MAHMOUD DARWISH

Living in Britain, it is quite difficult to imagine just one poet whose writing truly describes what it means to be British, whose poems are felt by all British nationals to be the voice of the entire country. Yet this kind of insightful and familiar voice has been achieved and celebrated elsewhere. Palestinians find it in the poetry of national hero Mahmoud Darwish. 

 

Darwish’s poetry is all the more powerful because so many Palestinians live abroad. His verses connect a community that spreads across the globe. Indeed, Darwish’s poetry is all the more moving because he uses it to talk about that reality: his poems reflect on the kind of belonging that a person can feel even when they are far away from home, but also on the pain, longing, and feelings of loss that come with exile and separation from the homeland. 

Darwish was born on March 13, 1941 to a family of farmers in the town of Al-Birwa in Palestine. His first experience of being torn away from home came at a young age. As an eight year old, he fled Al-Birwa along with his family when Israeli forces attacked the town. One year later, still a young boy, Darwish snuck back to the neighborhood to see what remained only to find that his house had been bulldozed by the invading troops.[1]  The experience moved him a great deal and would inspire much of his writing down the road.

 

From that point onwards, Darwish’s life was all about movement. When he first left Palestine, he went to Lebanon. In Lebanon, he lived in Jezzin and later in Damour.[2]  As an adult, he subsequently spent time living in what was then the USSR, in Cairo, in Beirut, in Tunis, in Amman and in Paris.[3]  In each of these places, he joined in with others who were building a movement of Arab, and particularly Palestinian, identity. In Cairo, Darwish worked for the Al-Ahram newspaper. In Beirut, he wrote for the journal Palestinian Issues.[4]  There he also became a member of the Beirut Group, a collective of writers and creative types who paved the way for new styles and forms in modern Arabic poetry.[5] 

 

Darwish’s older brother encouraged him to write poetry in his youth, but it was originally through music that Darwish discovered poetry’s power to trigger emotions and feelings of shared experience. At some point as a young person, he heard a woman perform a song whose lyrics were all about her own experience fleeing from the Israeli army.[6]  She described feelings of loss and disconnect that were already familiar to Darwish because of his own memories of having to leave Palestine. This moment was a turning point for the poet. Just as this woman had for him, he would through his written works speak to thousands of fellow Palestinians who could relate to his own traumatic experience of exile. 

 

Though it may be surprising, many of Darwish’s first encounters with written poetry happened by way of Hebrew: because Israeli authorities decided what kinds of lessons would be given in school, all of the poetry that the young Mahmoud read was written not in his mother tongue of Arabic but rather in Hebrew. This was true even for literature that would originally have been written in English and other languages, since he was only able to get his hands on Hebrew translations of these works. Fortunately, Darwish was extremely good at languages.[7]  He was able not only to read poetry written in Hebrew, but also to understand it so well that he actually taught himself a great deal about poetry as an art form before moving on to hone his own voice. This voice, of course, made itself heard in Darwish’s own language and the language of his people.

 

Darwish was 22 when he published his first poem, entitled Leaves of Olives.[8]  When he first began writing, his poetry followed a more traditional format, like that of classical Arabic poems.[9]  But as he developed his own style – and certainly by the 1960s – Darwish found a way to express a range of emotions in a manner that anyone and everyone within the Palestinian community could understand.[10]  He wrote about homeland, loss and identity and described a unique kind of homesickness that Palestinians could relate to. His poems weren’t fancy or complicated. They were simple, direct, and spoke straight to the heart of the Palestinian community. People soon began to see them as a sort of national anthem for Palestine.[11] 

 

Simply put, Darwish’s writing is proof that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. So moving and impactful were his words that his poetry was actually blocked from lessons in Israeli schools: the government feared that they might be too strong or too stirring for students.[12]  Fortunately, Darwish’s writing has had the opportunity to spread elsewhere. His works – including not only his poems but also his many books and journal articles – have been translated into more than 20 languages.[13]  Although he was jailed and placed under house arrest on a number of occasions, his voice was and continues to be heard on a global scale.[14]  Darwish was recognized and rewarded for his work with a number of prizes, including the Lenin Peace Prize, the Meditteranean Prize in 1980, the Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres in 1997, the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001, and the Oweis Cultural Prize in 2004.[15] 

 

When he passed away on August 9, 2008, newspapers around the world paid tribute to Mahmoud Darwish and his incredible influence as a political poet. More importantly, his life and his work – which had been a primary symbol of the Palestinian cause for at least two generations of Arabs – were celebrated by his people.[16]  Darwish received a state funeral in Palestine and is buried in Ramallah. 

 [1] “FAQ on Mahmoud Darwish.” The Institute for Middle East Understanding. IMEU, 12 September 2008. Web. 2 April 2013. 
 [2] Clark, Peter. “Obituary: Mahmoud Darwish.” The Guardian 11 August 2008. Online.
 [3] “FAQ on Mahmoud Darwish.” The Institute for Middle East Understanding. IMEU, 12 September 2008. Web. 2 April 2013.
 [4] “Palestinian poet Darwish dies.” AlJazeera 10 August 2008. Online. 
 [5] “FAQ on Mahmoud Darwish.” The Institute for Middle East Understanding. IMEU, 12 September 2008. Web. 2 April 2013.
 [6] Clark, Peter. “Obituary: Mahmoud Darwish.” The Guardian 11 August 2008. Online.
 [7] Ibid.
 [8] “Palestinian poet Darwish dies.” AlJazeera 10 August 2008. Online.
 [9] Clark, Peter. “Obituary: Mahmoud Darwish.” The Guardian 11 August 2008. Online.
 [10] Ibid.
 [11] “FAQ on Mahmoud Darwish.” The Institute for Middle East Understanding. IMEU, 12 September 2008. Web. 2 April 2013.
 [12] “Poetry Sends Israel into Political Storm.” BBC News 7 March 2000. Online. 
 [13] “FAQ on Mahmoud Darwish.” The Institute for Middle East Understanding. IMEU, 12 September 2008. Web. 2 April 2013.
 [14] Clark, Peter. “Obituary: Mahmoud Darwish.” The Guardian 11 August 2008. Online.
 [15] “FAQ on Mahmoud Darwish.” The Institute for Middle East Understanding. IMEU, 12 September 2008. Web. 2 April 2013.
 [16] Hadid, Diaa. “Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish dead at 67.” The Seattle Times 11 August 2008. Online. 

 
Images: 
Creative Commons by Andrew Whitacre
Creative Commons by Gladys Martínez López