Sinan Antoon recalls the voice of a nation
August 14, 2008
Very few poets become the voice of their nation and even fewer succeed in transcending that to become much more. Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was that rare bird who crossed many skies and horizons. His death last week, following complications from open-heart surgery in Houston, Texas, ended an epic life and interrupted a stunningly creative and prolific output, especially in his later years. It is difficult to underestimate Darwish's symbolic capital and his cultural and political significance. With his departure Palestine loses one of its most precious cultural icons, a poetic voice of universal echoes. The larger Arab world and its diaspora bid farewell to one of its best modern poets and the most popular and successful one in the last three decades. His poems were set to music, discussed in the Israeli Knesset, and his recitals could fill sport stadiums. Darwish's absence will further enhance his near-mythical status in the collective memory of Palestinians and Arabs.
Darwish was born on 13 March 1941 in Al-Birweh in Palestine's Galilee. At the age of seven he and his family were forced by Israeli forces to flee their village to Lebanon. Al-Birweh was destroyed by the Israelis and a settlement has taken its place. When Darwish's family returned a year later they settled in Deir Al-Assad, near the traces of their destroyed village. The harrowing experience of losing his home and being an internal exile in his land at such a young age would haunt Darwish's poetry and become a central theme with rich and complex variations running throughout his oeuvre. "I will never forget that wound," he said. In one of his last books Darwish wrote of still hearing "the wailing of a village under a settlement".
He was extremely precocious and discovered the power of words and poetry at a young age. At 12 he recited a poem at school on the anniversary of the Nakba about a child who returns to find his home taken by others. He was summoned by the Israeli military officer and threatened. His early fierce poetry registered his resistance to existential and cultural erasure practised by an apartheid colonial state. This is exemplified in Identity Card, which became an iconic poem of that phase and of what came to be known as "resistance poetry" with its famous refrain "Record, I am an Arab!" Darwish joined the Israeli Communist Party in 1961 and worked as a journalist in Al-Ittihad. He was imprisoned five times between 1961 and 1967 and was put under house arrest for three years.
He took the monumental decision not to return to Israel while on a scholarship to Moscow in 1971 and went to Cairo where his fame had already preceded him. Two years later he moved to Beirut and joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and remained there until 1982. In Beirut he was the editor of Shu'un Filastiniyya (Palestinian Affairs) and established Al-Karmil in 1981, one of the best cultural reviews to appear in the Arab world.
In Beirut, Darwish honed his poetic project and distinguished himself by continuous experimentation and engagement with developments in modern Arabic poetry, and by resisting the temptations and pressures of being pigeonholed as a "resistance poet". Palestine and its concerns were always a central axis, but it was to be enriched through explorations of mythology and embedded in a more complex poetic narrative. Darwish witnessed and monumentalised key moments in the Palestinian saga in poems such as Ahmed Al-Zaatar (1977) on the 1976 siege and massacre of Tal Al-Zaatar and Madih Al-Zill Al-Aali (Praise for the Lofty Shadow), and Qasidat Beirut (The Beirut Poem) both written in 1983. Darwish was also a prose writer of exceptional beauty. Memory of Forgetfulness, a beautiful and haunting memoir about war, represented the daily horrors of the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut in 1982.
The Palestinian exodus from Beirut took Darwish to Tunis where the PLO found refuge until its return after Oslo in 1993. Darwish settled in Paris where he would have a most productive phase and transform his poetry to new heights in works such as I See What I Want (1990) and Eleven Planets (1992). His work enacted a poetic conversation with world epics and the Palestinian saga was rearticulated within a larger historical and cultural prism of the colonial moment of 1492 and its ramifications. Darwish reread Andalus and the genocide of the native Americans in mesmerising and epic poems simultaneously addressing the Palestinian question and universal postcolonial concerns. His poems were prophetic as to the fate of Palestinians. Darwish was elected to the executive committee of the PLO but resigned in 1993 over his objections to the Oslo Accords and his disagreement with Arafat. He correctly foresaw that they amounted to political suicide.
Why Have you Left the Horse Alone (1995) was a response of sorts to the challenges and threats of Oslo. It was an individual and collective poetic biography and an excavation of the memory of place. It also marked a shift in Darwish's work towards the more personal and subjective. He continued to surprise and challenge his readers with A Bed for the Stranger (1999), a collection devoted to love. In 1998 Darwish had heart surgery for the second time and his heart stopped for two minutes. This encounter with death produced another epic poem, Mural (2000), about the triumph of art over death. Darwish decided to return and live in Ramallah as a citizen in 1996 and divided his time between the West Bank and Amman. A State of Siege (2002) was concerned with the horrors of Israeli occupation during the second Intifada, but also spoke of hope and resilience. Darwish was prolific and vibrant in his last years, stunning readers and critics with his ability to reinvent himself. In addition to three collections, ( Do not Apologise for What You Have Done (2004), Like Almond Blossoms or Beyond (2005), and The Butterfly Effect (2008), he left us one of the most powerful books of prose to be written in Arabic in modern times. In the Presence of Absence (2006) was a self-eulogy written in masterful poetic prose.
In the latter phase of his work Darwish was free to roam all themes no matter how mundane or metaphysical. The anchored and fixed I of his early years was now scattered in pronouns as the self became a site severed by time and space and open to all its others, in the widest sense. Darwish and his work contained multitudes and vast horizons, at the heart of which was Palestine in and of itself, but also Palestine as a metaphor for love, exile, and the injustice and pain of our contemporary moment.
Knowing surgery might not succeed, Darwish was keen on bidding farewell to his homeland and loved ones. He returned to Haifa for the first time since 1971 in July of last year for a historic poetry reading and a short visit. Permission had to be obtained from Israeli authorities. His family and friends had hoped he would be buried in the Galilee he loved but the Israelis refused and so he was buried in Ramallah.
"What can a poet do when confronted by the bulldozers of history?" asked Darwish once. To stand before them and preserve the memory and celebrate life as he did. "Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance," he wrote in his last collection. And he left a treasure trove scattered in his 23 collections of poetry and four prose books. He lived in permanent exile and died in a strange land, but his poems are at home in the indestructible archive of our collective memory.