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December 22, 2001
By ADAM SHATZ

PARIS - 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 Darwishhas 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.

Mr. Darwish, 59, who is widely considered the Palestinian national poet has developed this metaphor to richly lyrical effect. Born in a village destroyed by Israeli soldier   s in the 1948 Arab- Israeli war, he has evoked the loss of his homeland in more tha  n two dozen books of poetry and prose, which have sold millions of copies and mad  e him the most celebrated writer of verse in the Arab world."Many people in the Ara b world feel their language is in crisis", the Syrian poetry critic Subhi Hadidi said. "And it is no exaggeration to say that Mahmou d is considered a savior of the Arab language."

                            

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 Quarter here.

 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 died.

 "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."