Adam of Two Edens,” Darwish’s poetry “has been published only sparingly in English.” These two volumes are an excellent introduction, in English, to this poet who is considered to be “indisputably among the greatest of our century’s poets.” (Carolyne Forche)
It is perhaps Darwish’s very special relationship to the Arabic language that has set him apart from other Arab poets of his time. Putting the political cause aside, a double-edged sword in the case of the poet’s literary career, Darwish has created a new zone in the Arabic language that he can call his own: he constructs his kingdom – homeland in language. Considered by one prominent Arab literary critics as “the saviour of the Arabic language,” Darwish manages to describe mundane events and uncover his (and his people’s) innermost feelings through words juxtaposed in the most idiosyncratic of contexts, creating fascinating new images. The symbols, metaphors, and style in his poetry are carefully chosen; yet at the same time they reflect an integrity and clairvoyance that are a unique characteristic of this writer. A number of his poems have even been called “prophetic.” With his artistic intuition and acute political common sense, he manages to see and read what very few people can. When that understanding finds its way into a poem, it gains a totally new significance to the readers, because it usually is an expression of what they fear most but are unable to utter.
This is true of his character even in politics. In 1993, when Darwish resigned from the PLO executive committee to protest the Oslo Accords, he could see at the time, as very few people within the PLO could, that there was a structural problem with the accord itself that would only pave the way for escalation. “I hoped I was wrong. I’m very sad that I was right.” (New York Times interview)
His relationship to language remains unsurpassed by any relationship he has with anyone or anything. Having a special talent for uncovering and creating the music in language, his poetry has been a fertile ground for musicians all over the Arab world to compose the most beautiful and popular of songs. The fact that his words translate so easily and splendidly into musical lyrics resulted in a wide array of beautiful songs that are as much a credit to the poet as they are to the musicians.
Choosing to spend most of his time during the recent Palestinian Intifada in Ramallah, under siege, Darwish wrote three extraordinary poems of resistance slightly reminiscent of his early poetry. “Mohammad,” “ The Sacrifice” and “A State of Siege” were published in newspapers in Palestine and the Arab world during 2001 – 2002. The last one, “A State of Siege,” is currently being published in a book in Arabic, to become Darwish’s 21st book of poetry. In this last poem, he describes the siege of Ramallah and the Palestinian land in profound images that invoke daily life in a vivid and multi-layered way:
A woman asked the cloud: please enfold my loved one
My clothes are soaked with his blood
If you shall not be rain, my love
Saturated with fertility, be trees
And if you shall not be trees, my love
Be a stone
Saturated with humidity, be a stone
And if you shall not be a stone, my love
Be a moon
In the loved one’s dream, be a moon
So said a woman to her son
In his funeral
He goes on to add:
During the siege, time becomes a space
That has hardened in its eternity
During the siege, space becomes a time
That is late for its yesterday and tomorrow
(A State of Siege)
Often called “the poet of the resistance,” and sometimes accused of writing in defence of Palestinian mainstream politics, Darwish still manages to constantly defy any strict definition of who and what he is or wants to be. He wrote the Palestinian declaration of independence in1988 and many poems of resistance that are an integral part of every Arab’s consciousness. But he also wrote a lot about love and death; he wrote poems that can be easily understood, and others that are so mystifying that many critics could not begin to decipher. In all this, he remains confident in his open and honest relationship to his readers. “When I move closer to pure poetry, Palestinians say go back to what you were. But I have learned from experience that I can take my reader with me if he trusts me. I can make my modernity, and I can play my games if I am sincere.” (New York Times interview) This intricate relationship with his ever-increasing audience is best described in this excerpt:
Whenever I search for myself I find the others
And when I search for them
I only find my alien self
So am I the individual- crowd?
Darwish is the recipient of many international literary awards including the Lotus prize in 1969, the Lenin prize in 1983, France’s highest medal as Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres in 1997, and the Moroccan Wissam of intellectual merit handed to him by King Mohammad VI of Morocco. In 2001, he won the Lannan prize for cultural freedom. This prize recognizes people whose extraordinary and courageous work celebrates the human right to freedom of imagination, inquiry, and expression. As defined by the foundation, cultural freedom is the right of individuals and communities to define and protect valued and diverse ways of life currently threatened by globalisation.
His reputation all over the world as a highly esteemed poet and individual is partly due to the fact that Mahmoud Darwish affirms an open conception of what being an Arab is. Arab, to him, is not an identity closed unto itself, but a pluralism totally open unto others. In his oeuvres, he dialogues with a group of cultures (Canaanite, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Persian, Egyptian, Arab, French, English, Ottoman, Native American) as well as with myths of the three monotheistic religions. These dialogues create multiple layers within the poem that may be difficult to appreciate unless the reader can develop a full understanding of the “I”s and the “others” of the text.
When Darwish gives a poetry reading anywhere in the Arab world, a rare event, he easily draws thousands of people from all walks of life and social classes. It is as if he has become a personal possession, a national treasure, for every Arab, regardless of age, education, background, nationality, or religion. Now in translation perhaps he will also be embraced elsewhere in the world. No poet has been expropriated as Mahmoud Darwish has been over the past thirty years. No one realizes this more than him:
And history makes fun of its victims
And its heroes
Takes a look at them and passes by
This sea is mine
This moist air is mine
And my name-
Even if I spell it wrong on the coffin –
As for me,
Now that I am filled with all the possible
Reasons for departure –
I am not mine.
I am not mine
I am not mine…