Mahmoud Darwish’s words still resonate on the 5-year anniversary of his passing.
Open a newspaper or turn on the news today and the bulk of Middle East news will cover the thousands killed in Syria or yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, this time shepherded by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The myopic political theater is a well-worn road for the international community. Although English-speaking audiences are only beginning to discover the words of Mahmoud Darwish, a beloved Palestinian poet, his words still resonate for millions on the 5-year anniversary of his passing, and as the long quest for a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict marches on. Literary communities reflect this week upon how Darwish gave voice to the plight of Palestinian people through his more than 30 volumes of poetry and eight books of prose that have become treasured works.
“I do know that Darwish exists across the world, Arabic or otherwise in almost a spiritual presence. You find a lot more people who know a line or two about Darwish who have not read a book or poems, but something sticks with them. In that sense I think that he is immense and ubiquitous,” said Fady Joudah, an award-winning Palestinian-American poet and translator of Darwish’s work in a statement to Mint Press News.
Who was Mahmoud Darwish?
So who was Darwish and how did he rise to become regarded by many as the de-facto Palestinian national poet? Born in 1941, Darwish lived through what Arab communities called “al-Nakbah,” or disaster, when 500,000-700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948 during the founding of Israel.
The expulsion is the historical basis for the current conflict and a major theme that marked Darwish’s life in exile, seeking to return to his homeland. He fled to Lebanon with his family and briefly returned to Israel but too late to be included in the Israeli census of Palestinian families who remained after 1948.
The themes of Darwish’s work were deeply influenced by the political events of the day, following the trajectory of the first and second intifadas, as well as the Oslo Peace Process in 1993, a time of unprecedented hope heralded by many as the breakthrough that could have resolved the long-standing Israel-Palestine conflict. The biggest themes that resonate today among the millions of Palestinian living in the diaspora are dispossession and exile.
“Who Am I, Without Exile?” asked Darwish, “A stranger on the riverbank, like the river … water binds me to your name. Nothing brings me back from my faraway to my palm tree: not peace and not war. Nothing makes me enter the gospels.”
Exile and approaching the other
Darwish’s work has been published in over 20 languages, including Hebrew, a language that he was fluent in. How was his work received in Israel? Darwish readers describe him as an opponent of the injustices, but someone who “saw the humanity of the Jewish people.”
“While he was always outspokenly opposed to the Israeli occupation, he was very critical of nationalism and jingoistic rhetoric. He saw the humanity of the Jewish people. He saw the occupier as a human being. I think he was very clear on this,” said Lana Barkawi, director of Mizna, an organization devoted to promoting Arab-American culture, to Mint Press News.
Darwish writes, in one of his most famous poems, “Rita and the Rifle,”
Between Rita and my eyes
There is a rifle. . . .
What before this rifle could have turned my eyes
Recalling a recitation of this poem in Lebanon, a country that Israel has fought several wars with since its founding in 1948, Suzanne Gardinier, a professor of writing at Sarah Lawrence College, recalls in an interview with Mint Press News, “The rifle in the poem is her rifle. His first love is an Israeli Jewish woman. This huge audience knew every word of the poem in Beirut. It went beyond a whole sort of set of clichés that constitutes pseudo knowledge, it just surprised me in a great way, that sense of the presence of the antagonist. It was an everyday thing there.”
The bulk of his work has been translated into Hebrew, but has struggled to make major inroads into Israeli curriculum. In March 2000, Yossi Sarid, then Israeli education minister, proposed in the Knesset that two of Darwish’s poems be included in the Israeli high school curriculum. Prime Minister Ehud Barak rejected the proposal on the grounds that Israel was “not ready,” for such a transition.
It was this relationships that Joudeh believes created a “complex irony” for Darwish, grappling between the “self and the other” as he asked, “Who am I without exile?” The theme is one that carries beyond Israel, beyond Palestine, allowing him to become a renowned poet “global” poet.
At his funeral in 2008, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed his admiration for Darwish and his poetic calls for peace. “Mahmoud Darwish knew how to express the attachment of an entire people to its land and the absolute desire for peace. His message, which calls for coexistence, will continue to resonate and will eventually be heard.”
“It is easier to say that he began as a sort of poet of justice and resistance and moved beyond that from Palestine as the center of the world, to Palestine as a metaphor for the current state of the world, or the world of the nation state that we lived in,” Joudah said.
“There are so many people in exile, so many people not living in their home place. I think that Mahmoud had an ability to span cultures and borders, his voice had a larger metaphorical presence. He spoke for anyone in that circumstance. That is a profound gift, the gift of ‘I hear you presence,’” said Naomi Shihab-Nye a Palestinian-American poet to Mint Press News.
The universality of Darwish
Shihab saw Darwish receive an award in at Swarthmore College, where musician Marcel Khalife was playing Darwish poems set to music. The reaction from American audience, thousands of miles away from the Middle East, is something that Shihab marvels at to this day. “I said, ‘Mahmoud look, the whole audience is singing along.’ This was in Pennsylvania. Three quarters of the audience was singing along. He looked out at the audience and tears were pouring down his cheeks. He said, ‘I can’t believe we are in Pennsylvania and that many people are singing my words.’ I think he was so sensitive and such a lovely human being.”
“I can’t understand what is happening in Syria, I don’t know how it’s going to resolve itself. There are more and more people who realize violence isn’t the resolution. The declaration of identity that Darwish carried in his work is very critical for there ever to be a mutual respect dominating in the Middle East. There have to be different groups in any country, we are not going to have the same religion and race. I think his work needs to be present at every peace conference, in every classroom,” said Shihab
Darwish passed away August 9, 2008 in Houston, Texas after undergoing a heart surgery.