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In memory of Mahmoud Darwish

In memory of Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008 )
A World to Win News Service

The celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish died 9 August after complications from heart surgery. In life, he was one of the world’s very few people who could fill a football stadium with as many as 25,000 listeners for a poetry reading. He had a special place in the hearts of the masses of Palestinians and other Arab people, and this was matched by the high regard in which many intellectuals of all countries held him. His poetry captured the pulse of Palestinian pain in magical ways, making readers laugh and weep. In death, throngs of Palestinians gave homage to him as the symbol and expression of Palestinian aspirations for the return of their land, their country. Darwish put in words the collective passion felt by the women and men, rich or poor, educated or not who were and still are victims of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing and occupation of their lands by the Zionist state of Israel 60 years ago. His poems were put to music and became anthems for two generations of Palestinians and others.

He founded one of the Arab world’s top literary magazines, al-Karmel, in 1981. He wrote 20 volumes of poetry and was translated into more than 20 languages. His first collection of poems in the 1960s included “Identity Card”, which became something of a signature poem for him. It is written in the first person. A common practice among many Palestinians in those days was to respond to hostile Israeli authorities and Arab governments by simply giving an identity number. A few of the lines are:

Write it down!
I am an Arab
My number is 50,000
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged. …………….

At the time of the Nakba in 1948, he was seven. He fled with his family from Birweh, a village in Galilee. The family came back in 1949, risking death at the hands of Zionist militias that had murdered countless Palestinians who tried to return to their homes. He spent the rest of his youth living as a second-class Israeli citizen. His grandfather chose to live on a hill overlooking his land. Until he died, the grandfather watched Jewish immigrants from Yemen living in his home that he could not even visit. Darwish acquired a reputation as a precocious child poet, at age 12. He was asked to compose a poem for a public reading on Israel’s “Independence Day”. His poem described the feelings of a child who returns to his town to find other people sleeping in his bed and tilling his father’s lands. Summoned by the military governor, Darwish was told that if he continued to write subversive material his father’s work permit would be revoked. This incident marked Darwish for life.

His militant poems defined Palestinian existence in the face of Golda Meir’s assertion “There are no Palestinians”. He was jailed five times between 1961 and 1976. Eventually Israel stripped Darwish of his “citizenship” and he became part of the Palestinian diaspora. Once a member of the pro-Soviet revisionist Israeli Communist Party, he spent a year studying in the Soviet Union where he became disillusioned. He became one of many stateless persons wandering around first in Egypt, then Jordan, and finally Lebanon. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 marked another defining moment in Darwish’s life. In Beirut, he lived under the shelling and siege of the city amidst the world’s deafening silence. In the camps outside the city, the Israeli army stood guard while the Lebanese Christian Falangists conducted the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

In 1973 he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation headed by Yassar Arafat. In 1987 he was appointed to the PLO’s Executive Committee, although he saw his role there as symbolic. In 1993 he broke with Arafat and resigned his position the day after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the U.S.-brokered deal between Israel and the PLO that was to lead to today’s “road map” to nowhere and the PLO’s current role as flunkies under the Israeli occupation. But with the Accords, he was able to return to Palestine in 1996. He lived in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and travelled throughout Palestine when he could, including Gaza.

In the early days of the second Intifada, the world reeled at the infamous photo of Muhammad al-Durrah, a 12 year-old boy crouching in the shelter of his father’s body during an Israeli Defence Force incursion in September 2000. Israeli bullets killed the boy, despite his father’s efforts. Darwish wrote: “We love life – if we can have it.”

In 2002 Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, a barbarous reinvasion of West Bank cities, in particular Ramallah. At that time Darwish invited a number of Nobel Prize-winning authors (José Saramago, Wole Soyinka, Juan Goytisolo, Breyten Breytenbach and Russell Banks) to see the military occupation for themselves. Breytenbach recalled the former apartheid rule of South Africa. Banks compared it with American Indian reservations of the nineteenth century. The invasion inspired Darwish to write “A State of Siege”. Some of the lines address the Israeli soldiers shooting up his neighbourhood:

You, standing at the doorsteps, come in

And drink with us our Arabic coffee

For you may feel that you are human like us.

Other lines address the soldier/killer of a foetus:

If you had left the foetus thirty days,

Things would’ve been different

The occupation may end, and the toddler may not remember the time of the siege,

And he would grow up a healthy boy,

And study the Ancient history of Asia,

In the same college as one of your daughters.

And they may fall in love.

And they may have a daughter (who would be Jewish by birth).

What have you done now?

Your daughter is now a widow,

And your granddaughter is now orphaned.

What have you done to your scattered family,

And how could you have slain three pigeons with the one bullet?

Also in 2002, an Israeli reformist Education Minister tried to have five of Darwish’s poems introduced into a “multi-cultural” school curriculum. This aroused a maelstrom of controversy in the Israeli parliament where the proposal was roundly defeated. Darwish commented, “They teach pupils the country was empty. When they teach Palestinian poets, this knowledge is broken. Most of my poetry is about love for my country.” He added,” It is difficult to believe that the most militarily powerful country in the Middle East is threatened by a poem.” The Israeli government considered Mahmoud Darwish a dangerous foe to the end.

His poems expose a wide range of targets: the Israeli government (for instance, its pretending to be the victim (“You stole our tears, wolf”), the U.S. government (for giving every Palestinian child the “gift” of a cluster bomb to play with) and the Arab governments (who refrain from helping the Palestinians and hide their ineptitude behind anti-Semitic rhetoric).

A secular nationalist, Darwish was depressed and angered by Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian political organisations. He was unsparing in his criticism of their narrow power struggle, calling it “suicide in the streets”.

That makes it all the more significant that his funeral in Ramallah was attended by many thousands of people, making it the biggest mass political event in the West Bank since the burial of Arafat.

August 21, 2008 - Posted by | articles

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