In Rememberance

Mahmoud Darwish, poet, born March 15 1941; died August 9 2008

Wednesday 20 August 2008, by Ceyda Turan

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Palestine mourns over the death of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s national poet, who became the internationally acclaimed voice of the Palestinian people in their struggle for statehood.

Darwish was born in the village of Al-Barweh in what is now Galilee. He experienced dispossession, occupation and exile at an early age. When he was six, his family fled to Lebanon upon an Israeli assault on their village. The following year, when they tried to return to their occupied homeland, their village had been destroyed and two settlements had been erected on their land. They ended up settling in Deir al-Asad in Galilee.

Darwish published his first collection of poems, Leaves of Olives in 1964. It included one of his most famous poems “Identity Card.” The poem, gave a voice to the working class Palestinians facing Israeli authorities:

Record! I am an Arab

You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors

And the land that I cultivated

Along with my children

And you left nothing for us

Except for these rocks…

So will the State take them

As it has been said?

Darwish wrote eloquently of his people’s experiences of exile, occupation and dispossession. In the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, Darwish was “the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart.”

Darwish also penned the Palestinian Declaration of Independence that Yasser Arafat read at the United Nations in 1974: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” His poetry and prose helped to forge a Palestinian national identity.

Describing what makes Darwish special for Palestinian people, Adila Laidi-Hanieh, a former director of the Khalil Sakanini Cultural centre explained “The most important thing about him is that he maintained an unimpeachable moral integrity, political and intellectual authority… That was an unparalleled source of legitimacy and elevated his words to a higher plane.”

Darwish was not only a critical poet but also a political activist. As a young man, he faced house arrest and imprisonment for his political activism and for publicly reading his poetry. He joined the official Communist Party of Israel, the Rakah, in the 1960s. In 1970, he left for USSR, to attend the University of Moscow and was stripped of his Israeli citizenship. He moved to Cairo the following year. He then joined the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1973 and was banned from entering Israel. He was elected to the PLO Executive Committee in 1987 but resigned in 1993 after the Oslo accords. Darwish criticized both the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian leadership. He denounced the factional fighting and violence between Hamas and Fatah, describing it as “a public attempt at suicide in the streets.”

Darwish’s poetry has been the focal point of controversy in Israel. In 1988, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir read Darwish’s poem, “Passing in Passing Words,” inside Israel’s parliament Knesset, as an example of the Palestinians’ unwillingness to live alongside Jews.

In March 2000, Yossi Sarid, then-Israeli education minister, proposed that Darwish’s poems be taught in Israeli high schools because it was “very important to know one another.” However, the opposition Likud party’s threat of introducing a no-confidence motion in government prompted then Prime Minister Ehud Barak to reject the proposal on the grounds that Israel was “not ready.”

Darwish commented on the discussions in the Knesset by saying “it is difficult to believe that the most militarily powerful country in the Middle East is threatened by a poem.”

Right wing Israeli politicians see Darwish’s work as harmfully anti-Israeli citing his essay for the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding. Darwish stated the Israeli state was founded on the “dual injustice” of dispossession and occupation and that Palestinian villages were “razed to the ground” by “Zionist perpetrators of myth and crime.”

Nevertheless, Some of Darwish’s most memorable poems offer portraits of the “Israeli other’” — the poet’s Jewish friends and lovers. In “A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies,” Darwish tells of an Israeli friend who decided to leave the country after the 1967 war.

I want a good heart

Not the weight of a gun’s magazine.

I refuse to die

Turning my gun my love

On women and children.

The poem elicited ferociously polarized reactions, Darwish is quoted as saying ‘’The secretary general of the Israeli Communist Party said: ‘How come Darwish writes such a poem? Is he asking us to leave the country to become peace lovers?’ And Arabs said, ‘How dare you humanize the Israeli soldier.’’’

A poet of resistance and conscience, it is perhaps best to finish in his words. “Sarcasm is not only related to today’s reality but also to history. History laughs at both the victim and the aggressor.”

À propos de Ceyda Turan

Titulaire d’une maîtrise en développement international de l’Université de Londres (SOAS) en Angleterre, Ceyda détient également un diplôme en science politique et développement international de l’Université McGill. Originaire de Turquie et ayant étudié dans le monde en développement, elle connaît bien les enjeux du développement international. Elle a un intérêt marqué pour des questions touchant les droits humains et a entre autres collaboré au Kurdish Human Rights Project de Londres comme traductrice en plus d’assumer le poste de secrétaire de la section locale d’Amnistie Internationale à SOAS. Avant de se joindre à l’Institut des politiques sociales et de la santé de l’université McGill en tant qu’assistante de recherche et de communication, elle travaillait au sein du programme immigration et employabilité d’Alternatives. Elle continue contribuer au Journal Alternatives.

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