Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Great Loss: Mahmoud Darwish, the Poet of Palestine, Dies at 67

Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)

Darwish is considered to be the most important contemporary Arab poet working today. He was born in 1942 in the village of Barweh in the Galilee, which was razed to the ground by the Israelis in 1948. As a result of his politi-cal activism he faced house arrest and imprisonment. Darwish was the editor of Ittihad Newspaper before leaving in 1971 to study for a year in the USSR. Then he went to Egypt where he worked in Cairo for Al-Ahram Newspaper and in Beirut, Lebanon as an editor of the Journal “Palestinian Issues”. He was also the director of the Palestinian Research Center. Darwish was a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO and lived in exile between Beirut and Paris until his return in 1996 to Palestine. His poems are known throughout the Arab world, and several of them have been put to music. His poetry has gained great sophistication over the years, and has enjoyed international fame for a long time. He has published around 30 poetry and prose collections, which have been translated into 35 languages. He is the editor in chief and founder of the prestigious literary review Al Karmel, which has resumed publication in January 1997 out of the Sakakini Centre offices. He published in 1998 the poetry collection: Sareer el Ghariba (Bed of the Stranger), his first collection of love poems. In 2000 he published Jidariyya (Mural) a book consisting of one poem about his near death experience in 1997. In 1997 a documentary was produced about him by French TV directed by noted French-Israeli director Simone Bitton. He is a commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters. [Official biography]

With the death of Professor Edward W. Said in 2003 and now the death of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian people have lost two of their most passionate spokesmen and literary champions. The world has lost two of the most best minds and creative spirits.

Mahmoud Darwish, Poet of the Palestinians, Dies

By Mohammed Assadi and Ali Sawafta

Reuters [August 9, 2008]

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Mahmoud Darwish, whose poetry his fellow Palestinians embraced as the voice of their suffering, died on Saturday after heart surgery in Texas.

President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of national mourning to honour the 67-year-old writer who, a close friend said, never came round from a major operation two days earlier.

"The passing of our great poet, Mahmoud Darwish, the lover of Palestine, the pioneer of the modern Palestinian cultural project, and the brilliant national leader, will leave a great gap in our political, cultural and national lives," Abbas said.

"Words cannot describe the depth of sadness in our hearts," he added. "Mahmoud, may God help us for your loss."

The death of a man whose life and words were tightly bound up in a struggle for a Palestinian national rebirth that seems little closer now than when his first work was published in 1960 immediately triggered a wider outpouring of popular emotion.

As news from Houston filtered through, people, some weeping, gathered round candles in the darkened streets of Ramallah. The poet had made his home in the West Bank city since returning in the 1990s from a long exile during which he rose to prominence in Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Palestinian television interrupted programmes to air film of Darwish, the "national poet", reading from his work. Officials said his body would be flown back for burial in Ramallah.

He won new generations of admirers with work that evoked the pain of Palestinians displaced, as he was as a child, by the establishment of Israel 60 years ago, but also did not shrink from criticism and touched on broader human themes, like love.

An intensely private man who largely lived alone, he enjoyed a mass following across the Arab world, where he had the kind of readership contemporary poets in other languages only dream of.

Palestinians at home and abroad spoke of intense, personal feelings of bereavement. "His death is a loss to the Palestinian people, to the Palestinian cause and to freedom-loving people around the world," said Ahmad Ibrahim, a banker in Ramallah.

Philosophy professor Abdel-Rahim al-Sheikh was choked with emotion: "I cannot speak now. My soul is not helping me."


Just last month Darwish packed out a hall for a reading in Ramallah and millions watched on television an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian "Nakba", or catastrophe.

In 1948, Darwish was among that half of the Arab population of Palestine driven from their homes, in his family's case near the port of Haifa. They later returned to live in the area.

Jailed several times, Darwish left in 1971 for the Soviet Union. Exile in Cairo, Beirut, Tunis and Paris followed.

In 1988, Israel's parliament debated one work which incensed Israelis who saw an attack on the existence of the Jewish state -- though Darwish said he wanted an end only to their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip: "So leave our land. Our shore, our sea. Our wheat, our salt, our wound," he had written.

"Take your portion from our blood and go away".

In 2000, an Israeli minister proposed adding Darwish to the school curriculum -- but the proposal went no further.

Darwish served on the executive committee of the PLO but broke with Arafat when the two disagreed over the 1993 Oslo accords on establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Fifteen years on, negotiations appear to most observers to be going nowhere. Violence, a split between Abbas and his Islamist rivals in Gaza and continued Israeli settlement in the West Bank leave few Palestinians hopeful of a viable state.

Last month, Darwish, a heavy smoker who had twice before undergone major heart surgery, spoke to Reuters of his fading health and his gloomy assessment of the world he would leave.

His last works are imbued with a sarcastic humour and a sense of both Israelis and Palestinians, however antagonistic, bound irredeemably together to share an uncertain future.

"Sarcasm helps me overcome the harshness of the reality we live, eases the pain of scars and makes people smile," he said.

"History laughs at both the victim and the aggressor."

In a new poem called "The Written Script", Darwish related a dialogue between a victim and his enemy who fall into a pit:

He saw Israelis bent on suicide, taking Palestinians with them, if the occupation of the West Bank went on: "A killer and his victim die together in one hole," he says in the piece.

Another recent poem "The Dice Thrower", told how Darwish saw death coming yet he clung to life: "To Life I say: Go slow, wait for me until the drunkenness dries in my glass.

"I have no role in what I was or who I will be.

"It is chance and chance has no name.

"I call the doctor 10 minutes before the death, 10 minutes are sufficient to live by chance."

(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr, Joseph Nasr and Houston bureau; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)

"Under Siege"

Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.

A country preparing for dawn. We grow less intelligent
For we closely watch the hour of victory:
No night in our night lit up by the shelling
Our enemies are watchful and light the light for us
In the darkness of cellars.

Here there is no "I".
Here Adam remembers the dust of his clay.

On the verge of death, he says:
I have no trace left to lose:
Free I am so close to my liberty. My future lies in my own hand.
Soon I shall penetrate my life,
I shall be born free and parentless,
And as my name I shall choose azure letters...

You who stand in the doorway, come in,
Drink Arabic coffee with us
And you will sense that you are men like us
You who stand in the doorways of houses
Come out of our morningtimes,
We shall feel reassured to be
Men like you!

When the planes disappear, the white, white doves
Fly off and wash the cheeks of heaven
With unbound wings taking radiance back again, taking possession
Of the ether and of play. Higher, higher still, the white, white doves
Fly off. Ah, if only the sky
Were real [a man passing between two bombs said to me].

Cypresses behind the soldiers, minarets protecting
The sky from collapse. Behind the hedge of steel
Soldiers piss—under the watchful eye of a tank—
And the autumnal day ends its golden wandering in
A street as wide as a church after Sunday mass...

[To a killer] If you had contemplated the victim’s face
And thought it through, you would have remembered your mother in the
Gas chamber, you would have been freed from the reason for the rifle
And you would have changed your mind: this is not the way
to find one’s identity again.

The siege is a waiting period
Waiting on the tilted ladder in the middle of the storm.

Alone, we are alone as far down as the sediment
Were it not for the visits of the rainbows.

We have brothers behind this expanse.
Excellent brothers. They love us. They watch us and weep.
Then, in secret, they tell each other:
"Ah! if this siege had been declared..." They do not finish their sentence:
"Don’t abandon us, don’t leave us."

Our losses: between two and eight martyrs each day.
And ten wounded.
And twenty homes.
And fifty olive trees...
Added to this the structural flaw that
Will arrive at the poem, the play, and the unfinished canvas.

A woman told the cloud: cover my beloved
For my clothing is drenched with his blood.

If you are not rain, my love
Be tree
Sated with fertility, be tree
If you are not tree, my love
Be stone
Saturated with humidity, be stone
If you are not stone, my love
Be moon
In the dream of the beloved woman, be moon
[So spoke a woman
to her son at his funeral]

Oh watchmen! Are you not weary
Of lying in wait for the light in our salt
And of the incandescence of the rose in our wound
Are you not weary, oh watchmen?


A little of this absolute and blue infinity
Would be enough
To lighten the burden of these times
And to cleanse the mire of this place.

It is up to the soul to come down from its mount
And on its silken feet walk
By my side, hand in hand, like two longtime
Friends who share the ancient bread
And the antique glass of wine
May we walk this road together
And then our days will take different directions:
I, beyond nature, which in turn
Will choose to squat on a high-up rock.

On my rubble the shadow grows green,
And the wolf is dozing on the skin of my goat
He dreams as I do, as the angel does
That life is here...not over there.

In the state of siege, time becomes space
Transfixed in its eternity
In the state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.

The martyr encircles me every time I live a new day
And questions me: Where were you? Take every word
You have given me back to the dictionaries
And relieve the sleepers from the echo’s buzz.

The martyr enlightens me: beyond the expanse
I did not look
For the virgins of immortality for I love life
On earth, amid fig trees and pines,
But I cannot reach it, and then, too, I took aim at it
With my last possession: the blood in the body of azure.

The martyr warned me: Do not believe their ululations
Believe my father when, weeping, he looks at my photograph
How did we trade roles, my son, how did you precede me.
I first, I the first one!

The martyr encircles me: my place and my crude furniture are all that I have changed.
I put a gazelle on my bed,
And a crescent of moon on my finger
To appease my sorrow.

The siege will last in order to convince us we must choose an enslavement that does no harm, in fullest liberty!

Resisting means assuring oneself of the heart’s health,
The health of the testicles and of your tenacious disease:
The disease of hope.

And in what remains of the dawn, I walk toward my exterior
And in what remains of the night, I hear the sound of footsteps inside me.

Greetings to the one who shares with me an attention to
The drunkenness of light, the light of the butterfly, in the
Blackness of this tunnel!

Greetings to the one who shares my glass with me
In the denseness of a night outflanking the two spaces:
Greetings to my apparition.

My friends are always preparing a farewell feast for me,
A soothing grave in the shade of oak trees
A marble epitaph of time
And always I anticipate them at the funeral:
Who then has died...who?

Writing is a puppy biting nothingness
Writing wounds without a trace of blood.

Our cups of coffee. Birds green trees
In the blue shade, the sun gambols from one wall
To another like a gazelle
The water in the clouds has the unlimited shape of what is left to us
Of the sky. And other things of suspended memories
Reveal that this morning is powerful and splendid,
And that we are the guests of eternity.

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