By Richard Silverstein
Mahmoud Darwish, the greatest Palestinian poet of his generation, died last Saturday after open heart surgery in Houston. His loss is a deep and severe blow to all who loved his magnificent poetry and the example of humanity and decency he represented.
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 although the two came from different cultures, the roles they played as progressive voices of conscience and poets of their respective nations are comparable. In the US, 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 Ehud Barak said it was "too soon." This exemplifies how far Israel has to go before it encompasses all its ethnic communities.
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 Ramallahwhere a monument will honour him.
Darwish was born in the upper Galilee village of Birweh in 1941. In 1948 Israel occupied (and eventually razed) his village and his 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 named 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.
Ethan Bronner‘s New York 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 of the group, including the poet, eventually went into exile.
In 1970, Darwish spent a year studying 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 from 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.
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 rejected Palestinian terror. But he understood 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.
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. AFP described 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 have given much to have attended. I never heard Darwish read his poetry and it is something I will always regret.
Thursday 14 August 2008 19.30