The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died last month at the age of 67 after a failed heart surgery, was in possession of one privilege no longer available to poets anywhere in the English-speaking world: a mass audience. Both in his native Palestine and in the Arabic world in general, Darwish was venerated not only as the voice of his stricken country and its aspirations but also as a guardian of, and innovator in, the Arabic language whose work in its aesthetic excellence was in some way above politics.
Thousands took inspiration from iconic Darwish poems, from the angry early poem Identity Card (1964), which protested the dehumanizing language in which Arab refugees were catalogued by the Israeli state, to the late poem Under Siege, which counselled, “We do what prisoners do,/And what the jobless do:/We cultivate hope”.
In memoriam: Darwish died in Houston, USA, on 9 August; his last visit to Palestine was in July 2007. Ramzi Haidar / AFP
If politics, and the language of resistance, protest, and mourning, were central to Darwish’s poetry, it was because politics and conflict invaded and infected civilian life in his country all through his lifetime. Darwish was born in the village of Birweh in Galilee, Palestine, in 1942. But he was already a refugee in Lebanon by the time he was six, after the massive conflagration over territory between Israelis and Arabs in 1948 that resulted in a crushing victory for the new state of Israel.
On returning, Darwish and his family found themselves classified not as citizens but as refugees, like the majority of Arab inhabitants of the three-quarters of Palestine that became Israel. Birweh itself had been razed to the ground, and the ricochet of this shock can be found everywhere in Darwish’s work. “I walked this land before the swords/Turned its living body into a laden table”, he wrote in his poem I Come From There. In a short prose fragment called Murdered Houses, written in 2006 (he was also a prose writer of formidable force), Darwish chose to speak of the carnage not just in terms of the loss of human life but of the loss of all those things which give a meaning to life and make it liveable. “When a house is killed, it is a serial killing, even if the house is empty: a mass grave of all the things once used to give a home to Meaning.”
Darwish began to write poetry in his teens. He also became politically active, serving several short sentences in jail for minor infringements. By the time he went into exile again in 1970, first to Moscow, then Cairo, then Paris, he had already made his reputation with four volumes of poetry. His most famous poem was the rousing Identity Card (“Write down!/I am an Arab/.../I do not hate people/Nor do I encroach/But if I become hungry/The usurper’s flesh will be my food”). His poems challenged the elegies to the homeland written by the Israeli poets who were his contemporaries, such as Yehuda Amichai. Indeed, Darwish’s situation and his work bear a resemblance to that of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, who writes in his poem Farewell of how “My memory keeps getting in the way of your history”.
But political engagement did not barricade or limit Darwish’s language and his achievement. His was not the voice of rhetoric but rather of conscience. He freely used Judaic and Biblical imagery in his poems, considering them part of his poetic inheritance. And, increasingly, his poems about the dispossessed reached out to other places and situations, as in the epic poem Eleven Planets (1992), which speaks of the erasure of Native American culture, beginning with the arrival of Columbus in America in 1492. In his essay Palestine as Metaphor, he wrote how he had come to an understanding of how to “inscribe the national within the universal, for Palestine not to be limited to Palestine”. He reinvented his forms, his language, and his lyrical self as he went along, producing much of his best work in the last decade of his life.
Darwish spent much of his life in exile, but in his interpretation, exile was not just a matter of geography. Art itself was fundamentally exilic, in the sense that it stems from discontent, opposition, unrest. “The man who is in harmony with his society, his culture, with himself, cannot be a creator,” he observed. Darwish has left a body of work whose distinction, as his translators in English Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché have noted, is that it is “at once culturally multiple and spiritually singular”.
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