Given that this blog takes its name from a line of one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems – made even more famous by the fact it became the title of Edward Said’s famous memoir – it seems only appropriate to mark the passing of five years since Darwish’s death.
Alongside Said, Darwish must be one of the most famous Palestinians with an appeal that reached out across the Arab world and even managed to break into popular culture in Europe and the US. Born some seven years before the formation of the state of Israel, in al-Birwa in the western Galilee region, Darwish experienced some of the hardships of al-Nakbah (the disaster) himself.
Zionist forces destroyed his village and the family fled to Lebanon. However, unlike the majority of Palestinians who were cleansed from the land in 1948 the Darwish family returned the Acre in 1949, sneaking across the border. The family eventually moved to Deir al-Asad in the Galilee, but were not able to return to the land that they had lost which was now the site of two Israeli settlements.
Darwish earned an education in an Israeli school. But this be no means meant that the family, or indeed any of the Palestinian population in Israel at the time, were treated as equal citizens. In fact Israel maintained a strict policy of keeping its ‘Arab minority’ under military rule until 1986.
Darwish’s mother was illiterate, though he learned to read from his grandfather. According to one obituary, it had been his older brother that first encouraged him to begin writing. Though the young Darwish was exposed to other Arab poetry eventually, though it is interesting to note that initially most of the poetry he would have experienced would have been in Hebrew, either as original texts or translations.
In his youth Darwish endured imprisonment and harassment for his political activism. He became a member of the Israeli communist movement and his poetry appeared in its literary publications. However, in 1970 Darwish moved to Moscow – to attend university for one year – and then to Cairo, he spent the next quarter-century moving between Paris and Beirut, having joined the PLO in 1973 and becoming part of its Executive committee in 1987.
Darwish served in a number of senior positions in the PLO and wrote both Yasir Arafat’s famous speech to the UN in 1974, and the 1988 Palestinian declaration of independence. However, like many other major Palestinian intellectuals, he felt betrayed by the PLO’s embrace of the 1993 Oslo accords and resigned from the organisation.
Darwish as the poet has been called the “Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart.”
Though I am no poetry expert (!) it easy to see how the major themes in Darwish’s work can be understood prima facie as political commentary. Exile, longing and loss are all notions that are clearly associated with the conditions and experiences endured by millions of Palestinians since 1948. Other poems evoke anger and resistance against injustice. Similarly, gendered tropes that feminise the land of Palestine as something to be longed for, like one’s mother’s bread, are also evident.
But Darwish wasn’t only a political poet. As he explained in an interview in 2001, his concern was only to contribute to Palestinian national identity, but also to the broader project of the development of Arab poetry in general.
The fact that Darwish’s poetry was often seen to represent all Palestinians, and embraced particularly enthusiastically by some Western observers and activists – often with an all too superficial grasp on the realities that most Palestinians actually faced and continue to endure – I have found often frustrates many of the Palestinians who I’ve spoken to about him. On many occasions I’ve found that when raising the topic of Darwish with friends and colleagues, it is met with a sigh or rolled eyes.
It is of course possible that it is my understanding of his poetry – which admittedly has mostly been through reading it in translation – that frustrates my interlocutors. On the other hand it might be that it is because Darwish has become such a well-known icon for Palestinian identity that discussions of his work could be taken to be reductive, even insulting. (I can only imagine my reaction if it was repeatedly implied that my own identity could be reduced to the work or actions of a single figure from British history. Sufficed to say I would find it at least annoying; even without necessarily acknowledging the broader power dynamics and my own white privilege!). Either way, at this point my thoughts are merely speculative and thus no reasonably honest analysis can be taken further.
However, what I can say with certainty is that Darwish’s poetry means something to me. It may not be perfect, but I have always found reading it and listening to it – particularly in the author’s own hard, and sometimes rasping, baritone – a rewarding and moving experience. During my studies his work served and an introduction, or re-introduction – for me to several important parts of my life. The most obvious was that his poems helped me see, and come to terms with, a more complex picture of Palestinian identity (though I recognise that this was merely an introduction to a particular set of identities).
It also served as part of my studying Arabic, particularly as I spent many hours working with one of my tutors at Middlebury college on the correct pronunciation for his beautiful “On this earth” which I then got to read in front of a room of other scholars (who were thankfully very generous/forgiving!). But also, it was the experience of enjoying Darwish’s work – as something of a crossover between social science and the ‘real world’ – which also helped trigger a rebirth of my own interest in poetry and literature more generally. I am grateful for that, as it something that has been, sadly, left unattended for too long.
The following youtube video presents one of Darwish’s poems ‘The Dice Player’ with beautiful illustrations. If you don’t click on any of the other links in this post, this is well worth a few moments out of your day.