the Arab World
The Guardian 08 June 2002
Days before Ariel Sharon launched Israel's Operation Defensive Shield with an
army assault on the West Bank town of Ramallah on March 29, eight authors from
the International Parliament of Writers visited the town. They included the
Nobel prizewinners Wole Soyinka and Jose Saramago, Breyten Breytenbach, Juan
Goytisolo and Russell Banks. They were responding to a plea from the poet
Mahmoud Darwish to bear witness to military occupation.
One evening Darwish, whom the US novelist Banks found "depressed, but uplifted
by our visit", took them to a hill with a view towards Jerusalem across Jewish
settlements and checkpoints. "I wanted to show them how the geography of
Palestine is broken by settlements, as though they are the centre and the
Palestinian towns are marginal," says Darwish. "No propaganda; we let them see
Breytenbach recalled apartheid, Banks made comparisons with American Indian
reservations in the late 19th century. He says, "I
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 Palestine tragedy.
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 hates
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 memory."
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
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 it better?"
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
"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
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
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 avoid."
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 autobiography".
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
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
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
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
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 2002