10 August 2008
Mahmoud Darwish, the renowned Palestinian poet, has died after open heart surgery at the Memorial Hermann medical center in Texas.
Ann Brimberry, Memorial Hermann’s spokeswoman, confirmed to Al Jazeera that Darwish died at 1.35pm (18:35 GMT).
Siham Daoud, a fellow poet and friend of the 67-year-old, had asked not to be resuscitated if the surgery did not succeed.
She said Darwish departed for the US ten days ago for the surgery, and he had undergone two operations for heart problems before Saturday’s surgery.
Best known for his work describing the Palestinian struggle for independence, the experience of exile and factional infighting, Darwish was a vocal critic of Israeli policy and the occupation of Palestinian lands.
Many of his poems have also been put into music – most notably Rita, Birds of Galilee and I yearn for my mother’s bread, becoming anthems for at least two generations of Arabs.
“He felt the pulse of Palestinians in beautiful poetry. He was a mirror of the Palestinian society,” Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist and lecturer in cultural studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem said.
Last year, Darwish recited a poem damning the deadly infighting between rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, describing it as “a public attempt at suicide in the streets”.
He was born in the village of Barweh in Galilee, a village that was razed during the establishment of Israel in 1948.
He joined the Israeli Communist Party after high school and began writing poems for leftist newspapers.
He was put under house arrest and imprisoned for his political activities, after which he worked as editor of Ittihad newspaper before leaving to study in the USSR in 1971.
Originally a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Darwish resigned in 1993 in protest over the interim peace accords that Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, signed with Israel.
As a journalist, he worked for al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo and later became director of the Palestinian Research Centre.
In 2000, Yossi Sarid, Israel’s education minister, suggested including some of Darwish’s poems in the Israeli high school curriculum.
But Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister overruled him, saying Israel was not ready yet for his ideas in the school system.
In 2001, he won the Lannan prize for cultural freedom.
Leaves of Olives was published in 1964 when Darwish was 22-years old. Since then more than 20 volumes of his works of poetry have been published.
They did not recognize me in the shadows
That suck away my color in this Passport
And to them my wound was an exhibit
For a tourist Who loves to collect photographs
They did not recognize me,
Ah . . . Donâ€™t leave
The palm of my hand without the sun
Because the trees recognize me
Donâ€™t leave me pale like the moon!
All the birds that followed my palm
To the door of the distant airport
All the wheatfields
All the prisons
All the white tombstones
All the barbed Boundaries
All the waving handkerchiefs
All the eyes
were with me,
But they dropped them from my passport
Stripped of my name and identity?
On soil I nourished with my own hands?
Today Job cried out
Filling the sky:
Donâ€™t make and example of me again!
Oh, gentlemen, Prophets,
Donâ€™t ask the trees for their names
Donâ€™t ask the valleys who their mother is
>From my forehead bursts the sward of light
And from my hand springs the water of the river
All the hearts of the people are my identity
So take away my passport!
On the day when my words
I was a friend to stalks of wheat.
On the day when my words
I was a friend to chains.
On the day when my words
I was a friend to streams.
On the day when my words
were a rebellion
I was a friend to earthquakes.
On the day when my words
were bitter apples
I was a friend to the optimist.
But when my words became
Translated by Ben Bennani
RITA AND THE RIFLE
Between Rita and my eyes
There is a rifle
And whoever knows Rita
Kneels and plays
To the divinity in those honey-colored eyes
And I kissed Rita
When she was young
And I remember how she approached
And how my arm covered the loveliest of braids
And I remember Rita
The way a sparrow remembers its stream
Between us there are a million sparrows and images
And many a rendezvous
Fired at by a rifle
Rita’s name was a feast in my mouth
Rita’s body was a wedding in my blood
And I was lost in Rita for two years
And for two years she slept on my arm
And we made promises
Over the most beautiful of cups
And we burned in the wine of our lips
And we were born again
What before this rifle could have turned my eyes from yours
Except a nap or two or honey-colored clouds?
Once upon a time
Oh, the silence of dusk
In the morning my moon migrated to a far place
Towards those honey-colored eyes
And the city swept away all the singers
Between Rita and my eyesâ€”
FAREWELL, MAHMOUD DARWISH
Sinan Antoon recalls the voice of a nation
Iraqi poet and novelist Sinan Antoon in Baghdad before he became a U.S. resident and teacher at NYU
“What can a poet do when confronted by the bulldozers of history?”
– Mahmoud Darwish
Very few poets become the voice of their nation and even fewer succeed in transcending that to become much more. Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was that rare bird who crossed many skies and horizons. His death last week, following complications from open-heart surgery in Houston, Texas, ended an epic life and interrupted a stunningly creative and prolific output, especially in his later years. It is difficult to underestimate Darwish’s symbolic capital and his cultural and political significance. With his departure Palestine loses one of its most precious cultural icons, a poetic voice of universal echoes. The larger Arab world and its diaspora bid farewell to one of its best modern poets and the most popular and successful one in the last three decades. His poems were set to music, discussed in the Israeli Knesset, and his recitals could fill sport stadiums. Darwish’s absence will further enhance his near-mythical status in the collective memory of Palestinians and Arabs.
Darwish was born on 13 March 1941 in Al-Birweh in Palestine’s Galilee. At the age of seven he and his family were forced by Israeli forces to flee their village to Lebanon. Al-Birweh was destroyed by the Israelis and a settlement has taken its place. When Darwish’s family returned a year later they settled in Deir Al-Assad, near the traces of their destroyed village. The harrowing experience of losing his home and being an internal exile in his land at such a young age would haunt Darwish’s poetry and become a central theme with rich and complex variations running throughout his oeuvre. “I will never forget that wound,” he said. In one of his last books Darwish wrote of still hearing “the wailing of a village under a settlement”.
He was extremely precocious and discovered the power of words and poetry at a young age. At 12 he recited a poem at school on the anniversary of the Nakba about a child who returns to find his home taken by others. He was summoned by the Israeli military officer and threatened. His early fierce poetry registered his resistance to existential and cultural erasure practised by an apartheid colonial state. This is exemplified in Identity Card, which became an iconic poem of that phase and of what came to be known as “resistance poetry” with its famous refrain “Record, I am an Arab!” Darwish joined the Israeli Communist Party in 1961 and worked as a journalist in Al-Ittihad. He was imprisoned five times between 1961 and 1967 and was put under house arrest for three years.
He took the monumental decision not to return to Israel while on a scholarship to Moscow in 1971 and went to Cairo where his fame had already preceded him. Two years later he moved to Beirut and joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and remained there until 1982. In Beirut he was the editor of Shu’un Filastiniyya (Palestinian Affairs) and established Al-Karmil in 1981, one of the best cultural reviews to appear in the Arab world.
In Beirut, Darwish honed his poetic project and distinguished himself by continuous experimentation and engagement with developments in modern Arabic poetry, and by resisting the temptations and pressures of being pigeonholed as a “resistance poet”. Palestine and its concerns were always a central axis, but it was to be enriched through explorations of mythology and embedded in a more complex poetic narrative. Darwish witnessed and monumentalised key moments in the Palestinian saga in poems such as Ahmed Al-Zaatar (1977) on the 1976 siege and massacre of Tal Al-Zaatar and Madih Al-Zill Al-Aali (Praise for the Lofty Shadow), and Qasidat Beirut (The Beirut Poem) both written in 1983. Darwish was also a prose writer of exceptional beauty. Memory of Forgetfulness, a beautiful and haunting memoir about war, represented the daily horrors of the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut in 1982.
The Palestinian exodus from Beirut took Darwish to Tunis where the PLO found refuge until its return after Oslo in 1993. Darwish settled in Paris where he would have a most productive phase and transform his poetry to new heights in works such as I See What I Want (1990) and Eleven Planets (1992). His work enacted a poetic conversation with world epics and the Palestinian saga was rearticulated within a larger historical and cultural prism of the colonial moment of 1492 and its ramifications. Darwish reread Andalus and the genocide of the native Americans in mesmerising and epic poems simultaneously addressing the Palestinian question and universal postcolonial concerns. His poems were prophetic as to the fate of Palestinians. Darwish was elected to the executive committee of the PLO but resigned in 1993 over his objections to the Oslo Accords and his disagreement with Arafat. He correctly foresaw that they amounted to political suicide.
Why Have you Left the Horse Alone (1995) was a response of sorts to the challenges and threats of Oslo. It was an individual and collective poetic biography and an excavation of the memory of place. It also marked a shift in Darwish’s work towards the more personal and subjective. He continued to surprise and challenge his readers with A Bed for the Stranger (1999), a collection devoted to love. In 1998 Darwish had heart surgery for the second time and his heart stopped for two minutes. This encounter with death produced another epic poem, Mural (2000), about the triumph of art over death. Darwish decided to return and live in Ramallah as a citizen in 1996 and divided his time between the West Bank and Amman. A State of Siege (2002) was concerned with the horrors of Israeli occupation during the second Intifada, but also spoke of hope and resilience. Darwish was prolific and vibrant in his last years, stunning readers and critics with his ability to reinvent himself. In addition to three collections, ( Do not Apologise for What You Have Done (2004), Like Almond Blossoms or Beyond (2005), and The Butterfly Effect (2008), he left us one of the most powerful books of prose to be written in Arabic in modern times. In the Presence of Absence (2006) was a self-eulogy written in masterful poetic prose.
In the latter phase of his work Darwish was free to roam all themes no matter how mundane or metaphysical. The anchored and fixed I of his early years was now scattered in pronouns as the self became a site severed by time and space and open to all its others, in the widest sense. Darwish and his work contained multitudes and vast horizons, at the heart of which was Palestine in and of itself, but also Palestine as a metaphor for love, exile, and the injustice and pain of our contemporary moment.
Knowing surgery might not succeed, Darwish was keen on bidding farewell to his homeland and loved ones. He returned to Haifa for the first time since 1971 in July of last year for a historic poetry reading and a short visit. Permission had to be obtained from Israeli authorities. His family and friends had hoped he would be buried in the Galilee he loved but the Israelis refused and so he was buried in Ramallah.
“What can a poet do when confronted by the bulldozers of history?” asked Darwish once. To stand before them and preserve the memory and celebrate life as he did. “Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance,” he wrote in his last collection. And he left a treasure trove scattered in his 23 collections of poetry and four prose books. He lived in permanent exile and died in a strange land, but his poems are at home in the indestructible archive of our collective memory.
UNFORTUNATELY, IT WAS PARADISE: SELECTED POEMS
by Mahmoud Darwish (translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn ForchĂ©, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein)
University of California Press
January 2003, 191 pages, $18.95 (paperback)
by Andy Fogle
The White Sky of the Absolute
Mahmoud Darwish once read his poetry to an audience of 25,000 at a stadium in Beirut, and he’s drawn more crowds numbering in the thousands in Cairo and Paris. He is a force, undoubtedly the most popular and powerful poet of the Middle East, if not the world.
Since childhood, his life has variously figured into (and been figured, transfigured) the history of the region. Born in 1942 in a village of Palestine called Birwe. When he was six, the Israeli army occupied and later destroyed Birwe, along with over 400 other villages, causing a mass exodus of at least three-quarters of a million people. According to editor-translators Munir Akash and Carolyn ForchĂ©, “to avoid the ensuing massacres, the Darwish family fled to Lebanon. A year later, they returned to their county ‘illegally’, and settled in the nearby village of Dayr al-Asad, but too late to be counted among the Palestinians who survived and remained within the borders of the new state. The young Darwish was now an ‘internal refugee’, legally classified as a ‘present-absent alien’”. Designated as such, Darwish was harassed frequently and imprisoned several times for traveling from village to village without a permit, reciting his poetry. He finally left the country in 1970.
Why this book is important should be obvious: this region, and this world, is in ever-increasing political, military, economic and emotional turmoil. In world politics, the balance between how much power is in one pair of hands is uncomfortable at best and catastrophic.
One of the more magnificent things about Darwish’s work though is how it does not rely on history, biography, or politics. While it gives insight to these affairs, it doesn’t “explain” or “solve” them either, and he is far from a pedestrianly political-protest poet lacking depth or nuance, made of nothing but surface (the closest he comes to this is in a line like “I know what the dove means when it lays eggs on the rifle’s muzzle”-if only more “political poets” could say that was one of their least compelling statements).
His work strikes me most when it is at the highest point of tension between intimacy and elusiveness. “Mural” is a long poem that seems to be in the voice of a dying man-one might look at it as an eerily elaborated version of the moment one’s life flashes before one’s eyes. Here are a few of my favorite chunks:
We are left in place as the echo of an epic hymn.
… Like a small jar of water, absence breaks in me.
… My gods are a storm turned to stone in the land of the imagination.
… I only changed my heartbeat to hear my heart more clearly.
… I told myself: I am alive.
And I said: When two ghosts meet in the desert, do they walk on the same sands?
Do they compete to overpower the night?
… I said: I will wake up when I die.
There’s little linear narrative to be found, and I bet that’s out of necessity, when so much of the work’s thrust comes from the slipperiness of memory and language, and the awkward, tenderly haunted position of being an exile in one’s own land.
And exile is everywhere, a placelessness that can’t be quelled (“There is no place on earth where we haven’t pitched our tent of exile”). In lines like “A woman of our group says: My village is the bundle on my back” and “Where can I free myself of the homeland in my body?”, this is this displacing sense of one ultimately is one’s own home, just one’s own body, and all other evidence or remains of homeland is hearsay, memory, or photograph.
The self is also constantly evaporating: “My ‘I’ has flown away. For there is no ‘I’ but ‘I’.”, “O self, who shall I be after you?” “I could not distinguish between the dream of my self and my self.” “Does the stranger see himself in the mirror/of another stranger?” This might be seen as speaking to the slippery slope of subjectivity, but it also has to do with the impossibility of objectivity and the potential of metamorphosis (both personal and political. When Darwish writes “Of our home we see only the unseen: our mystery./…The soul must recognize itself in its very soul, or die here”, the message, the enigma, is at once instructively global and mystically private (“We could be what we should be”). And it might be interesting to attempt the perspective of the soldier in “A Soldier Dreams of White Tulips”: “Suddenly I saw the land as one sees a grocery store, a street, newspapers.”
These poems are hypnotically fluid, sounded like a bell by anaphora, often cyclic, kaleidoscopic in their constant transformation, and doves are everywhere. Sentences are overwhelmingly declarative, and the lines are heavily end-stopped, but the overall effect is of something that hovers. There are so many seeming-contradictions, paradoxes, conflicts and transformations in these poems-”We live our death. This half-death is our triumph”-that the whole collection seems to be a kind of interzone (to borrow William S. Burroughs’ novel-title) of philosophical wrestling and lyric omniscience.
For me, this book-perhaps the most important, available, and representative volume of Darwish to date-is really remarkable. It’s striking how this poet is so much at once and as a whole: personal and political, “experimental” yet lyrically so, informed by philosophy yet reminiscent of prayer. I can only call it undeniably beautiful in its elusiveness, like watching a ghost the way one watches a sunset, or how music means without meaning, pointing marvelously to what is not wholly there:
Like a desert, space recedes from time
the distance needed for a poem to explode.
…O lute, give me back what has been lost,
and sacrifice me over it.
…O stranger, I am a stranger and you are like me.
O stranger, far from home, go back.
O lute, bring back what is lost, and sacrifice over you
from jugular to jugular.
Everything will begin again.
I don’t want to stay too long on any crunchy hobbyhorse about how beautiful it is that while we have political leaders affecting the masses with their decisions and various weapons, there is also (fortunately) a poetic leader affecting the masses with his imagery, his lyricism, and his voice. Still, in the end I have to cast my vote for this connection between poetry and politics, and for the hope that this seeming disparity-the disparity between human atrocity and human beauty-projects.
I wish I could find the stanza that solves everything, the image that we could all dwell in, the lyric that breathes in each person’s chest. And it must be hopelessly naive of me to imagine political leaders using poetry to effect change, something poets already do on their own (however slight the range), and maybe that wouldn’t be right in the first place, the explicit “merger” of poetry and politics. Maybe this is Plato’s fault, exiling poets from his Ideal State. Maybe politicians are cursed to dwell predominantly in ceremony. Maybe it’s inevitable that the work of most poets who become popular loses its pumping blood and flashing mind, while all the other poets are sentenced to obscurity, isolation, and dusty shelves. But not this one.
â€” 5 March 2003