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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 17, April 11, 2009

Salute to Poet Darwish

Sunday 12 April 2009, by S.K. Pande



(This article, sent to us quite sometime back, could not be used earlier for unavoidable reasons. It is now being belatedly published as a token of our tribute to the immortal Palestinian poet. —Editor)

Mahmoud Darwish, the poet who sang with Arafat and who gave voice to Palestinian visions of statehood, and helped craft their 1988 declaration of independence, is no more. He died on August 9, 2008 and was given his final send off on August 12, 2008. He was 67 years. Many may not know, but it was Darwish who penned the words Arafat spoke 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.”

One of his favourite poems was I Come From There:

I come from there and I have memories

Born as mortals are, I have a mother

And a house with many windows,

I have brothers, friends,

And a prison cell with a cold window.

Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,

I have my own view,

And an extra blade of grass.

Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,

And the bounty of birds,

And the immortal olive tree.

I walked this land before the swords

Turned its living body into a laden table.

I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother,

When the sky weeps for her mother.

And I weep to make myself known

To a returning cloud.

I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood,

So that I could break the rule.

I learnt all the words and broke them up,

To make a single word: Homeland....

His life and his work had just one theme: exile. And for more than one reason. He was born in a village in Galilee in 1942. During the war of 1948, he fled with his family to Lebanon, and his village Barweh was destroyed by the Israeli Army. When the family returned home, they were too late to be included in the census of Palestinian Arabs and were thereby denied identity papers. He could not travel and was continually harassed by the authorities; in the 1960s he was several times imprisoned or put under house arrest.

In 1971, he left Israel for Cairo, where he worked for the newspaper Al-Ahram. Two years later, in Beirut, he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation and became a member of the PLO Executive Committee, a position he resigned in 1993 after the peace accord signed by the PLO and Israel. “My role on the Executive committee,” he explained, “was that of a symbol. I was there to provide a moderating influence on the tension and to help reconcile differences. I have never been a man of politics. I am a poet with a particular perspective on reality.” Darwish’s perspectives can be summed up as total nostalgia and love for his lost homeland and a burning anger at the blood that has been shed over it. Darwish used many traditional Arab images and tried to invest them with a new reference. Besides more than fourteen collections of poems, he wrote many prose works and long since emerged as the leading poet not only of the Palestinian struggle but of contemporary Arabic literature.

Best known for his work describing the Palestinian struggle for independence, the experience of exile and factional infighting, Darwish was a vocal critic of Israeli policy and the occupation of Palestinian lands.

Many of his poems have also been put into music—most notably Rita, Birds of Galilee and I yearn for my mother’s bread—becoming anthems for at least two generations of Arabs. “He felt the pulse of Palestinians in beautiful poetry. He was a mirror of the Palestinian society,” Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist and lecturer in cultural studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, said of him in 2007.

Darwish joined the Israeli Communist Party after high school and began writing poems for Leftist newspapers.

He was put under house arrest and imprisoned for his political activities, after which he worked as editor of Ittihad newspaper.

Originally a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Darwish resigned in 1993 in protest over the interim peace accords that Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, signed with Israel.

As a journalist, he worked for the Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo and later became the Director of the Palestinian Research Centre.

“He translated the pain of the Palestinians in a magical way. He made us cry and made us happy and shook our emotions,” said Egypt’s vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.

“Apart from being the poet of the Palestinian wound, which is hurting all Arabs and all honest people in the world, he is a master poet,” Negm told Reuters in Cairo.

Darwish’s funeral in Ramallah was the first sponsored by the Palestinian Authority since Arafat died in 2004. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of national mourning. People held candle-lit vigils for two days in the darkened streets of Ramallah, where Darwish’s poems were read aloud and some mourners wept.

The poet made his home in the West Bank City since returning in the 1990s from a long exile.

“The Palestinian question, in Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, was no longer a legend, but the story of people made of flesh, blood and feelings,” said Zehi Wahbi, a friend of Darwish and a Lebanese television presenter and poet.

Widely seen as the Palestinian national poet, Darwish’s writing was much translated. Several of his books were translated into Israel’s vernacular, Hebrew, though the nationalist message of his work was largely shunned in the Jewish state, where a plan in the 1990s to teach his poetry in state schools was quickly shelved. Nonetheless, Darwish won new generations of admirers with work that evoked not just the pain of displaced Palestinians, but also subtle paradoxes and broader human themes. He enjoyed a fan following across the Arab world.

We end our tribute with his famous poem Words. Listen to his own words therein:

When my words were wheat

I was earth.

When my words were anger,

I was storm.

When my words were rock

I was river

When my words turned honey

Flies covered my lips.

[Signature of Mahmoud Darwish from the autograph book of Mainstream editor; Darwish gave his autograph during his trip to India to attend an Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in New Delhi, November 1970]

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