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Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)


Poet and journalist, an interpreter of the exile and hopes of the Palestinian people. Mahmoud 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
and there is fire in my eyes:
I am free.
No more shall I protest at the Sultan's Gate.
All who have died, all who shall die at the Gate of Day
have embraced me, have made of me a weapon."

(from 'Diary of a Palestinian wound')

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 settled 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. ('Darwish's vision and longing' by Joseph A. Kechichian, Gulf News, August 14, 2008) 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 periodical, Al-Karmel.

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, not only because he is Palestian, but because of the quality of his poetry. Sarid's initiative provoked a heated public discussion. A vote of no confidence was raised in the Knesset and members of the Committee for Literature were annoyed: they felt that the proposal was an insult to their expertise. 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 . . . " (Multiculturalism in Israel: Literary Perspectives by Adia Mendelson-Maoz, 2014, p. 45)

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, p. xvi) 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." ('Darwish Was An Eloquent Witness of Exile' by Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News, 2008-08-12) In 1988 Darwish's hard, uncompromising poem 'Abirun fi Kalam Abir' (Those Who Pass Fleeting Words) upset his Israeli readers, who considered it a call for the destruction of Jews. Darwish wrote the work after the beginning of the First Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in December 1987. The Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir read it in Knesset to prove that Palestinians did not want to live in peace with Israel. "The time has come for you to go away / And dwell where you wish but do not dwell among us /The time has come for you to go away / And die where you wish but do not die among us". ('The Poet And The People' by Martin Peretz, The New Republic, August 12, 2008) 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 behind?"

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." ('Saudi Book Fair Bans 'Blasphemous' Mahmoud Darwish Works After Protest' by Alison Flood, The Guardian, 14 March, 2014)

For further reading: Mahmoud Darwish: Palestine's Poet and the Other as the Beloved by Dalya Cohen-Mor (2019); Palestinian Culture and the Nakba: Bearing Witness by Hania A.M. Nashef (2019); Mahmoud Darwish: Literature and the Politics of Palestinian Identity by Muna Abu Eid (2016); In the Wake of the Poetic: Palestinian Artists After Darwish by Najat Rahman (2015); Mahmoud Darwish: the Poet's Art and His Nation by Khaled Mattawa (2014); 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)

Selected bibliography:

  • Asafir bila ajniha, 1960 [Wingless Birds]
  • Awraq al-zaytun, 1964 [Olive Leaves]
  • Ashiq min filastin, 1966 [A Lover from Palestine]
  • Akhir al-layl, 1967
  • Yawmiyyat jurh filastini, 1969
  • al-'Asafir tamut fi al-jalil, 1970
  • al-Kitabah 'ala dhaw'e al-bonduqiyah, 1970
  • Shay' 'an al-watan, 1971
  • Works, 1971 (2 vols.)
  • Mattar na'em fi kharif ba'eed, 1971
  • Uhibbuki aw la uhibbuki, 1972
  • Selected Poems, 1973 (translated by Ian Wedde and Fawwaz Tuqan)
  • Yawmiyyat al-huzn al-'adi, 1973 - Journal of an Ordinary Grief, 2010 (translated by Ibrahim Muhawi)
  • Muhawalah raqm 7, 1974
  • Wada'an ayatuha al-harb, wada'an ayuha al-salaam, 1974
  • Splinters of Bone, 1974 (translated by B.M. Bennani) - Ahmad al-za'tar, 1976 (bilingual edition, translated by Rana Kabbani)
  • Tilka suratuha wa-hadha intihar al-ashiq, 1975
  • Ahmad al-za'tar, 1976 - Ahmad Zaatar, 1977 (translated by Rana Qabbani)
  • A'ras, 1977
  • The Music of Human Flesh, 1980 (edited and translated by Denys Johnson-Davis)
  • Qasidat Bayrut, 1982 [Ode to Beirut]
  • Madih al-Zill al-Ali, 1983 [In Praise of the Lofty Shadow]
  • Hissar li-mada'eh al-bahr, 1984
  • Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry by Samih al-Qasim, Adonis, and Mahmud Darwish, 1984 (translated by Abdullah al-Udhari)
  • Ward aqal, 1985
  • Sand and Other Poems, 1986 (edited and translated by Rana Kabbani)
  • Hiya ughniyah, 1986
  • Dhakirah li-al-nisyan, 1986 - Memory of Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, 1995 (translated by Ibrahim Muhawi)
  • Li-Madha Tarakta al-Hisan Wahidan, 1995
  • Fi wasf halatina, 1987 (with Samih al-Qasim)
  • Ma'asat al-narjis, malhat al-fidda, 1989
  • al-Rasa'il, 1990 (with Samih al-Qasim)
  • Aabiroon fi kalamen 'aaber, 1991
  • Ahad 'asher kaukaban, 1992 [Eleven Planets]
  • From Beriut, 1993
  • Li-madha tarakta al hisan wahidan, 1995 - Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? 2006 (translated by Jeffrey Sacks)
  • Psalms, 1995 (translated by Ben Bennani)
  • Flowers of Palestine, 1997
  • Sareer El Ghariba, 1998
  • Then Palestine, 1999 (with Larry Towell, photographer, and Rene Backmann)
  • Jidariyya, 2000 (poems; made into a play in 2000) - Mural, 2009 (translated by John Berger, Rema Hammami)
  • The Adam of Two Edens: Selected Poems, 2001 (ed. Munir Akash and Daniel Moore)
  • Halat Hisar, 2002 - State of Siege, 2010 (translated by Munir Akash and Daniel Abdal-hayy Moore)
  • La ta'tazer 'amma fa'alt, 2003
  • Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, 2003 (translated by Munir Akash, Carolyn Forché, Sinan Antoon, Amira El-Zein)
  • al-A'amal al-jadida, 2004
  • al-A'amal al-oula, 2005 (3 vols.)
  • Ka-zahr al-lawz aw ab'ad, 2005 - Almond Blossoms and Beyond, 2009 (translated by Mohammad Shaheen)
  • Fi hadrat al-ghiyab, 2006 - In the Presence of Absence (translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon, 2014)
  • The Butterfly's Burden, 2006 (translated by Fady Joudah)
  • Athar al-Farâsha, 2007 - A River Dies of Thirst: A Diary, 2009 (translated by Catherine Cobham)
  • Sanakun yawman ma nurid, 2008
  • If I Were Another, 2009 (translated by Fady Joudah)
  • La uridu li-hadhi al-qasidah an tantahi, 2009
  • I Don't Want This Poem to End: Writings by and About Mahmoud Darwish, 2017 (edited and translated by Mohammad Shaheen)
  • Palestine as Metaphor, 2019 (translated by Amira El-Zein and Carolyn Forché)


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