A Darwish reading in
Cairo or Damascus draws thousands of people, from college professors to taxi
drivers. Despite his scathing criticisms of Arab governments - "prison
cells," he calls them - he has met privately with virtually every leader in
the Arab world. He cannot go to a cafe in an Arab city without being
noticed, which is why he studiously avoids public places.
"I like being in the shadows, not in the light," Mr. Darwish said recently
while sitting in the lobby of the Madison Hotel in the heart of the Latin
In Paris for a reading, he seemed happy to be in the place where he lived
for several years in the 1980's. Back home in Ramallah, in the West Bank,
where the peace process has exploded, he says he finds it difficult to
write. "Poetry requires a margin, a siesta," he said. "The situation in
Ramallah doesn't give me this luxury. To be under occupation, to be under
siege, is not a good inspiration for poetry. Still, I can't choose my
reality. And this is the whole problem of Palestinian literature: we can't
free ourselves of the historical moment."
Dressed fastidiously in a blue blazer, gray slacks and tortoiseshell
glasses, Mr. Darwish looks like a diplomat and speaks in the same measured,
gracious tones. Weakened by a serious heart condition, he says he has been
contemplating something far more frightening than exile: eternity.
Mr. Darwish is virtually unknown in the United States, where only a few of
his books have been translated. But his American profile may soon be raised.
In November he won the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom, which
carries a $350,000 award. "Darwish's poems are searing, precise and
beautiful," said Janet Vorhees, the foundation's executive director for
programs. "He has been a voice for people who would not otherwise be heard
."The foundation, based in Santa Fe, N.M., is financing a major translation
of Mr. Darwish's work, which the University of California Press is to
publish in the fall.
"The award has a special value, coming from the United States," Mr. Darwish
said, sounding surprised and pleased. "I also read the prize at a political
level, as perhaps representing a better understanding of the role I have
played in my country."
Mr. Darwish has been at the center of Palestinian politics since the
1970's, when he ran the P.L.O. research center in Beirut, Lebanon. He wrote
the 1988 Algiers declaration, in which the Palestine Liberation Organization
announced its support of a two- state solution. In the literary journal he
edits, Al Karmel, he has introduced Arab readers to the work of Israeli
writers, a rare gesture in the Arab world.
Known for his independent, often acerbic views, Mr. Darwish has clashed on
many occasions with the Palestinian leadership. He was a harsh critic of the
P.L.O.'s involvement in the Lebanese civil war. When Yasir Arafat,the
Palestinian leader, complained that the Palestinians were "an ungrateful
people," Mr. Darwish fired back, "Find yourself another people then." In
1993 Mr. Darwish resigned from the P.L.O. executive committee to protest the
Oslo accords, not because he rejected peace with Israel but because, he
said: "there was no clear link between the interim period and the final
status, and no clear commitment to withdraw from the occupied territories. I
felt Oslo would pave the way for escalation. I hoped I was wrong. I'm very
sad that I was right."
It was, however, the Oslo accords that permitted Mr. Darwish - banned from
entering Israel because of his P.L.O. membership - to settle in the West
Bank in 1996, after 25 years in exile. He lived in the Soviet Union, Cairo,
Beirut, Tunis and Paris. His poetry came to mirror his own journey, likening
the Palestinian experience abroad to an epic voyage of the damned.
Like Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet he read in Hebrew as a young man, Mr.
Darwish has given expression to his people's ordinary longings and desires.
He writes, he said, with "an eye toward the beautiful," and would like his
poetry to be read for its literary attributes." "Sometimes I feel as if I am
read before I write," he added, clearly frustrated. "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."
He has written some fairly militant poems, and they have not gone
unnoticed. His 1988 poem "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words," published
in the early days of the first intifada, provoked an outcry among Israelis,
including some of the poet's left- wing friends. Although Mr. Darwish
insisted that he was addressing Israeli soldiers ("Live wherever you like,
but do not live among us"), many Israelis interpreted the poem as a call for
them to evacuate the region altogether.
"I said what every human being living under occupation would say, `Get out
of my land,' " Mr. Darwish said. "I don't consider it a good poem, and I
have never included it in any of my anthologies."
In March 2000 Yossi Sarid, who was then the education minister of Israel,
suggested including a few of Mr Darwish's poems in the Israeli high school
curriculum. After right- wing members of President Ehud Barak's coalition
government threatened a vote of no-confidence, Mr. Barak declared that
"Israel is not ready" for Mr. Darwish's work.
"The Israelis do not want to teach students that there is a love story
between an Arab poet and this land," Mr. Darwish said. "I just wish they'd
read me to enjoy my poetry, not as a representative of the enemy."
The son of a middle-class farmer, Mr. Darwish fled with his family to
Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. By the time the Darwishes stole
back into the country a year later, their village had been razed. "We were
defined, and rejected, as refugees," he said. "This gave me a very strong
bitterness, and I don't know that I'm free of it today."
As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, he was forbidden to travel from his
village without military permission. A member of the Communist Party from
age 19, he was repeatedly jailed and was under house arrest from 1968
to1971. Mr. Darwish drew on those experiences in his youthful resistance
poetry. At 22, he electrified the Arab world with "Identity Card," a defiant
poem based on an encounter with an Israeli police officer who stopped him
for his papers.
Mr. Darwish could have easily made a career for himself churning out
protest poems, but he chose not to. He speaks fluent Hebrew - his window, he
said, onto the worlds of the Bible and foreign poetry. His jailors in Israel
were Jewish, but so were many of his closest friends. "I have multiple
images of the Israeli other," he said. Some of Mr. Darwish's most memorable
poems offer tender, nuanced portraits of the "Israeli other" - the poet's
Jewish friends and lovers. In "A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies," written
just after the 1967 war, Mr. Darwish tells of an Israeli friend who decided
to leave the country after returning home from the front.
I want a good heart Not the weight of a gun's magazine.
I refuse to die
Turning my gun my love
On women and children.
The poem elicited ferociously polarized reactions, Mr. Darwish said: "The
secretary general of the Israeli Communist Party said: `How come Darwish
writes such a poem? Is he asking us to leave the country to become peace
lovers?' And Arabs said, `How dare you humanize the Israeli soldier.' "
In recent years, Mr. Darwish's poetry has grown increasingly dreamy and
introspective, borrowing freely from Greek, Persian, Roman and biblical
myths. "The importance of poetry is not measured, finally, by what the poet
says but by how he says it," he said. "I believe the poet today must write
the unseen. "When I move closer to pure poetry, Palestinians say go back to
what you were. But I have learned from experience that I can take my reader
with me if he trusts me. I can make my modernity, and I can play my games if
I am sincere."
Although he now lives under the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Darwish said he
still sees himself as an exile. "I had never been in the West Bank before,"
he said. "It's not my private homeland. Without memories you have no real
relationship to a place." Meanwhile, he said, "I've built my homeland, I've
even founded my state - in my language." He said he had been to Israel only
once since 1971. Five years ago the Israeli Arab writer Emile Habiby secured
permission for him to visit his former home in Haifa. An Israeli camera crew
planned to film a conversation between the two men - the one who left and
the one who stayed behind. The night before Mr. Darwish arrived, Mr. Habiby
"Emile is leaving the stage and cracking his last joke," Mr. Darwish said
in his eulogy for Mr. Habiby, who was noted for his irony. "Maybe there's no
place for both of us here, and his absence has given me the possibility to
be present. But who's really absent now, me or him?" Over the years, Mr.
Darwish said he had come to view exile in philosophical terms. "Exile is
more than a geographical concept," he said. "You can be an exile in your
homeland, in your own house, in a room. It's not simply a Palestinian
question. Can I say I'm addicted to exile? Maybe."
It has been both cruel and kind, depriving him of his home but nourishing
his art, he said. "Isn't exile one of the sources of literary creation
throughout history?" he said. "The man who is in harmony with his society,
his culture, with himself, cannot be a creator."
"And that would be true," he added. "Even if our country were Eden itself."