Sunday, March 05, 2006


Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish has long been recognized as the leading poet of Palestine, the poetic voice of the exiled Palestinian people. He was born in the Palestinian village of Birwe in 1942; Birwe was one of over 400 Palestinian villages occupied by the Israeli army in 1948. His family fled to Lebanon but returned to become "internal refugees" whose legal status was at best precarious, subject to Israeli military authorities. He was several times imprisoned and placed under house arrest in his 20s for reciting his poetry and for his activities as editor of the Israeli Communist Party's newspaper. In 1971 he left Israel (for 25 years, as it turned out), going first to Cairo, then to Beirut where he joined the Palestine Liberation Organization and became the editor of its literary, cultural, and scholarly journal Al-Karmel. He left Beirut following the Israeli invasion in 1982, living variously in Cyprus and Paris, among other places. He was chosen a member of the PLO Executive Committee in 1987, but resigned in 1993 over disagreement with the leadership regarding some elements of the Oslo Accords. After having been denied entry into Israel for a number of years, he was finally allowed to return in 1997 and settled in Ramallah.

His earliest poetry was largely traditional Arabic love poetry, but he soon turned to drawing upon the political and social situations he knew first hand; one of his earliest successful peoms (in the sense of becoming widely known among Palestinians) was "Identity Card," based on his own experiences as an "internal refugee" in Israel:

"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's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab

Working with comrades of toil in a quarry.
I have eight children
For them I wrest the loaf of bread,
The clothes and exercise books
From the rocks
And beg for no alms at your door,
Lower not myself at your doorstep.
What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.

I am a name without a title,
Patient in a country where everything
Lives in a whirlpool of anger.
My roots
Took hold before the birth of time
Before the burgeoning of the ages,
Before cypress and olive trees,
Before the proliferation of weeds.

My father is from the family of the plough
Not from highborn nobles.

And my grandfather was a peasant
Without line or geneaology.

My house is a watchman's hut
Made of sticks and reeds.

Does my status satisfy you?
I am a name without a surname.

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.

Color of hair: jet black.
Color of eyes: brown.
My distinguishing features:
On my head the 'iqal cords over a keffiyeh
Scratching him who touches it.

My address:
I'm from a village, remote, forgotten,
It's streets without name
And all its men in the fields and quarry.

What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.

You stole my forefathers' vineyards
And land I used to till,
I and all my children,
And you left us and all my grandchildren
Nothing but these rocks.
Will your government be taking them too
As is being said?

Put it on record at the top of page one:
I don't hate people,
I trespass on no one's property.

And yet, if I were to become hungry
I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware, beware of my hunger
And of my anger!

(Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies)

Although there are suggestions of a threatened violence in the conclusion of "Identity Card," by and large Darwish has avoided appeals to violence as a solution; this is apparent in another early poem, one which is based on a conversation between Darwish and a young Israeli friend following the latter's participation in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War:

"A Soldier Dreams of White Tulips"

He dreams of white tulips, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blossom.
He dreams of a bird, he tells me, of lemon flowers.
He does not intellectualize about his dream. He understands things as he senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he tells me, is to drink my mother's coffee, to return at nightfall.

And the land? I don't know the land, he said.
I don't feel it in my flesh and blood, as they say in the poems.
Suddenly I saw the land as one sees a grocery store, a street, newspapers.

I asked him, but don't you love the land? My land is a picnic, he said, a glass of wine, alove affair.
--Would you die for the land?
All my attachment to the land is no more than a sotry or a fiery speech!
They taught me to love it, but I never felt it in my heart.
I never knew its roots and branches, or the scent of its grass.

--And what about its love?Did it burn like suns and desire?

He looked straight at me and said: I love it with my gun.
And by unearthing feasts in the garbage of the past
and a deaf-mute idol whose age and meaning are unknown

He told me about the moment of departure, how his mother
silently wept when they led him to the front,
how her anguished voice gave birth to a new hope in his flesh
that doves might flock through the Ministry of War.

He drew on his cigarette. He said, as if fleeing from a swamp of blood,
I dreamt of white tulips, an olive branch, a bird embracing the dawn on a lemon branch.
--And what did your see?
--I saw what I did:
a blood-red boxthorn.
I blasted them in the sand . . . in their chests . . . in their bellies.
--How many did you kill?
--It's impossible to tell. I only got one medal

Pained, I asked him to tell me about one of the dead.

He shifted in his seat, fiddled with the folded newspaper,
then said, as if breaking into song:
He collapsed like a tent on stones, embracing shattered planets.
His high forehead was crowned with blood. His chest was empty of medals.
He was not a well-trained fighter, but seemed instead to be a peasant, a worker, or a peddlar.
Like a tent he collapsed and died, his arms stretched out like dry creek-beds.
When I searched his pockets for a name, I found two photographs, one of his wife, the other of his daughter.

Did you feel sad?
I asked.
Cutting me off, he said, Mahmoud, my friend,
sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.
I was there like a machine spitting hellfire and death,
turning space into a black bird.

He told me about his first love, and later, about distant streets,
about reactions to the war in the heroic radio and the press.
As he hid a cough in his handkerchief I asked him:
Shall we meet again?
Yes, but in a city far away

When I filled his fourth glass, I asked jokingly:
Are you off? what about the homeland?
Give me a break
, he replied.
I dream of white tulips, streets of song, a house of light.
I need a kind heart, not a bullet.
I need a bright day, not a mad, fascist moment of triumph.
I need a child to cherish a day of laughter, not a weapon of war.
I came to live for rising suns, not to witness their setting.

He said goodbye and went looking for white tulips,
a bird welcoming the dawn on an olive branch.
He understands things only as he senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he said, is to drink my mother's coffee, to return, safely, at nightfall.

(Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

The body of Darwish's work is most particularly concerned with articulating the effects on the Palestinian people of the loss of their homeland:

"Athens Airport"

Athens airport disperses us to other airports. Where can I fight? asks the fighter.
Where can I deliver your child? a pregnant woman shouts back.
Where can I invest my money? asks the officer.
This is none of my business, the intellectual says.
Where did you come from? asks the customs' official.
And we answer: From the sea!
Where are you going?
To the sea
, we answer.
What is your address?
A woman of our group says: My village is my bundle on my back.
We have waited in the Athens airport for years.
A young man marries a girl but they have no place for their wedding night.
He asks: Where can I make love to her?
We laugh and say:
This is not the right time for that question.
The analyst says: In order to live, they die by mistake.
The literary man says: Our camp will certainly fall.
What do they want from us?
Athens airport welcomes its visitors without end.
Yet, like the benches in the terminal, we remain, impatiently waiting for the sea.
How many more years longer, O Athens airport?

(Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

The homeland which now exists for Palestinians is that land found in memory and the imagination:

"We Walk Towards a Land"

We walk towards a land not of our flesh,
Not of our bones its chestnut trees,
Its stones unlike the curly goats
Of the Song of Songs.
We walk towards a land
That does not hang a special sun for us.
Mythic women clap:
A sea around us,
A sea upon us.
If wheat and water doe not reach you,
Eat our love and drink our tears.
Black veils of mourning for the poets.
You have your victories and we have ours,
We have a country where we see
Only the invisible.

(Translated by Rana Kabbani)

In a very real sense, the lost homeland of Palestine becomes what defines those who have lost her, and she becomes identified with the "beloved" of traditional Arabic poetry:

"On This Earth"

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April's hesitation, the aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman's point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning
of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute's sigh and the invaders' fear of memories.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the final days of September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in prison, a cloud reflecting a swarm
of creatures, the peoples' applause for those who face death with a smile, a tyrant's fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this earth, the Lady of Earth,
mother of all beginnings and ends. She was called Palestine. Her name later became
Palestine. My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.

(Translated by
Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

For the Palestinian people, it is the fact of exile which is their defining characteristic:

"Without exile, who am I?"

Stranger on the bank, like the river . . . tied up to your
name by water. Nothing will bring me back from my free
distance to my palm tree: not peace, nor war. Nothing
will inscribe me in the Book of Testaments. Nothing,
nothing glints off the shore of ebb and flow, between
the Tigris and the Nile. Nothing
gets me off the chariots of Pharaoh. Nothing
carries me for a while, or makes me carry an idea: not
promises, nor nostalgia. What am I to do, then? What
am I to do without exile, without a long night
staring at the water?
Tied up
to your name
by water . . .
Nothing takes me away from the butterfly of my dreams
back into my present: not earth, nor fire. What
am I to do, then, without the roses of Samarkand? What
am I to do in a square that burnishes the chanters with
moon-shaped stones? Lighter we both have
become, like our homes in the distant winds. We have
both become friends with the clouds'
strange creatures; outside the reach of the gravity
of the Land of Identity. What are we to do, then . . . What
are we to do without exile, without a long night
staring at the water?
Tied up
to your name
by water . . .
Nothing's left of me except for you; nothing's left of you
except for me -- a stranger caressing his lover's thigh: O
my stranger! What are we to do with what's left for us
of the stillness, of the siesta that separates legend from legend?
Nothing will carry us: not the road, nor home.
Was this road the same from the start,
or did our dreams find a mare among the horses
of the Mongols on the hill, and trade us off?
And what are we to do, then?
are we to do

(Translated by Anton Shammas)

But Darwish's poetry reaches beyond the surface facts of Palestinian exile, especially in his later work where he explores the human experience, not just the Palestinian one, particularly in erotic and love poetry which probes the nature of love in a world in which we are all in a very real sense strangers and exiles:

"The Stranger Finds Himself in the Stranger"

We two are become one.
We have no name, strange woman,
when the stranger finds himself in the stranger.
What remains of the garden behind us is the power of the shadow.
Show what you will of your night's earth, and hide what you will.
We come hurriedly from the twilight of two places at once.
Together we searched for our addresses.
Follow your shadow, east of the Song of Songs,
herding sand grouse.
You will find a star residing in its own death.
Climb a deserted mountain,
you will find my yesterday coming full circle to my tomorrow.
You will find where we were and where, together, we will be.

We are two become one, strange man.
Go to the sea west of your book, and dive as lightly
as if you were riding two waves at birth,
you will find a thicket of seaweed and a green sky of water.
Dive as lightly as if you were nothing in nothing.
And you will find us together.

We are two become one.
We have yet to see how we were here, strange woman.
Two shadows opening and closing upon what had once been our two bodies.
A body appearing then disappearing in a body disappearing
in the confusion of unending duality.
We need to return to being two,
so we can go on embracing each other.
We have no name, strange woman,
when the stranger finds himself in the stranger.

(Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

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