A Poet's Palestine As Metaphor
By ADAM SHATZ
- 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.
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."
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
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
"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?
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."