Remembering Mahmoud Darwish

The Arab world is in mourning for the death of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. As Jordan’s King slipped quietly into Iraq, made nice with Iraq’s prime minister Maliki, and reemerged with an agreement for oil at $18 a barrel less than the international price (Jordan also had a sweetheart deal under Saddam Hussein), the Palestinians were preparing for the first state funeral since Yasser Arafat was laid to rest. (photo: abro)

Everyone is remembering him a little differently. In Jordan they remembered him for, among other things, the poem Rita, perhaps a reminder that he once had a Jewish love. As he said in Haifa in 2007, “I will continue to humanise even the enemy… The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.”

Said The Jordan Times:

Darwish was born in the Palestinian village of Al Birweh near Haifa, which was destroyed by the Israelis in the 1948 Mideast war that led to the establishment of Israel. He joined the Israeli Communist Party after high school and began writing poems for leftist newspapers.

The poet left Israel in the early 1970s to study in the former Soviet Union, and from there he travelled to Egypt and Lebanon. He joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation, but resigned in 1993 in protest over the interim peace accords that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed with Israel. Darwish moved to Ramallah in 1996.

His works are taught in Palestinian schools and are also popular among the thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Darwish’s occasional readings in Ramallah drew overflow crowds….

Darwish’s poetry has been translated into more than 20 languages and he won numerous international awards. He first gained prominence in the 1960s with the publication of his first poetry collection, “Bird without Wings”. It included the poem “Identity Card” that defiantly spoke in the first person of an Arab man giving his identity number – a common practice among Palestinians when dealing with Israeli authorities and Arab governments – and vowing to return to his land.

Many of his poems have been put into music – most notably “Rita”, “Birds of Galilee” and “I yearn for my mother’s bread” – and have become anthems for at least two generations of Arabs.

He wrote another 21 collections, the last, “The Impression of Butterflies”, in 2008….

Darwish has been harshly critical of Israel over the years and was detained several times in the 1960s before going into self-imposed exile in 1970. Over the next 25 years he lived briefly in Paris, Moscow, and several Arab capitals.

A sequence of poetic prose written about his experience of life in Beirut during the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Lebanon in 1982 was translated into English in 1995 under the title “Memory for Forgetfulness”.

The Daily Star (Lebanon) preferred to remember a poem about the current political situation and take a political lesson from it:

It was not just the Israelis who drew Darwish’s critical attention. Indeed, he was among the most vocal critics of the fratricidal divisions that have emerged between the leading Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. Recall Darwish’s words during a 2007 poetry recital in Haifa: “We woke up from a coma to see a monocolored flag [of Hamas] do away with the four-color flag [of Palestine,” he said. “We have triumphed. Gaza won its independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, prisons who don’t greet each other. … We have triumphed knowing that it is the occupier who really won.” The words serve to further demonstrate how well Darwish and his generation of Palestinian intellectuals and leaders understood that a movement divided against itself could never succeed. If only the heirs to the Palestinian struggle would figure that out.

But what do the readers remember him for? The second most read poem on an Arabic poetry site is Psalm Three:

Psalm Three

On the day when my words

were earth…

I was a friend to stalks of wheat.


On the day when my words

were wrath

I was a friend to chains.


On the day when my words

were stones

I was a friend to streams.


On the day when my words

were a rebellion

I was a friend to earthquakes.


On the day when my words

were bitter apples

I was a friend to the optimist.


But when my words became


flies covered

my lips!…

“But when my words became/honey…/flies covered/my lips!…” Is this the type of dichotomous thinking that keeps the Palestinians from “never losing an opportunity to lose an opportunity”? Yes, there is another way, not the honey lips or the poisoned lips either, but speech that starts with the truth. Ah, the Palestinians. I have spent so many warm, fascinating hours with so many of them, but I give up trying to figure them out.

That’s why this blog’s mission statement ended up as “let’s just eat”. That is the better wisdom, the Arab wisdom.

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