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Death of a Cultural Symbol-


By Jack Khoury and Avi Issacharoff

RAMALLAH - Midway through the first eulogy for the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, delivered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatma began to tear up. As she stood at the back of the hall at the Muquata Wednesday, she was visibly gripped by sorrow. "I‘m crying because I feel our hope has died," she told Haaretz.

Fatma, an Israeli, decided to come bid farewell to the man who had become her cultural hero.

 "He was a symbol of our homeland, and now we feel there are no symbols left. He spoke to our emotions, as a nation, and now he‘s gone," she said.

As Abbas‘ speech went on, more and more mourners broke down and wept. Even Abbas‘ longtime secretary, Intissar, began to cry.

It is doubtful that Mahmoud Darwish, who died last weekend at 67 following heart surgery at an American hospital, knew he would be so honored in his death. Ramallah has not witnessed such an outpouring of grief over one man in years, except perhaps at the death of the Old Man, Yasser Arafat. But in contrast to that funeral service in November 2004, Wednesday‘s ceremony was perfectly orderly, at least in its first stages.

Abbas‘ presidential guard conducted strict security checks. Even the Guard‘s new sniffer dog, Linda, was enlisted. The hundreds of guests stood quietly behind the barriers, and no crowd mobbed the body that had been flown in from Amman on a Jordanian helicopter.

Eight Palestinian soldiers in special ceremonial garb carried the coffin. Ahead of them marched a band and honor guard, with Abbas bringing up the procession‘s rear.

Pictures of Darwish decorated the walls, and flags were lowered to half-mast. His 85-year-old mother came on a gurney, in an Israeli ambulance hired for the occasion.

"He was the most precious of men, who knew Palestine in all its facets," Abbas said. "A cultural commander who led the cultural front."

Several left-wing Knessest members attended the official ceremony: Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta‘al) stood with the family, and Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad) were in the hall.

The former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, a personal friend of Darwish and a poet himself, also attended the funeral.

"He succeeded in showing us the face of hope," de Villepin told Haaretz. "He became the voice of the suffering, of the lost land, of those waiting for peace and reconciliation. He managed to give expression in words to this land, beyond countries and peoples."

Another mourner at the funeral, a Palestinian named Salim, tried to explain the late poet‘s power: "Darwish entered the heart of every Palestinian, of every age, in every home. He spoke about the longing for what was lost, and became a diplomat for the Palestinian issue."

Immediately after the ceremony, the coffin was carried several kilometers in the blistering heat through the streets of Ramallah, thronged by tens of thousands who came to say good-bye to another symbol of Palestinian nationhood.

Among them were thousands of Arab Israelis who came in chartered buses and family cars from Nazareth and Shfaram, Acre and Haifa, and the Galilee, mainly Jadeida, where Darwish‘s family lived.

The writer Taha Muhammad Ali knew Darwish in elementary school. "Darwish never forsook and never forgot the Galilee," he said. "The Galilee was alive in his soul even when he was far from his homeland, and so the Galilee will never forget him. In plain language, he is one of us."

Taha was among the signatories this week to a petition by Arab intellectuals from the Galilee and Lebanon calling on the PA to allow Darwish to be buried in the Galilee.

The singer Amal Murkus, who lives in Kafr Yasif, where Darwish attended high school, brought olive branches and sheafs of wheat from home to place on Darwish‘s grave.

Darwish was buried next to the Palace of Culture, on the southwest outskirts of Ramallah, atop a hill overlooking Jerusalem.




Jack Khoury and Avi Issacharoff