Mahmoud Darwish at a reading of his works in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on July 15, 2007.
My country is the joy of being in chains,
I RECALLED these words of Mahmoud Darwish when I first met the poet in the French city of La Rochelle in 2003. Both of us had been invited to a reading tour of five French cities as part of the poetry festival Printemps de Poetes (the spring of poets). I had read Darwish’s poems and translated a few of them into Malayalam years before; yet listening to his passionate and at times musical recitation was a different and exciting experience. Darwish once said of his poetry: “When my words were wheat/I was earth./When my words were anger/I was storm./When my words were rock/I was river./When my words turned honey/Flies covered my lips.”
Darwish seldom allowed his poetry to turn honey even during those spells when he was charmed by what is often called “pure poetry”. He was primarily a political poet but one who did not shy away from looking at the mystery of life and death, as demonstrated by many of his later poems that confront the reality of “eternity”. Eternity was Darwish’s euphemism for death, which he began to anticipate after his first heart attack almost a quarter century ago. “As for me,” he wrote in the poem Mural, “now that I am filled with all the possible reasons for departure, I am not mine, I am not mine, I am not mine.”
The poet himself was aware of the contradictory pulls in his poetry. He said in an interview to The New York Times: “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 the reader with me if he trusts me. I can make my modernity, and I can play my games, if I am sincere.” He was trying to develop his own kind of modernity, with native imagery, thematic immediacy, lyrical simplicity, political suggestiveness and concerns such as identity and exile.
His poetry grew denser as he evolved and the imagery became more involved and the poetic structure more complex and multilayered. It is possible that he was also striving to survive his early influences. In the process he developed a fresh Arabic idiom that expressed well the real life of Arabs, both inner and outer, and earned him the title “the saviour of Arabic language”. He played a major role in shaping Palestinian consciousness, and his lines have become part of the very fabric of modern Arabic culture.
Edward Said, the distinguished thinker and critic and a friend of Darwish’s, tells us how his early poems reflect the exile’s need to reassemble an identity out of the refractions and discontinuities of exile. “[His] considerable work amounts to an epic effort to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return”. (See Said’s essay, “Reflections on Exile” in the book with the same title.)
Darwish depicts his sense of homelessness in the form of a list of unfinished and incomplete things: “But I am the exile./Seal me with your eyes./Take me wherever you are/Take me wherever you are./Restore to me the colour of face/And the warmth of body/The light of heart and eye,/The salt of bread and rhythm,/The taste of earth…the Motherland./Shield me with your eyes./Take me as a relic from the mansion of sorrow./Take me as a verse from my tragedy;/Take me as a toy, a brick from the house/So that our children will remember to return.”
Darwish’s funeral procession in the West Bank town of Ramallah on August 13.
Darwish knew that the pathos of exile was in the loss of contact with the solidity and the satisfaction of earth: homecoming was out of the question.
Darwish was born in 1941 in the Birwa village east of Acre to parents who were middle-range peasants. He was brought up by his grandfather as his parents were busy on their land. He was six when Israel attacked his village and he had to flee to Lebanon with his family. They came back later only to find the village obliterated. So they settled in Galilee. Darwish’s home had no books; his first experience of poetry was listening to an itinerant singer on the run from the Israeli army. His elder brother encouraged him to write poetry.First poem
The Israeli Arabs had been under military rule from 1948 to 1986. They were second-class citizens not free to move about or engage in political activity. He could not sincerely join the anniversary celebrations of the founding of Israel. His first poem, written while still in school, was in the form of a conversation between an Arab boy and his Jewish friend. The Arab boy tells the friend he has a home, toys and games and celebrations, but he has none of these, so why can they not play together? This poem irked the military governor who warned Darwish that his father would lose his job in the quarry if he continued to write poems in that vein. Having been away from Beirut, Darwish had little chance to acquaint himself with the modern Arabic poetry being developed there by poets such as Adonis and Nizar Khabbani and other poets around the journal Al-Shi’r. He grew up reading mostly Hebrew poets such as Yehuda Amichai or translations of poets such as Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda in Hebrew.
Darwish’s early volumes, Leaves from the Olive Tree (1964), A Lover from Palestine (1966) and End of the Night (1967) were published in Israel. He was by now a member of Rakah, the communist party of Israel, and the editor of its Arab newspaper, Al-Ittihad. He was in jail or under house arrest several times.
His earliest poetry followed classical forms, but by the mid-1960s he had developed a more direct and popular idiom, capable of dealing with everyday life. His images came from the rural soil – olive groves, orchards, thyme, basil, rocks and plants. Most of the poems had a staccato effect like verbal hand grenades. Irony, anger and outrage at injustice were the hallmarks of his poetry of resistance. The Palestine issue was for him a prism to reflect internationalist feeling; the land and history of Palestine were a summation of millennia as they showed the influences of Canaanite, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Ottoman Turkish and British influences, still retaining a core identity of their own. Darwish’s eclecticism and openness came from an understanding of this inherent diversity of influences that had shaped Arab identity.
Darwish left Israel in 1971 to join Moscow University and later joined the Palestinian Research Centre in Beirut. Then, he moved to Tunis and Paris. He became an executive member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1987 and edited the influential literary review Al-Karmel. He helped draft the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood along with the novelist Elias Khouri and Edward Said. But he sagaciously kept himself away from factionalism. He declared, “I am a poet with a particular perspective on reality.”
He also wrote a few short stories, and his poems mixed observation, irony and humanity. He maintained his optimism against all odds in the 1980s: “Streets encircle us/As we walk among the bombs/Are you used to death?/I’m used to life and to endless desire./Do you know the dead?/I know the ones in love…” Or, as he wrote much later: “We do what prisoners do/And what the jobless do,/We cultivate hope.”
The Beirut Memoirs he wrote while in Paris; Memory for Forgetfulness was a poem in prose, a medley of wit and rage and reflections on exile and violence. He turned towards mysticism in his last years; human mortality became a major preoccupation. He had heart attacks in 1984 and 1998. He resigned from the PLO executive committee in 1993 as he could not accept the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the PLO, which he thought was “a risky accord”. He never regretted the decision. In his New York Times interview he said: “I hoped I was wrong, I am very sad that I was right.”
He went back to Israel in 1995 to visit his mother for whom he had written many poems. (“ I long for my mother’s bread/My mother’s coffee/Her touch/Childhood memories grow up in me/Day after day/I must be worth my life/At the hour of my death/Worth the tears of my mother…”, from My Mother.) Israel allowed him unlimited stay in the self-governing parts of Palestine’s West Bank. He spent his last years in Ramallah and Amman, the capital of Jordan. Darwish’s selected poems translated into Hebrew were published in July 2007, and he held a reading of his works before 2,000 people in Haifa. He deplored the Hamas victory in Gaza. His comment was prophetically ironic: “We have triumphed; Gaza has won independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two prisons, who don’t greet each other. We are dressed in executioner’s clothes.”
By the time he passed away on August 9 after an open-heart surgery in a Texas hospital, Darwish had won several important prizes and honours: The Lotus Prize (1969), the Lenin Peace Prize (1983), the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom (2001) and the Principal Prize of the Prince Claus Fund (2004). The king of Morocco honoured him with the “Moroccan Wissam of Intellectual Merit” and France with the Knighthood of Arts and Belles Lettres. He was twice married and divorced without children. Most of his poems were translated into English by his first wife, Rana Kabbani.
Meanwhile, in 2000, the Israeli Ministry of Education tried to introduce Darwish’s poems in their school curriculum but had to give up the move because of right-wing threats. The Prime Minister declared that “the country is not yet ready”. Now, after Darwish’s demise, the idea has been mooted again by the Government of Israel. Gush Shalom, the Minister for Education, remarked: “Mahmoud Darwish was born among us and grew up as an Israeli citizen, not more and not less. The fact that the state of Israel was unable to give this great creative talent a feeling of belonging, pushing him into decades of exile – isn’t that our badge of infamy?”Paradoxical identity
Darwish taps universal concerns with identity when he explores the paradox of being Palestinian. This paradox of “being and not-being” was even worse for someone like Darwish who was a Palestinian residing in Israel. He speaks of this paradoxical identity in the poem Mural: “Whenever I search for myself/I find the others/And when I search for them/I only find my alien self/So am I the individual-crowd?” The interiority of this poem renders its tone radically different from his early assertive poem Identity Card: “Put it on record./I am an Arab./And the number of my card is fifty thousand./I have eight children/And the ninth is due after summer./What is there to be angry about?”
Darwish had an open conception about what an Arab was. It was never a closed identity for him but a plurality ever open to others. His poetry was a dialogue with several cultures, and in it he employed Islamic, Christian and Jewish myths. Munir Akash notes in the introduction to Darwish’s The Adam of Two Edens that the poet’s work stands out best when read in the context of W.B. Yeats, Saint-John Perse, the surrealists, the Greeks or the Hebrews. He points out how Darwish draws upon the diverse traditions represented by The Epic of Gilgamesh, the biblical “Book of Jeremiah”, The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld, for example.
But his was a coherent eclecticism as he was exploring the dimensions of Palestinian identity through the incorporation of myth and traditions that speak metaphorically. In the exiled poet’s imagination, even the native American experience became a tool to re-spiritualise the Palestinian universe in a healing way as seen in an epic poem like Indian Speech, so well-analysed by the critic J. Kristen Urban (in Literature and Nation in the Middle East).The epic reflects the reality of life under an occupation that is becoming ever more permanent, threatening the historical reality of the Palestinian people while also symbolising the universal condition of man: “Winds will recite our beginning and end/Although our present bleeds, our days are buried/in ashes of legend…./…Strange is what the stranger says!/He hunts down our children, and butterflies as well./What promises to our garden, stranger,/Can you make? Brass flowers prettier than our own?/As you wish. But do you know/A deer will not approach grass that has been stained/with our blood?”
And this is the native Indian’s prayer to the masters: “Take what you need of night/but leave us a couple of stars to bury/our celestial dead./Take what you want of the sea/but leave us a few waves to catch some fish/Take all the gold of the earth and sun/but leave us the land of our names./Then go back, stranger, to resume your search/for India once more.
And they remember: “We keep the memory of our loved ones/In jars, like oil and salt whose names/We tied to the wings of water birds.” The subjugated want “the wind to have the flute to weep for the people of this wounded place, and tomorrow weep for you”. They recall the time when they had flourished in America “before the onslaught of English guns, French wine, and influenza”, learning their oral history by heart side by side with the Deer People: “We brought you tidings of innocence/And daisies, but you have your god/And we have ours.”
The poem transcends hatred by expressing a desire for integration and a robust acceptance of diversity. It avoids simple utopian political solutions, and going through it, we become “integrated beings in a world capable of integration”. Darwish created a new poetics in Arabic poetry, a poetics of space and place.
Intensely lyrical and meticulous in depicting Palestinian places, trees, soil, animals, food and smells, Darwish’s poetry powerfully employs the Arabic convention of Sufi love in his poetic epics such as Qasidat al-Ard (Poem of the land). Recalling the killing of five girl student demonstrators by the Israeli army on March 30, 2001, on the Palestinian Day of the Land, he makes the metaphor move elegantly from land to plant to girls to blood: “In the month of March/in the year of the uprising/earth told us her blood secrets/In the month of March / five girls at the door/of the primary school/came past the violet/came past the rifle/burst into flame./With roses/with thyme/they opened/the song of the soil/and entered the earth/the ultimate embrace/March comes to the land/out of earth’s depth/out of the girls’ dance./The violets leaned over a little/so that the girls’ voices/could cross over/the birds/pointed their beaks/at the song and at my heart…”
The poet calls the soil an extension of his soul, and his hands, the pavement of wounds. “I name the pebbles wings/I name the birds/almond and figs/I name the ribs/trees/Gently I pull a branch/from the fig tree of my breast/I throw it like a stone/to blow up the conqueror’s tank.”
For Darwish, most tragically conscious of the loss of his homeland and his roots, metaphor became a synthesising power that magically reconstructed his atomised world; metaphor became an empowering outlet for the powerless and a home for the homeless. They lyrically embraced every corner of his homeland and through them the poet artistically recreated his lost Palestine. In his lyrical world, stone becomes wind and the prison flowers.
There is also intense irony as in the lines: “Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk./Let me rest my road against a stone.” The same irony is found in these lines: “They feathered his mouth with chains/And tied his hands to the rock of the dead./They said; You’re a murderer./They took his food, his clothes and his banners,/And threw him into the well of the dead./They said: You’re a thief./They threw him out of every port/And took away his young beloved./And then they said: You’re a refugee.”
He defines poetry in A State of Siege: “To a reader: do not trust the poem,/ The daughter of absence./It is neither intuition, nor is it/ Thought,/But rather the sense of the abyss.”
Mural, his 20th book of poems had a meditative vein. Here he contemplates eternity: “There is no age sufficient for me/To pull my end to the beginning.” But the passion of his early poetry returned in the poems written in 2001-2002 such as Mohammad, The Sacrifice , and A State of Siege. In A State of Siege he captures the state of Palestine in profound images: “The siege is a waiting period/Waiting on the tilted ladder/In the middle of the storm” or “A woman asked the cloud:/Please enfold my loved one/My clothes are soaked with his blood./If you shall not be rain, my love,/Be trees saturated with humidity, be a stone,/And if you shall not be a stone, my love,/Be a moon, be a moon in the loved one’s dream,/So said a woman to her son, in his funeral.” The poet invites those who stand in the doorway to come in, drink Arabic coffee with his people so that they feel reassured that Arabs too are men like them.
Receiving the Principal Prize of the Prince Claus Fund in Austria, the poet said in his acceptance speech: “A person can only be born in one place; however, he may die several times elsewhere; in exile and in prisons, in a homeland transformed into a nightmare by occupation and oppression. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world, that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace… with life.”
K. Satchidanandan is a Malayalam poet, bilingual critic and a former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi.
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