Sinan Antoon remembers Mahmoud Darwish, who embodied – and transcended – the Palestinian cause.
I say: I am neither a citizen
nor a refugee
I want only one thing,
a simple quiet death
On a day like this
in the hidden ends of lilies
a death that might compensate
a little or a lot
for a life I counted
I want a death in the garden
no more and no less...
Mahmoud Darwish did not enter the great void about which he wrote so eloquently exactly the way he had imagined. Alas, we do not get to choose the way we die – just as we do not have much say in where we are born; it is a matter of chance and coincidence. Darwish was well aware of such contingencies: in his last published poem, he wrote:
I am like you. . . I was named by coincidence
and belonged to a family by coincidence
and inherited its features and diseases
its defective arteries.
It was his defective arteries – his body, and not his remarkably young spirit – that succumbed during heart surgery in a Houston hospital. But he was more prepared than his admirers for his own departure.
Like many across the Arab world, and its diaspora, I was shocked and heart-broken. Somehow I took it for granted that he would always be here. But Darwish, always ahead of his readers, was prepared for his own departure. This, after all, was not his first intimate encounter with death. He had come so close in 1998, when his heart stopped for two minutes after a heart surgery before he was revived. That experience produced one of his masterpieces, Mural (2000), an epic poem about the encounter with death and nothingness, articulated through a unique fusion of mythology and history that declared the triumph of art over death.
He had even made sure to eulogise himself – he contemplated his own death in a stunningly beautiful book of highly poetic prose, In the Presence of Absence, (2006) which demonstrated that he was not only one of the greatest Arab poets of the 20th century and the dominating poetic voice of the last three decades; he was a great master of prose as well.
In his last poem, Darwish wrote:
I could have been someone else
I could have been somewhere else.
But he was to be Mahmoud Darwish, and to carry an immense burden. His genius shone through, in fact, in the way that he shouldered this burden, that he succeeded in being the kind of poet that he wanted to be, not merely what others wanted or expected. “It is so difficult to be a Palestinian. It is so difficult to be a Palestinian poet,” he said at a reading in Cairo in 2003. Indeed, it is extremely hard to be the Palestinian poet, the voice of a nation and a cultural icon – as he is mostly, but not necessarily accurately, remembered. With great fame and popularity of this kind come severe pressures, restrictions, and demands on the aesthetic and artistic levels. If Palestine, as a cause, carried Darwish’s talent early on, he had to carry it in turn for the rest of his life. But he managed to remain loyal to the cause, even as he simultaneously inhabited other spaces, becoming a great world poet with universal concerns.
Darwish did not choose to be born in al Birweh, a village in the Galilee, in 1941. Nor did he choose to leave; in 1948, his family was forced by Israeli troops to flee to Lebanon. When they returned, it was to another home; their village had been destroyed. By age seven he had witnessed and survived the obliteration, displacement and internal exile that would mark the Palestinian tragedy and become central themes in his poetry.
“What can a poet do when confronted by the bulldozers of history?” These bulldozers were both literal and metaphorical. Darwish discovered the power of words early on and wrote fierce poems of resistance and love of land. He was imprisoned five times and put under house arrest by the Israeli military authorities. His famous 1964 poem Identity Card, with its unforgettable refrain “Record! I am an Arab” crystallised Palestinian resistance against Israeli attempts to erase Palestinian identity and history. It was emblematic of what came to be known as “resistance poetry”. This poem and others brought him great fame in the Arab world; he joined the Israeli Communist Party and worked as a journalist and editor.
In 1971, while on a scholarship in Moscow, Darwish decided to go to Cairo and then Beirut. Beirut, then the political and cultural laboratory of Arab modernity, allowed Darwish to engage with many of the great Arab poets and intellectuals who had made the city their home – and made it a grand window onto the Arab world.
There he was also to witness the highs and lows of the Palestinian resistance as he established himself as one of its main intellectuals and cultural symbols. He continued to hone his poetic project: to document his people’s fortunes and embed himself and his poetry in the collective memory of all Arabs. The Beirut phase included monumental poems such as Ahmad al Zaatar (1977), on the 1976 siege and massacre of Tal al Zaatar, and Madih adh Dhill al Ali (Praise for the Lofty Shadow), and Qasidat Beirut (The Beirut Poem), both written in 1983.
The Palestinian exodus from Beirut took Darwish along with it to Greece, Cyprus and Tunis, where the PLO found refuge until its return after Oslo. His poetry had moved away from direct lyricism and began to foreshadow the epic and mythological concern of his middle phase and his appeal to more universal horizons. Darwish soon settled in Paris, where he would have one of his most productive periods.
There he wrote his account of a single day of Israeli shelling during the 1982 siege of Beirut, Memory of Forgetfulness (1985), one of the most beautiful and haunting war memoirs, with its unforgettable passages like his description of a man struggling to dodge bullets and bombs to make his morning coffee in the kitchen.
Eleven Planets (1992) was poignantly prophetic of Oslo and its discontents. Darwish employed the Arabs’ defeat and exodus from al-Andalus in 1492 as a prism to accentuate the Palestinian predicament in 1992 and the poetic defence of narrative and memory. A voracious reader, Darwish began to engage and incorporate a variety of historical experiences and other world narratives and myths in his poetry, to read the Palestinian saga alongside and within a universal context of postcolonial tragedies. His poem The Speech of the Red Indian is a powerful indictment of the erasure of indigenous cultures and of settler-colonialism:
Let’s give the earth enough time to tell
the whole truth about you and us.
O you who are guests in this place
leave a few chairs empty
for your hosts to read out
the conditions for peace
in a treaty with the dead.
I have met a number of Native American poets who know it by heart.
Darwish resigned from the PLO because of his objections to the signing of the Oslo Accords and his disagreement with Arafat. He correctly predicted that it amounted to political suicide. He devoted his time to poetry and, as if in an act of defiance against the erasure of the rights of the victims, wrote one of his most important collections, Why Have You Left the Horse Alone (1995), a poetic autobiography and study of place as the intersection of geography and history. This marked a definite turn towards the autobiographical and the personal, toward the Palestinian as an individual subject with daily concerns and away from the collective.
A Bed for the Stranger (1995) was totally devoted to love and erotic themes. So immense was Darwish’s symbolic capital and so powerful his status that some claimed he was “abandoning” the cause by writing an entire collection about love, but Darwish was intent on developing his own poetic project and guiding his readers and surprising them with every collection.
Following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Darwish chose to return to live in Ramallah in 1996 as a citizen and he divided his time between there and Amman. In a State of Siege (2002), Darwish broached the horrors of daily life under Israeli military occupation during and after the second Intifada, but also celebrated hope and resistance.
While most poets struggle to write – and to write differently – in their later years, in the last decade Darwish has been both prolific and inventive. He continued to experiment with form and to try to bring the verse he wrote closer to prose poetry in its music, but also in its tone. His poetic discourse became more conversational. In its themes, his poetry was now free to roam all topics no matter how mundane or metaphysical. Darwish had secured the trust and devotion of his readers, who knew that he would always take them to new heights no matter the topic or style.
His most recent collections – following his own heart surgery, and the death and destruction visited on Palestine and Iraq – were increasingly concerned with the fragility of human existence and the paradoxical nature of being in an ailing world. The poetic persona is often fragmented and on an eternal journey to the unknown.
From the fixed and anchored I of his early years, Darwish now inhabited and celebrated a scattered and split subjectivity. The self became a site for conversations carried out by its various manifestations and fragments. Homes, both real and imagined, and the excavation of memory remained frequent threads in his poetic narrative. With his home receding in time and space, the impossibility of return haunts many of these poems.
Darwish did return to Israel, for a poetry recital in Haifa in July 2007. A special permit had to be obtained to allow him to enter the country. He knew very well that his upcoming surgery might not succeed and this was, for him, a secret farewell to Palestine. He insisted on long walks and savoured the beauty of the Galilee and the coast.
His family and some of his friends requested that he be buried in the Galilee he so loved, but the Israeli authorities have refused and so he will be buried in Ramallah – close, but not close enough, to his home. Like the great and mythical sixth century Arab poet Imru al Qais, to whom Darwish referred in many a poem, Darwish died in a strange land, far away from home.
Imru al Qais, the poet-king, failed to regain his father’s lost kingdom, but he secured a more permanent place in the poetic pantheon of the Arabs. It is not an exaggeration to say that Darwish, too, has firmly anchored himself in this great tradition, in the Arab collective memory. But he has another dimension, as a poet who transcended the national and regional sphere; perhaps he is one of the last great world poets. Every poet contains thousands of poets, Darwish used to say. It would be difficult for any other poet, now or in the future, to fill up a football stadium with admirers, as Darwish used to do; to be so popular without being a populist; and to be the guardian of a nation’s collective memory yet speak to universal concerns.
His work is the poetic atlas of Palestine and its people’s tragedies, but also their hopes and resilience. His rich oeuvre encompasses Greek and Near Eastern mythology, Biblical and Quranic references and conversations with Lorca, Neruda, Ritsos and other immortals.
Darwish was not afraid of death, nor was he concerned with immortality. He defined death as “that nothingness which is called immortality by those who fear it.” But today a strong case can be made for his entry into the realm of the immortal.
In one of his last books, elegising himself, he wrote:
Let us go, you and I, on two paths:
You, to a second life, promised to you by
language in a reader who might survive the fall of a comet on earth.
I, to a rendezvous, I have postponed more than
once, with a death I promised a glass of red wine in a poem. . .
I bid farewell to Mahmoud Darwish. But his second life, one of many to come, is about to begin.
Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born poet and novelist. His works include I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody and The Baghdad Blues.