Mourning Mahmoud Darwish
August 14, 2008
The poet Mahmoud Darwish, regarded by many as the Palestinian national poet, died the day before I left Jerusalem. In A Poet's Palestine as Metaphor (New York Times, 2001) Adam Shatz notes:
In the Arab imagination, Palestine is not simply a plot of land, any more than Israel is a plot of land in the Jewish imagination. As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has observed, Palestine is also a metaphor -- for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and exile, for the declining power of the Arab world in its dealings with the West.
It's in that deeper sense, I think, that Darwish wrote about Palestine: grounded in the details of the physical place, but always speaking also of the metaphysical place, the significance of the place to him beyond hills and trees and stones. One of my favorites among Darwish's poems is called In Jerusalem. Here's how it begins:
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
Darwish's work is permeated with the ache of exile and the longing for home -- a thread which runs through Jewish poetry also. Of course, the land for which we're collectively longing is the same land, which...complicates things. Reading him, as a Jew, isn't always easy. But it's worthwhile. Take these lines, from With the Mist So Dense on the Bridge:
My friend said to me,
"I do not want a place to be buried in.
I want a place to live in and curse, if I wish."
Place passes like a gesture between us;
"What is 'place'?" I asked.
Darwish described the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis as "a struggle between two memories." Some of his poems lash out against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words," published early in the first intifada, his lines "Live wherever you like, but do not live among us" raised a furor in Israel. Darwish argued that he was addressing Israeli soldiers, not Israel writ large, and noted later that he never anthologized that poem because he came to feel that it's not very good.
As a young man Darwish was shaped by reading Hebrew poetry, especially the work of Yehuda Amichai; he said he wrote with "an eye toward the beautiful," wishing for his poems to be read as poems, not only as political statements. Even so, many of his strongest poems are profoundly political. In "Identity Card," Darwish wrote:
Write down at the top of the first page:
I do not hate people.
I steal from no one.
If I am hungry
I will eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware beware of my hunger
And of my anger.
His obituary in Ha'aretz notes that "In 2000, then education minister Yossi Sarid suggested including some of Darwish's poems in Israel's high school curriculum, but then prime minister Ehud Barak overruled him, saying Israel was not ready yet for his ideas in the school system." Darwish complained to Adam Shatz (here) that "[t]he Israelis do not want to teach students that there is a love story between an Arab poet and this land...I just wish they'd read me to enjoy my poetry, not as a representative of the enemy."
Elsewhere in that article, Shatz quotes Darwish expressing frustration that even his non-political poems tend to be read through a political lens. "When I write a poem about my mother, Palestinians think my mother is a symbol for Palestine. But I write as a poet, and my mother is my mother. She's not a symbol." Fair enough -- though many of Darwish's poems do speak to his love of the land and his sense of exile from it. Like these lines from Diary of a Palestinian Wound:
Ah my intractable wound!
My country is not a suitcase
I am not a traveler
I am the lover and the land is the beloved.
I find those lines moving every time I read them. "I am the lover and the land is the beloved." Of course, these are lines which could have been written by any number of Israeli poets, too. Therein lies the rub.
Some of Darwish's work expresses such anger with Israel that it's difficult for me to read. But I find value in reading him, not despite the difficulty but because of it. And I find that I linger over some of his later work which feels more hopeful to me, like these lines from A State of Siege, published in 2003:
Truce, truce. A time to review the orders: can helicopters be turned into ploughshares?
We said to them: truce, truce, to examine intentions.
The flavor of peace may be absorbed by the soul.
It seems to me that exile is part of the human condition. Distance from God is a kind of exile. And we all experience exile from the kind of connection (to God and to one another) for which we yearn. But exile from a physical place is a real experience, too...and it's one that Jews and Palestinians share. I wonder what might be unlocked if we were more open to that common ground.
For more on Darwish, I recommend Fleeting words in Ha'aretz, an elegy by Israeli poet Chayyim Gouri who met Darwish when they were both young men and who engaged with his work throughout his life. I mourn the poems of Darwish's which he might have written in later life which now will never be read, and I'm grateful for the body of work he left behind.
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