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||Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)|
Poet and journalist, an interpreter of the exile and hopes of the Palestinian people. Darwish's major theme in his poems was the fate of his homeland. He used simple vocabulary and plain, recurrent images: an open wound ('wound that fights'), blood ('we will write our names in crimson vapor'), mirrors ('shape of the soul in a mirror'), stones ('my words were stones'), and weddings. Darwish often addressed the reader arguing fiercely, defending, and pleading, as a prophetic voice from a large supporting choir.
"Sister, there are tears in my throat
Mahmoud Darwish was born into a landowning Sunni Muslim family in
al-Birwa, a village east of Acre. At that time Palestine was a British
mandate. After the war of 1948, the Israelis
occupied the village, and Darwish with his family became refugees in
their own country. When
a new Jewish settlement was built on al-Birwa's ruins, the family
to another Arab village, where Darwish grew up. His early uprootedness
and the loss of his homeland marked deeply his whole life.
After graduating from a secondary school, Darwish moved to Haifa. He worked in journalism and in 1961 he joined the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah, which recognized Palestinians as equals, and edited for some time Rakah's newspaper, Al-Ittihad. Becoming a target of harassment, he experienced imprisonment, house arrest, and ultimately exile. To this period Darwish returned in Yawmiyyat al-huzn al-'adi (Journal of an Ordinary Grief), published in 1973 in Beirut.
Darwish started to write poems while still at school. His first collection came out in 1960 when he was only nineteen. With the second collection, Awraq al-zaytun (1964, Olive Leaves), he gained a reputation as one of the leading poets of the resistance. Olive Leaves dealt with two general topic: love and politics. Gradually the love for a woman transformed in subsequent works into a unbreakable union between the poet and his homeland. "Her words and her silence, Palestinian, / Her voice, Palestinian, / Her birth and her death, Palestinian." (from 'The Lover')
Darwish left Israel in 1970 to study at the Social Sciences
Institute in Moscow, USSR. "For a young communist, Moscow was the
Vatican but I discovered it was not heaven," he later said. After a
year, Darwish went to Cairo to work at
the newspaper Al-Ahram and then settled in Beirut, Lebanon, where joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)
and edited the monthly Shu'un Filistiniyya,
Palestinian Affairs. Subsequently, he was banned from reentering
Israel. Darwish was very close to Yasser Arafat, first as an adviser, and then in the inner circle of PLO.
In 1981 he founded and edited the Palestinian literary and cultural
The epic poems Qasidat Bayrut (1982) and Madih al-Zill al-Ali (1983) took their subject from the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli siege of Beirut during the summer of 1982. Beirut, where Darwish resided, was bombed almost constantly from 13 June to 12 August to drive the PLO guerrillas out of the city. His anguished account of the invasion was recorded in Memory for Forgetfulness. Originally the work appeared in Al-Karmel. The text, written in the form of prose poems, is fragmented, like a broken mirror. "To whom shall I offer my innocent silence?" asks the poet on the war-raveged streets, walking slowly, "that a jet fighter may not miss me." Images are nightmarish, the poet no longer waits for the end of the steely howling from the sea. In the middle of the infernal dawn, the writer says that "sleep is peace. Sleep is a dream, born out of a dream."
"The sea is walking in the streets. The sea is dangling from windows and the branches of shriveled trees. The sea drops from the sky and comes into the room. Blue, white, foam, waves. I don't like the sea. I don't want the sea, because I don't see a shore, or a dove. I see in the sea nothing excerpt the sea." (from Memory for Forgetfulness)
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the PLO abandoned its headquarters there and Darwish moved to Cyprus. He was elected to the PLO executive in 1987. Darwish wrote in 1988 the official Palestinian declaration of independence but five years later he resigned from his post in opposition to the Oslo Agreement, which earned in 1994 the Nobel Peace Price to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East. Darwish, who was kept abreat of the talks in Oslo, demand a tougher stand with Israel.
For decades, anthologies of Darwish's poetry was hard to find in Israeli bookshops. Salman Masalha translated in 1989 Memory for Forgetfulness into Hebrew, and the correspondence between Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, translated by Hannah Amit-Kochavi, was published in 1991. From the beginning of 2000, Mohammad Hamzah translated several anthologies of Darwish's poems.
In March 2000 Ehud Barak's government faced a political crisis following an announcement by Israel's Education Minister Yossi Sarid that poems by Darwish would be included in the secondary school curriculum. Sarid's initiative provoked a heated public discussion from the Israeli Knesset to the streets. The Palestinian-American writer and critic Edward Said remarked, that "what the Darwish debate revealed was a profound instability, if not vacancy at the heart of Israeli identity . . . "
Darwish received several awards, including the 1969
Lotus Prize by the Union of Afro-Asian Writers, the Lenin Peace Prize
in 1983, France's Knighthood of Arts and Belles Lettres in 1997, the
Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001, and Golden Wreath of Struga
Poetry Evenings in 2007. A ducumentary film entitled Mahmud Darwich was produced by French television in 1997.
Many of Darwish's heroic poems have become popular
as songs. In 1999 the well-known Lebanese musician Marcel Khalifeh was brought
before the Beirut Court on charges of blasphemy. The charges related to
his song entitled 'I am Yusuf, my father', which was based on Darwish's
poem and cited a verse from the Qur'an. In this poem Darwish shared the
pain of Yusuf (Joseph), who was rejected by his brothers. "Oh my
father, I am Yusuf / Oh father, my brothers neither love me nor want me
in their midst". Darwish has also used the lamentations Isaiah and
Jeremiah from the Old Testament, to condemn injustice.
For his famous song 'Rita w'al-Bunduqiya' Khalife's took the lyrics from Darwish's love poem about a Jewish girl, whom he met at the age of sixteen: "There is a rifle between Rita and me / and whoever knows Rita bows / and prays / to a god in those honey eyes . . . " (from 'Rita's Winter', translated by Fady Joudah, in If I Were Another, 2009) The rifle refers to the Israeli army; the real life Rita joined the Navy forces and refused to continue with Darwish.
According to Darwish, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis was "a struggle between two memories." Ibrahim Muhawi, his translator, summarized that "his is a poetry of witnessing." In 1988 Darwish's doubtful poem 'Those Who Pass Fleeting Words' upset his Israeli readers, who considered it a call for the destruction of Jews. "O those who pass between fleeting words / It is time for you to be gone / Live wherever you like, but do not live among us / It is time for you to be gone / Die wherever you like, but do not die among us". Darwish himself admitted that the poem was too slogan-like.
Darwish led a somewhat nomadic existence. He lived in Lebanon,
Cyprus, Tunisia, Jordan, and France. In 1995, he was permitted to
attend the funeral of the Palestinian writer Emile Habibi in Haifa. After 26 years of exile,
visited his native village again. Since the mid-1990s, his home was in
Ramallah, a central West Bank Palestinian town, where Yasser Arafat had
his headquarters, and which became again a battlefield in 2002, when it
was was reoccupied by Israeli army.
Following a serious heart operation in 2000, existential themes emerged in Darwish's poetry. An example of his cosmic philosophical approach to the question of being is Jidariyya
(2000, Mural), a long poem about his near-death experience. "I was created and destroyed in the expanse of the endless /
void," Darwish concludes. Mahmoud Darwish died on August 9, 2008, in
the Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas, after undergoing
open-heart surgery. Thousands of Palestinians attended his funeral, and some 20 Israelis. His grave is on the hill of Al Rabweb; it means in
Arabic: "the hill with green grass on it."
Darwish was married twice, first to the feminist writer Rana Qabbani, the niece of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.
His second wife was an Egyptian translator, Hayat Heeni; they were
divorced in about a year. Darwish had no children. Eight months before
his death he published Athar al-Farâsha
(2007, A River Dies of Thirst), a combination of diary entries, poems,
and meditations, in which he asked: "Where did we leave our life
In March 2014, Darwish's works were removed from The Riyadh international book fair in Saudi Arabia. The event's organiser the Ministry of Culture and Information claimed that the books "violated the kingdom's laws". Opposing the ban Darwish's translator Fady Joudah said that "Darwish's vision and treatment of religious texts, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, are of a celebratory character that dissolves all three into one, and links them to other myths. No one has done this before anywhere in the world, regarding these three religions at once."
For further reading: Multiculturalism in Israel: Literary Perspectives by Adia Mendelson-Maoz (2014); 'Mahmoud Darwish's Poetics of Desire: Visions and Revisions' by Mounir Ben Zid, in Asian Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities, Vol. 3(3) (August 2014); 'Darwish, Mahmud' by Ferial J. Ghazoul, in The Facts on File Companion to World Poetry, 1900 to the Present, ed. by R. Victoria Arana (2007); Mahmoud Darwish, Exile's Poet: Critical Essays by Hala Kh Nassar and Najat Rahman (2006); Passage to a New Wor(L)D: Exile & Restoration in Mahmoud Darwish's Writings 1960-1995 by Anette Mansson (2003); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 1, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Then Palestine by Larry Towell et al. (1999); 'On Mahmoud Darwish' by Edward W. Said, in Grand Steet, No. 48, Oblivion (Winter, 1994); Modern Arabic Poetry, ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi (1987)