MEMO profile: Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 - 9 August 2008)

Mahmoud Darwish

In 1971 PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat said of the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "I can smell the fragrance of the homeland on you." In this observation the leader captured a central part of Darwish's philosophy – whilst Palestine has left beautiful traces in the air it is a concept that can't quite be touched.

Perhaps the most common reflection on Darwish's work is that Palestine is a metaphor for the loss of Eden, or a constructed paradise. As he himself observed when you are deprived of home, it becomes a "need" and a "lust", or a dream which is more beautiful than the reality. The state of exile becomes all encompassing.

"This jasmine in the July night is a song
for two strangers who meet on a street leading nowhere.
"Who am I after your two almond eyes?" the male stranger asks.
"Who am I after your exile in me?" the female stranger asks." (Night That Overflows My Body)

No wonder the reverberations of exile seep out into Darwish's writing. At six years old he fled his home in Upper Galilee, which was being bombed by the Israelis, and sought refuge in the camps of southern Lebanon. When he and his family returned one year later, settlements had been built on the remnants of their home.

His family were classed as present absentees and lived as refugees in their own country. From a young age Darwish was confronted with the fact that Palestinians were second-class citizens but still had to celebrate the creation of Israel. Whilst at school, on Israel's Independence Day, Darwish wrote a letter to a Jewish boy to explain that he could not be happy until he was allowed to have what the Jewish boy had.

"You can play in the sun as you please, and have your toys, but I can't. You have a house, and I have none. You have celebrations, but I have none. Why can't we play together?"

At a poetry festival in Nazareth not long afterwards Darwish read Identity Card, part of which is below. It was inspired by a visit to the Israeli police to renew his travel pass and went on to be published in his first collection of poetry.

Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks...

The crowd demanded three encores; in fact a measure of Darwish's success is the large crowds who came to see his work. One poetry reading in Beirut drew an audience of 25,000. An event in Damascus had to be moved from the University auditorium to the Assad stadium and even then there was no space left on the benches or in the field.

Darwish is often described as the poet laureate of Palestine, the Palestinian conscience, the poet of resistance. There is no doubt that his descriptions of Palestine, the olive groves and orchards, the rocks and plants he weaved into his work, resonate with Palestinians across the globe, as does his pain at being away from his homeland and anger that he is not treated as an equal in his own country.

Yet at the same time it is these labels he fought so hard to shake off in his desire to be accepted and respected as a poet in his own right and not be used to serve a political purpose. He observed once: "After the defeat in 1967, the Arab world would applaud all of the poetry and literature coming out of Palestine – whether it was bad or good." His words have reverberations today. Art from the Middle East is often revered for its connection to a newsworthy headline, such as the Arab Spring, rather than its actual quality.

Darwish advocated dialogue with the Israelis and was criticised for poems which humanised the enemy. "I didn't see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings," he said. A Soldier Dreams of White Tulips said the following about an Israeli soldier:

Like a tent he collapsed and died, his arms stretched out like dry creek-beds.
When I searched his pockets for a name, I found two photographs, one of his wife, the other of his daughter.

Darwish's first love affair was with a Jewish girl and he wrote several poems, including Rita and the rifle, for his lovers.

Ah, Rita!
What before this rifle could have turned my eyes from yours
Except a nap or two or honey-colored clouds?

After secondary school Darwish worked for Al-Ittihad and Al-Jadeed newspapers, owned by the Israeli Communist Party, during which time he was arrested and released without trial every year, accused of hostile activities against the state of Israel. He was not allowed to leave Haifa for 10 years, and confined to his house between 1967 and 1970. "Eventually, I had to get away," he said.

From here he went to the Soviet Union where he quickly abandoned his ideas of communism and Marxism. In many ways his experience of Moscow reflects his ideas about Palestine. "There was a huge gap between what we imagined; the idea portrayed by the Soviet media about Moscow, and the reality that people lived in."

In 1973 Darwish joined the PLO and was banned from Israel for the next 26 years. He would later resign the day after the 1993 Oslo Accords of which he was sceptical.

Three years prior to this he lived in Cairo, an experience he describes as one of the most important events in his life. He was appointed to the Al-Ahram Literary Salon where he rubbed shoulders with Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris and Bint Al-Shati.

Whilst his time in Cairo seems to have been marked by literary encounters, his time in Beirut, from 1973–1982, is characterised more by the sounds of bombs and the death of his friends. Memory for Forgetfulness was penned as a prose poem, in the form of a diary, set during "Hiroshima Day" at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

"The neighborhood birds are awake at six in the morning. They've kept the tradition of neutral song ever since they found themselves alone with the first glimmer of light. For whom do they sing in the crush of these rockets? They sing to heal their nature of a night that has passed. They sing for themselves, not for us. Did we realize that before? The birds clear their own space in the smoke of the burning city, and the zigzagging arrows of sound wrap themselves around the shells and point to an earth safe under the sky. It is for the killer to kill, the fighter to fight, and the bird to sing. As for me, I halt my quest for figurative language. I bring my search for meaning to a complete stop because the essence of war is to degrade symbols and bring human relations, space, time, and the elements back to a state of nature, making us rejoice over water gushing on the road from a broken pipe."

Darwish left Beirut in 1982 when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon, expelled the PLO and slaughtered refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. As if completing a full circle he spent the last years of his life in Amman, because it was close to Ramallah.

Over his life time Darwish accumulated many awards including the Soviet Union's Lotus Prize for Literature, the Lenin Peace Prize and the Prince Claus Fund of principal prize and his work was translated into over 20 languages. Throughout his life he lived in Palestine, Russia, Syria, Cyprus, Cairo, Tunis and Paris surviving on journalism and editing as well as his poetry.

He married twice and had no children, stating "the centre of my life is my poetry." In his final poems Darwish confronted his own mortality.

I am the stranger. Tired of plodding across.
the Milky Way to my beloved,
tired of my superficial qualities. (Mural)

And in his last poem he described Palestinians and Israelis as asleep stuck in one hole:

He said: Will you bargain with me now?
I said: For what would you bargain
In this grave?
He said: Over my share and your share of this common grave
I said: Of what use is that?
Time has passed us by,
Our fate is an exception to the rule
Here lie a killer and the killed, asleep in one hole
And it remains for another poet to write the end of the script.

Darwish died in a Texas hospital aged 67, of complications following heart surgery. Upon his death Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of national mourning and flags were flown at half-mast. His work was taught widely in schools and in 2000 then education minister Yossi Sarid tried to incorporate his poems into the Israeli school curriculum but Ehud Barak said Israel "was not ready".

The great poet once said: "I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanise... but now I think that poetry changes only the poet." They were fitting words for such a solitary man whose poems often read as deeply personal journeys of discovery into the state of exile. Whether or not these words changed listeners may be questionable, that they moved millions is indisputable.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor