He made a homeland of words (Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008)


“My homeland is not a suitcase and I am no traveler,” Mahmoud Darwish wrote in an attempt to give poetic expression to the Palestinian tragedy. But it seems that after he decided to up and leave Haifa of his own accord in 1970, eventually joining the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he wandered between airports and “sat on suitcases” more than any other Palestinian did.

His first departure from Palestine took place in the year of the Nakba (“The Catastrophe”), like the rest of the Palestinians. This exile didn’t last long, and he returned as a boy with his family, among a group deemed “infiltrators” by the state, to Birwa, his birth village, only to discover that the village had been destroyed and no longer existed. And thus the young Darwish joined the band of “present absentees”-people who hadn’t been in the country when the first census was taken.

The meaning of the term watan (homeland) is narrow in Arab culture, confined to the borders of the village. Therefore, Darwish discovered upon his return that he had come back from exile in Lebanon to a new kind of exile: “I had been a refugee in Lebanon and now I was a refugee in my own country,” he wrote on the return to the village that was no longer, to the “lost homeland.” That, in effect, is the common thread woven through Darwish’s entire body of poetry throughout the years.

He went to school in Deir al-Assad, a Galilee village not far from the ruins of Birwa, his lost paradise. In those years, his teachers hid him from the police, because as an “infiltrator” he was illegal in the eyes of the enforcers of the new Israeli law.

As the years went on, Darwish began looking for an outlet to express the complexity of his life in a country that had changed its visage. He found his way to the Arabic-language press of the Israeli Communist Party, and his star as a poet quickly rose. After the war of June 1967, not only were the two sides of Jerusalem connected, but Palestinians on both sides of the border were joined as one group with a fresh wound. Even the neighboring Arab world suddenly discovered an Arab-Palestinian minority, whose members had been forgotten in parts of Palestine and who had become citizens of the State of Israel.

Darwish felt suffocated in the country, and wanted to aim higher, stronger and farther. He aspired to reach the Arab spotlight, beyond Haifa, in the capital cities of the Arab world. And thus, after he left in 1970 and was received abroad with open arms, he found that scores of spotlights were turned on him. But as the years passed and the dreams of the liberation of Palestine grew more distant, his remorse over his hasty departure from the land, his personal homeland, began to eat away at him. He settled in Lebanon and wrote poems about Beirut. But the Lebanese, who were embroiled in their own wars with the Palestinians, weren’t happy to haveone of them, albeit a popular poet, writing about Beirut. He later explained to Halit Yeshurun in an interview that they told him, “‘This isn’t your city.’ They said I was a stranger. I felt temporary.”

Following the First Lebanon War, Darwish and the rest of the PLO in Lebanon were uprooted, first to Cyprus, then to Tunisia. From then on, terms like “here” and “there” began to appear frequently in Darwish’s poems, part of his new search for belonging. “I am from there, I am from here, but I am neither there nor here,” he wrote in the collection “Fewer Roses,” becoming submerged in his memories: “I come from there and I have memories / Born as mortals are, I have a mother / And a house with many windows / I have brothers, friends / And a prison cell with a cold window-/ I learnt all the words and broke them up / To make a single word: Homeland” (from “I Come From There,” translation by Fady Joudah).

From this feeling of foreignness in exile, Darwish began to make his way to his true homeland: “I love to travel / to a village that never hangs my last evening on its cypresses.” But he knew that his way back wasn’t a bed of roses: “I will have to throw many roses before I reach a rose in Galilee” (translations by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche)

It was no coincidence that Darwish chose the name “Al-Karmel” for the literary quarterly he edited over many years of exile-in Beirut, Cyprus and eventually Ramallah. Though he had left the Galilee and the Carmel, his “private” geography, in search of glory in Arab capitals, he continued to carry his small homeland on the wings of metaphor.

In more honest moments, he would reveal his true feelings (not just the slogan) regarding his real homeland, which he kept under lock and key. He admitted in the interview with Halit Yeshurun that he wouldn’t want to live in Gaza, that he didn’t like Gaza and that Gaza wasn’t his homeland. But it wasn?t only that Gaza felt like exile: So did Ramallah, where he settled after the Oslo Accords. Again, he felt he was living in exile in a “political homeland.” As he told Adam Shatz in an interview with The New York Times in 2001, “I had never been in the West Bank before… it’s not my private homeland. Without memories you have no real relationship to a place.” With these words, “the Palestinian national poet” exposes the problematic nature of belonging to the Palestinian homeland, but he evades an explanation of what his real homeland is.

These kinds of utterances never found their way into interviews with the Arab press. The homeland is a slogan touted by many, but no one tries to pick it apart, discuss its deeper significance or indicate its limits and what it symbolizes in the private and collective consciousness of the Palestinians and of the Arabs in general. Arab mass media treated him like a symbol surrounded by an aura of sanctity. Therefore, a real discussion of those kinds of questions seemed like the desecration of something holy.

“Record! I am an Arab”

Against his will, Darwish turned into a Palestinian symbol, from both a poetic and a political perspective. It was hard on him, and he tried more than once to free himself from the shackles of the narrow Palestinian niche that other Arab poets, envious of his success, designated for him. The masses, as is their nature, look for symbols, and the masses loved him. Moreover, Arab culture has always, even before the advent of Islam, looked to its poets to be the spokespeople of the tribe. And suddenly in the midst of the Arab masses appeared an ideal spokesman for the Palestinian tribe, the Arab tribe-standing tall before his enemies: “Record! I am an Arab,” he said defiantly in one of his early poems.

And thus, consciously or not, Darwish turned discourse on the watan into his poetic profession. “He said to me on his way to his prison: I will know when I am released, / that speaking in praise of the homeland / like speaking dispraise of the homeland / is a profession like any other profession,” he wrote in “State of Siege.” And indeed, being a skilled craftsman, Darwish wrote extensively about the homeland. He even described his native land as being made of words, “lana balad min kalam”-we have a native land of words (from “Fewer Roses”).

On some level, admiration of Darwish was a form of permissible defiance of Arab regimes, insofar as discussions of Palestine in the Arab world were the only shelter for dissidents. These repressive regimes were essentially throwing a bone to Arab citizens by letting them wave the “flag of Palestine,” on the condition that they not go near the rulers themselves. The masses loved Darwish’s inferior poems, not the better poetry that he crafted in his last years. The masses would often request that he read one of the poorer poems, and he would refuse, attempting to free himself from the constraints of those works, the constraints of the symbol that so burdened him.

Being faithful to classical Arabic poetry, Darwish rightly continued to adhere to the tradition that gave weight to the musical aspect of poetry, the aspect that differentiates it from prose. But he tried in recent years to soften his strict adherence to metrical poetry. To his credit, he never rested on his laurels, but rather persisted in his quest for his own poetic expression. Darwish?s poetry flowed out of him like a fountainhead, although, in my opinion, he sometimes had a penchant for the flowery superficiality of irritating metaphors that lacked poetic foundation. For example, “Saqf al-sahil” (The ceiling of the horse’s neigh) and other such kitschy metaphors that sound like they came off the assembly line of a factory for plastic toys.

Darwish didn’t like criticism (though who does?), and my own criticism, published in Arabic here and abroad, did not spare him in recent years. Darwish looked for love at any cost-from both the regime and the people, and there is no greater contradiction. In his desire to have his cake and eat it too, he never took an unambiguous position based on a moral foundation, and he always tiptoed. On the one hand, he didn’t want to upset the regime, any regime-not the corrupt Palestinian regime on which he was dependent for many years, and not the regimes in the rest of the Arab world. On the other hand, he didn’t want to upset the Arab masses, whose populist love he needed like oxygen.

However, let’s put aside the populist aspect that surfaced in his pamphlet poems-poems that were published under the influence of events, moments of anger and justified emotional outbursts. Darwish is a wonderful poet who discovered early on in his artistic path the hidden secret of true poetry. He gave his readers moments of happiness, albeit melancholy happiness, as is befitting great poetry.

Now, at the end of his poetic wanderings, he will remain, for many years, the ultimate poetic “present absentee,” both in the Palestinian canon and in Arab poetry as a whole.

Salman Masalha is a bilingual poet, writer and essayist who writes in both Arabic and Hebrew. He lives in West Jerusalem.

Haaretz Books Supplement, September 2008


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