was horrified and angry at
the physical scale of the occupation, with the settlements like suburban
cities and military force in place to protect them."
Four days after Darwish and his guests read to an audience of more than
1,000 in Ramallah's Kassaba theatre, the Israeli army began its operation to
root out suicide bombers. Palestinians see the invasion as collective
punishment and a move to destroy the infrastructure of their embryonic
state. Darwish, who had already left Ramallah to give a poetry recital in
the Lebanese capital Beirut, was unable to return. He learned that the
Sakakini Cultural Centre, where he edits his quarterly literary review Al-Karmel,
had been ransacked and his manuscripts trampled into the floor. "They wanted
to give us a message that nobody's immune - including in cultural life,"
says Darwish. "I took the message personally. I know they're strong and can
invade and kill anyone. But they can't break or occupy my words."
Now aged 60, and known for almost 40 years as the Palestinian national poet,
a "burden" he both relishes and chafes against. He is the Arab world's
best-selling poet; his recent recital in a Beirut stadium drew 25,000
people. Palestine in his work has become a universal metaphor for the loss
of Eden, for birth and resurrection, for the anguish of dispossession and
exile. To the Palestinian American professor Edward Said, of Columbia
University in New York, he is the most brilliant Arabic poet, a commanding
presence in Palestine and Israel - the country where he grew up but left for
exile in 1971. For Said, Darwish's poetry is "an epic effort to transform
the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return". The
writer Ahdaf Soueif sees him as one of the most powerful voices of the
Though he writes in Arabic, Darwish reads English, French and Hebrew, and
his influences include Rimbaud and Ginsberg. He has been translated into
more than 20 languages, and is the bestselling poet in France. Yet few
selections of his 20 volumes of poetry are in English translation. One of
them, Sand (1986), is by his first wife, the writer Rana Kabbani. The
American poet Adrienne Rich sees him as a poet of world stature for the
"artistic risks [he has] taken". A new selection of his poems,
Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, will be published by the University of
California Press in the autumn.
Darwish's sonorous, incantatory delivery reveals the musicality of his
poetry. In Philadelphia recently to receive the $350,000 award for cultural
freedom given by the Lannan Foundation of Santa Fe, Darwish confessed to
being full of sadness and anger at the "struggle between the sword and the
soul" in Palestine. His latest poem, "State of Siege" - which he read at the
ceremony - was written during Israeli incursions last January. "I saw tanks
under my window," he says. "Usually I'm lazy; I write in the morning at the
same table; I have rituals. But I broke my rituals during the emergency. I
freed myself by writing; I stopped seeing the tanks - whether that's an
illusion or the power of words."
In the poem, a "martyr" says: "I love life/On earth, among the pines and the
fig trees/But I can't reach it, so I took aim/With the last thing that
belonged to me." Darwish, who wrote in a Palestinian newspaper after
September 11 that "Nothing justifies terrorism," has clearly opposed attacks
on civilians and been a persistent voice for Israeli-Palestinian
coexistence. He insists that suicide bombing doesn't reflect a culture of
death but a despair of occupation. "We have to understand - not justify -
what gives rise to this tragedy. It's not because they're looking for
beautiful virgins in heaven, as Orientalists portray it. Palestinian people
are in love with life. If we give them hope - a political solution - they'll
stop killing themselves."
For Sasson Sommekh, an Israeli scholar of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv
university, who knew Darwish in the 1960s and is translating the poem into
Hebrew, "it aims at dialogue: it's not talking about Israelis as criminals,
but saying, 'why shouldn't they understand?' There's no sense that this man
Darwish was born in 1942 into a land-owning Sunni Muslim family in Birweh, a
village in Galilee, under the British mandate in Palestine. When he was six,
the Israeli army occupied Birweh and Darwish's family joined the exodus of
Palestinian refugees, estimated by the UN at between 726,000 and 900,000.
The family spent a year in Lebanon on UN handouts. After Israel's creation
and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the family returned "illegally" in 1949,
but found Birweh was one of at least 400 Palestinian villages razed and
depopulated of Arabs, Israeli colonies built on its ruins. Darwish says, "We
lived again as refugees, this time in our own country. It's a collective
experience. This wound I'll never forget."
The family lost everything, says Darwish, the second oldest of four brothers
and three sisters. His father, Salim, was reduced to agricultural labour.
"My grandfather chose to live on a hill overlooking his land. Until he died
he would watch [Jewish] immigrants from Yemen living in his place, which he
was unable even to visit."
Because they were absent during the first Israeli census of Arabs, being
seen as illegal "infiltrators" and "present-absent aliens", the family were
denied Israeli nationality. They applied for identity cards but Mahmoud was
refused a passport: "I was a resident not a citizen. I travelled with a
laissez passer." At Paris airport in 1968, he says, "they couldn't
understand: I'm an Arab, my nationality undetermined, carrying an Israeli
document. I was sent back."
His mother, Houreyyah, was illiterate, but his grandfather taught him to
read. "I dreamt of being a poet." By seven, Darwish was writing poetry. He
worked in Haifa as a journalist, and in 1961 joined the Israeli Communist
party, Rakah, where Arabs and Jews mixed, editing its newspaper.
Palestinians in Israel were subject to emergency military rule until 1966,
and needed permits to travel within the country. In 1961-69 Darwish was
repeatedly imprisoned, ostensibly for leaving Haifa without a permit.
His collections Leaves of Olive (1964) and Lover From Palestine (1966) made
his reputation as a poet of resistance. When he was 22, the poem "Identity
Card", addressed to an Israeli policeman ("Write down,/I am an
Arab,/Identity card number fifty thousand"), became a rallying cry of
defiance and prompted his house arrest in 1967 when it was made into a
protest song. "Mother", a jailed son's nostalgia for his mother's bread and
coffee, "was a poet writing a simple confession that he loves his mother,
but it became a collective song. All my work is like that. I don't decide to
represent anything except myself. But that self is full of collective
According to Said, Darwish's early, militant poems defined Palestinian
existence, reasserting an identity after the dispersal of 1948. He was
foremost among a wave of poets who were writing within Israel in the teeth
of Golda Meir's assertion that "There are no Palestinians". Darwish's lyric
poetry coincided with the birth of the Palestinian movement after the Arab
defeat in the six-day war of 1967. Yet he was always averse to being praised
out of solidarity. Zakaria Mohammed, a student in the West Bank in the late
60s, recalls: "He wrote an article saying, 'we want you to judge us as
poets, not as resistance poets'."
Darwish has called the conflict a "struggle between two memories". His poems
challenged the Zionist tenet, embodied in such poetry as Haim Bialik's, of
"a land without a people for a people without a land". While he admires the
Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, "his poetry put a challenge to me, because we
write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for
his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition:
who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes
He adds: "Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something
beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down... I always humanise
the other. I even humanised the Israeli soldier," which he did in poems such
as "A Soldier Who Dreams of White Lilies", written just after the 1967 war.
Many Arabs criticised the poem, but he says: "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." Several poems are to Jewish lovers. "These poems take
the side of love not war," he says.
He was denied higher education in Israel so he studied political economy in
Moscow in 1970, but left, disillusioned, after a year. "For a young
communist, Moscow is the Vatican, but I discovered it's not heaven." In 1971
he joined the daily newspaperAl-Ahram in Cairo and decided not to return to
Haifa. That decision was sealed in 1973, when he joined the Palestine
Liberation Organisation and was banned from reentering Israel, a ban that
lasted 26 years.
Many Palestinians and Communist party colleagues denounced him for
desertion. "It was the most difficult decision of my life," he says of
opting for exile. "For 10 years I was not allowed to leave Haifa. After 1967
I was under house arrest." Yet he still feels guilty for leaving. "I was too
young to see the balance between standing up to these conditions or finding
an open sky for my little wings as a poet. I was seduced by adventure. But
the final judgment has to come from what I did in exile. Did I give more to
Palestinian culture? All the critics say I didn't waste my time."
Munir Akash, editor of the English selected poems, The Adam of Two Edens
(2001), was among tough critics of Darwish's "premature" success in Haifa.
"His celebrity was ahead of his poetry," he says. "But then I discovered his
brilliant artistic restlessness. With each collection, he opens new
territory." Darwish says, "In the '50s we Arabs believed poetry could be a
weapon; that a poem had to be clear, direct. Poetry must care about the
social, but it also has to care about itself, about aesthetics... I thought
the best thing in life was to be a poet. Now I know it's torture. Each time
I finish a book, I feel it's the first and the last."
In 1973-82 he lived in Beirut, editing the journal Palestinian Affairs and
becoming director of the PLO research centre before founding Al-Karmel in
1981. By 1977 his poetry books in Arabic had sold more than one million
copies. But the Lebanese civil war of 1975-91 was raging. He fled Beirut in
1982 after the Israeli army under Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon and besieged
the capital for two months, expelling the PLO. Israel's Phalangist allies
massacred refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps. Darwish became a
"wandering exile", moving from Syria, Cyprus, Cairo and Tunis, to Paris.
Bitterly ironic about an Arab continent "fast asleep under repressive
regimes", he said soccer had replaced Palestine as the Arab passion.
"I liberated myself from all illusions, and became cynical," he says. "I
asked absolute questions about life, where there is no room for nationalist
ideology." In 90 days in Paris in 1985, he wrote his prose masterpiece
Memory For Forgetfulness (1986), an autobiographical odyssey in the form of
a Beirut diary, set during a single day of heavy Israeli shelling on August
6 1982 - Hiroshima day.
Darwish is vague about the "accident" of marriage: "I'm told I've been
married, but I don't remember the experience." He met Rana Kabbani (niece of
the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani) in Washington in 1977 and was married "for
three or four years", but she left to do a PhD at Cambridge "and it was
impossible to continue".
He was married for "about a year" in the mid-1980s to an Egyptian
translator, Hayat Heeni. "There were no wounds," he says. "We separated
peacefully. There was no third wife, and won't be. I'm addicted to being
alone... I never wanted children, maybe I'm afraid of responsibility. I'd
need more stability. I change my mind, places, styles of writing. The centre
of my life is my poetry. What helps my poetry I do; what damages it I
He admits to falling in love often. "I love to be in love. My horoscope sign
is the fish; my emotions are changeable. When it's over, I realise it wasn't
love. Love is to be lived, not remembered."
An exile in Paris in 1985-95, Darwish revised or rejected many of the direct
political poems of his Beirut period, modelled on the Chilean Pablo Neruda
and Louis Aragon, a poet of the French resistance. He also wrote some of his
masterpieces: Eleven Planets (1992) is a "lyric epic" sequence on 1492, the
date of Columbus's voyage which destroyed the Native American world, and of
the expulsion of Arabs from Andalucia, both parallels with the Palestinian
nakba - catastrophe - the way Palestinians describe the creation of Israel
in 1948. Why Have You Left the Horse Alone? (1995) is his "poetic
As his mature poetry became more oblique, alluding to diverse mythologies,
Darwish felt tension with his mass audience. Akash says, "The public started
to feel he became a little unfaithful to his cause. But he struggled to
carry them with him." For the poet "The biggest achievement of my life is
winning the audience's trust. We fought before: whenever I changed my style,
they were shocked and wanted to hear the old poems. Now they expect me to
change; they demand that I give not answers but more questions."
He was elected to the PLO executive committee in 1987, but saw his role as
symbolic ("I've never been a man of politics"). According to the Palestinian
minister of culture in Ramallah, Yasser Abed Rabbo, "he's not an isolated
artist; he follows political life, and argues against extreme positions".
Darwish wrote the Algiers declaration, the Palestinian Declaration of
Statehood, in 1988, when the PLO accepted coexistence with Israel in a
two-state solution. He had befriended the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, in
Cairo in 1971 ("Arafat said, 'I can smell the fragrance of the homeland on
you'"), but refused his offer to make him culture minister. When Arafat
complained that the Palestinians were an "ungrateful people", Darwish
retorted "Then find yourself another people."
Darwish resigned from the executive the day after the 1993 Oslo accords -
the first stage in setting up a governing Palestinian Authority - saying the
Palestinians "woke up to find they had no past". He saw the accords as
flawed and unworkable, likely to escalate the conflict rather than produce a
viable Palestinian state or a lasting peace. Abed Rabbo says: "He was
sceptical of Oslo. I'm sorry to say his judgment turned out to be true."
Oslo did allow Darwish to move to the newly "autonomous" Palestinian
Authority. "I was shocked by Gaza - there was nothing there, not even tarmac
on the roads." He has a home in the Jordanian capital Amman - his gateway to
the outside world - but settled in Ramallah in 1996, yet says he is still in
exile. "Exile is not a geographic state. I carry it everywhere, as I carry
my homeland." His home has become language, a "country of words".
Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer and Ramallah neighbour, met Darwish in
Paris. "He seemed like a lover of fine things - high living and good food,"
he says. "It's to his credit he came here." Darwish, who lives by journalism
and editing as well as poetry sales, says: "I'll stay till Palestine is
free. The day after Palestinians have an independent state, I have the right
to leave, but not before."
Darwish, who has always advocated dialogue with Israelis, has at times found
favour in Israel as a moderate. But even leftwing friends there were
affronted by a poem that made him notorious, "Those Who Pass Between
Fleeting Words", written at the start of the first intifada against military
occupation of 1987-93. "Live anywhere but do not live among us... and do not
die among us," he wrote. The former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir,
quoted the poem with outrage in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Darwish is
not fond of the poem ("too angry and direct"), but said it was addressed to
Israeli soldiers. "I still say Israel has to get out of the occupied
territories. But they took it as proof that Palestinians want to throw the
Jews into the sea. If they see their existence as conditional on occupation,
they accuse themselves."
The ban on Darwish visiting Israel was relaxed in December 1999, allowing
him to visit his mother and relatives, who still live in villages near
Haifa. But his entry has been barred since the al-Aqsa uprising, or second
intifada, erupted in September 2000. When his mother was in hospital with
stomach cancer, he tried to visit her "but they called the hospital and
realised she wasn't going to die, so they refused me permission." She
recovered, but he has not seen her for two years.
Darwish had a heart attack and a life-saving operation in 1984, and a second
heart operation in 1998. During his first surgery, he says, "my heart
stopped for two minutes. They gave me an electric shock, but before that I
saw myself swimming on white clouds. I remembered all my childhood. I gave
myself to death and felt pain only when I came back to life."
But the second time, there was a fight. "I saw myself in prison, and the
doctors were policemen torturing me. I have no fear of death now. I
discovered something more difficult than death: the idea of eternity. To be
eternal is the real torture. I don't have personal demands of life because
I'm living on borrowed time. I have no big dreams. I'm dedicated to writing
what I have to write before I go to my end."
He has had to give up smoking and to drink less of the coffee he loves, and
he travels less. He says, "my lust for life is less. I try to enjoy every
minute, but in very simple ways: to have a good glass of wine with friends,
to enjoy landscape, to watch cats. I love all the cats in the neighbourhood.
I listen better. I used to speak, but I became wise."
In Mural (2000) a critically ill man contemplates death and the mortality of
civilisations amid the al-Aqsa intifada. Mohammed al-Durra, the 12-year-old
boy who was shot by Israeli soldiers and died in the arms of his father,
appears as the young Christ. Darwish, whose poetry incorporates Biblical
Christian and Judaic symbolism, claims a plural inheritance. "I don't have a
pure Arab cultural identity. I'm the result of a mixture of civilisations in
Palestine's past. I don't monopolise history and memory and God, as Israelis
want to do. They put the past on the battlefield." Yet "wiser and older"
than when he first rose to that challenge, he says: "We shouldn't fight
about the past. Let each one tell his narrative as he wants. Let the two
narratives make a dialogue, and history will smile."
In poet Zakaria Mohammed's view, Darwish's later poems seek to build a
genesis for the Palestinians: "they all start: 'there was a people and a
land'... The whole of his poetry is a conversation between him and the
Israelis to find a spot where they can reconcile."
In March 2000 Darwish was embroiled in Israel's "culture wars", when the
education minister, Yossi Sarid, announced that five of his poems would be
an optional part of a multicultural school curriculum - in a country where
19% of Israelis are Palestinian, and many Jews or their parents grew up in
the Arab world. There was uproar. The far-right Knesset member Benny Elon
said, "Only a society that wants to commit suicide would put [Darwish's
poetry] on its curriculum."
The then prime minister, Ehud Barak, survived a vote of no-confidence,
saying Israel was "not ready" for this poetry. Darwish says, "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."
Several volumes of his poetry have recently been translated into Hebrew, yet
his standing in Israel remains hostage to the political climate. Newspaper
literary pages were increasingly asking for translations of his poems, "but
everything stopped with the al-Aqsa intifada", says Sasson Sommekh.
"Israel has a good opportunity to live in peace," says Darwish. "In spite of
the darkness, I see some light." But Sharon, he believes, wants to take the
conflict "to square one, as if there was no peace process. It's war for the
sake of war. It's not a struggle between two existences, as the Israeli
government would like to portray it."
Darwish's collection A Bed for the Stranger (1998) was, he said, his first
book entirely devoted to love. Yet even the ability to love is a "form of
resistance: we Palestinians are supposed to be dedicated to one subject -
liberating Palestine. This is a prison. We're human, we love, we fear death,
we enjoy the first flowers of spring. So to express this is resistance
against having our subject dictated to us. If I write love poems, I resist
the conditions that don't allow me to write love poems."
Readers were shocked by what some saw as his abandonment of the cause. One
Israeli Palestinian friend, the author Anton Shammas, discerned a "gloomily
defiant message: 'to hell with Palestine; now I'm on my own'." Yet Darwish's
poetry and presence in besieged Ramallah tell a different story. "I am
waiting for the moment when I shall be able to say, 'to hell with
Palestine'," he says. "But this will not come before Palestine is free. I
can't achieve my private freedom before the freedom of my country. When it's
free, I can curse it."
· Lives And Works, a selection of Guardian profiles of leading novelists,
poets and playwrights, is published this month by Atlantic Books. To order a
copy for £14 plus free UK delivery phone 0870 727 4155.
Born: March 13 1942; Birweh in Galilee, Palestine.
Educated: Schools in Israel; Moscow Academy of Social Sciences
Career: 1961-70 editor Al-Ittihad and Al-Jadid; 1971 journalist Al-Ahram,
Cairo; '73 editor Palestinian Affairs, Beirut; '75 director PLO Research
Centre; '81- founding editor Al-Karmel; '87-93 PLO executive committee
Some books (in Arabic): Leaves of Olive 1964; Birds are Dying in Galilee
'69; Journal of an Ordinary Grief '73; Fewer Roses '86; Eleven Planets '92;
Why Have You Left the Horse Alone? '95; A Bed for the Stranger '99; Mural,
2000. Selected poetry in English: Victims of a Map '84; Sand '86; Psalms
'94; The Adam of Two Edens, 2001; Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, Autumn