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Mahmoud Darwish: The Palestinian Poet of Exile



Mahmoud Darwish is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging ... his is an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.Naomi Shihab Nye

Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was the preeminent Arab poet of his day. He was a Palestinian Arab born in the Galilean village of Barweh, which was razed to the ground by Israelis during the Nakba ("Catastrophe") of 1948, along with hundreds of other Palestinian villages. Like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Darwish became an exile, along with his family, because his ancestral village had been destroyed. The title of his first book, Wingless Sparrows, speaks volumes. It was published when he was nineteen. And yet Darwish rejected anti-Semitism, saying:

The accusation is that I hate Jews. It's not comfortable that they show me as a devil and an enemy of Israel. I am not a lover of Israel, of course. I have no reason to be. But I don't hate Jews.

As a young man, Darwish faced house arrest and imprisonment because of his political activism. He left Palestine in 1971 to study briefly at the University of Moscow, after which he worked for a newspaper in Cairo, then in Beirut as an editor of Palestinian Issues. When he joined the PLO in 1973, he was banned from reentering Palestine. Still, he recognized the humanity of the Jews; some were his oppressors, other his lovers:

I will continue to humanise even the enemy ... The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn't see Jews as devils or angels, but as human beings.

Darwish lived in exile for more than twenty years, primarily in Beirut and Paris, until he was allowed to settle in Ramallah in 1996. But even then he spoke as if his exile continued, since he did not consider the West Bank his personal "homeland." A central theme in Darwish's poetry is watan, or homeland:

His poetry earned international acclamation and has been translated into 35 languages. He also founded the  prestigious literary review Al Karmel. In 1998 he published Sareer el Ghariba (Bed of the Stranger), his first collection of love poems. In 2000 he published Jidariyya (Mural) a book-length poem about his near-death experience of 1997. By speaking eloquently for himself and his fellow Palestinians, Darwish made it impossible for history to ignore them:

We have triumphed over the plan to expel us from history.

Darwish's influences include the Arab poets Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, along with Rimbaud and Ginsberg. He also admired the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, but described his poetry as a "challenge to me, because we write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes it better?" Darwish became a voice of compassion and reason, speaking for young men driven to martyrdom by despair:

We should not justify suicide bombers. We are against the suicide bombers, but we must understand what drives these young people to such actions. They want to liberate themselves from such a dark life. It is not ideological, it is despair . . . We have to understand—not justify—what gives rise to this tragedy. It's not because they're looking for beautiful virgins in heaven, as Orientalists portray it. Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope—a political solution—they'll stop killing themselves.

In March 2000, Israeli education minister Yossi Sarid proposed that two of Darwish's poems be taught in Israeli high schools. Prime Minister Ehud Barak rejected the proposal on the grounds that Israel was "not ready." This sounds suspiciously like white supremacists saying their children are "not ready" for the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Langston Hughes. No doubt the incident had more to do with Israeli politics and racism than poetry. With the death of Darwish the debate about including his poetry in the Israeli school curriculum has been re-opened.



Palestine

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This land gives us
all that makes life worth living:
April's blushing advances,
the aroma of bread at dawn,
a woman’s haranguing of men,
the poetry of Aeschylus,
love’s trembling beginning,
moss on a stone
mothers dancing on a flute’s thread
and the invaders' fear of memories.

This land give us
all that makes life worth living:
September’s rustling end,
a woman leaving forty behind with her apricots,
an hour of sunlight in prison,
clouds reflecting swarms of insects,
a people’s applause for those who laugh at their erasure,
and the tyrant's fear of songs.

This land give us
all that makes life worth living:
Lady Earth, mother of all beginnings and endings,
She was called Palestine
and she is still called Palestine.
My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.



Identity Card

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Record!
I am an Arab
and my identity card is number fifty thousand ...
I have eight children
And the ninth arrives this autumn ...
Will you be furious?

Record!
I am an Arab
employed at the quarry ...
I have eight children ...
I provide them with bread
garments and books
from the rocks ...
I do not supplicate charity at your gates,
nor do I belittle myself at your chambers' foyers ...
Will you be furious?

Record!
I am an Arab;
I have a name without a title ...
patient in a country
where people are quick to anger ...
my roots
were established long before the birth of time,
before the unfolding of the eras,
before the pines and the olive trees,
before the first grass grew ...

My father descended from plowmen,
not from the privileged classes,
and my grandfather was a lowly farmer
neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Still, they taught me the pride of the sun
before teaching me how to read
and my house is a watchman’s hut
made of branches and cane ...
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name, but no title!

Record!
I am an Arab;
you have stolen my ancestors' orchards
and the land I cultivated
along with my children ...
you left us nothing
but these rocks ...
Now will the State claim them
As it has been declared?

Therefore!
Record on the first page:
I do not hate people
nor do I encroach,
but if I become hungry
I will feast on the usurper’s flesh!
Beware!
Beware my hunger
and my anger!




If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.— Mahmoud Darwish
My love, I fear the silence of your hands.― Mahmoud Darwish
The days have taught you not to trust happiness because it hurts when it deceives. — Mahmoud Darwish
Be worthy of the aroma of bread and summer flowers, for your mother’s clay oven is still lit, each loaf a warm greeting.—Mahmoud Darwish
I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to construct a single word: Home.—Mahmoud Darwish
Be strong as a bull when you’re angry, weak as an almond blossom when you love.—Mahmoud Darwish
Sunset is here, tormenting the stranger with its beauty.—Mahmoud Darwish
Slow down, O horse saddled with seasons!—Mahmoud Darwish
Besiege your siege … there is no other way.—Mahmoud Darwish
We should not justify suicide bombers ... but we must understand what drives these young people to such actions. They want to liberate themselves from such a dark life. It is not ideological, it is despair.—Mahmoud Darwish



We Palestinians suffer from an incurable disease called “hope”. Hope for liberation and independence. Hope for a normal life where we shall be neither heroes nor victims. Hope to see our children go to school without danger. Hope for a pregnant woman to give birth to a living baby, in a hospital, and not to a dead child in front of a military control post. Hope that our poets will see the beauty of the colour red in roses, rather than in blood. Hope that this land will recover its original name: "land of hope and peace." Thank you for carrying with us this banner of hope.—Mahmoud Darwish



A moral is like a bullet in its poet’s heart,
a deadly wisdom.
Be strong as a bull when you’re angry,
weak as an almond blossom
when you love, and nothing, nothing
when you serenade yourself in a closed room ...
Don’t think, when you melt in sorrow
like candle tears, of who will see you
or follow your intuition’s light.
Think of yourself: is this all of myself?
The poem is always incomplete; the butterflies make it whole.
No advice in love. It’s experience.
No advice in poetry. It’s talent.
And last but not least, Salaam.



On the bridge, near your life, I lived as a guitar player lived near his star.
Sing for me, she said, a hundred of your love songs and you will enter my life!
So he sang ninety-nine songs about love, then killed himself.


A Traveller

This road takes me; a horse guiding a horseman
A traveler like me cannot look back
I have walked far enough to know
where autumn begins:
there, behind the river,
the last pomegranates ripen
in an additional summer
and a beauty mark grows
in the seed of the apple
The road and I will sleep like partners
behind the river, beneath our shadows,
then rise at dawn and carry each other.
I will ask it: Why so fast?
Slow down, O horse saddled with seasons!
No matter how few our dreams
we will cross the desert and valleys
to reach the end at the beginning.
The beginning is behind us;
Before us, clouds bringing winter’s tidings.
I have walked far enough to know
where winter starts:
there, over the hill
a gazelle looks for a fawn under the clouds.
A hunter points his rifle;
I will howl like a wolf
so the white gazelle can flee the fire
and the hunter is scared.
The road and I will sleep
there, next to a cave, over the hill,
then rise at dawn and carry each other
asking: What next? Where are you taking me?
I see the fog, but I don’t see the road,
nor does it see me.
Have I arrived?
Or have I been separated from the road?
I asked myself, then said:
Now, from this distance,
a traveler like me
can look back!

Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon.



excerpt from “Speech of the Red Indian”

Let’s give the earth enough time to tell
the whole truth about you and us.
The whole truth about us.
The whole truth about you.
In rooms you build,
the dead are already asleep.
Over bridges you construct,
the dead are already passing.
There are dead who light up the night of butterflies,
and the dead who come at dawn to drink your tea
as peaceful as on the day your
guns mowed them down.
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.



The Prison Cell

It is possible…
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
Inside a prison cell
And run away…

It is possible for prison walls
To disappear,
For the cell to become a distant land
Without frontiers:

What did you do with the walls?
I gave them back to the rocks.
And what did you do with the ceiling?
I turned it into a saddle.
And your chain?
I turned it into a pencil.

The prison guard got angry.
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn’t care for poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.

He came back to see me
In the morning,
He shouted at me:

Where did all this water come from?
I brought it from the Nile.
And the trees?
From the orchards of Damascus.
And the music?
From my heartbeat.

The prison guard got mad;
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn’t like my poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.

But he returned in the evening:

Where did this moon come from?
From the nights of Baghdad.
And the wine?
From the vineyards of Algiers.
And this freedom?
From the chain you tied me with last night.

The prison guard grew so sad…
He begged me to give him back
His freedom.

Translated by Ben Bennani.



Words

When my words were wheat
I was the earth.
When my words thundered
I was the storm.
When my words wore down rock
I was the river.
But when my words became honey
Flies devoured my lips.



Think of Others

As you prepare your breakfast – think of others.
Don’t forget to feed the pigeons.
As you conduct your wars – think of others.
Don’t forget those who want peace.
As you pay your water bill – think of others.
Think of those who only have clouds to drink from.
As you go home, your own home – think of others – don’t forget those who live in tents.
As you sleep and count the planets, think of others – there are people who have no place to sleep.
As you liberate yourself with metaphors think of others – those who have lost their right to speak.
And as you think of distant others – think of yourself and say, “I wish I were a candle in the darkness.”



I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theater

I have a seat in the abandoned theater
in Beirut. I might forget, and I might recall
the final act without longing … not because of anything
other than that the play was not written
skillfully …
Chaos
as in the war days of those in despair, and an autobiography
of the spectators’ impulse. The actors were tearing up their scripts
and searching for the author among us, we the witnesses
sitting in our seats
I tell my neighbor the artist: Don’t draw your weapon,
and wait, unless you’re the author!
—No
Then he asks me: And you are you the author?
—No
So we sit scared. I say: Be a neutral
hero to escape from an obvious fate
He says: No hero dies revered in the second
scene. I will wait for the rest. Maybe I would
revise one of the acts. And maybe I would mend
what the iron has done to my brothers
So I say: It is you then?
He responds: You and I are two masked authors and two masked
witnesses
I say: How is this my concern? I’m a spectator
He says: No spectators at chasm’s door … and no
one is neutral here. And you must choose
your part in the end
So I say: I’m missing the beginning, what’s the beginning?”



Passport

They did not recognize me in the shadows
That suck away my color in this Passport
And to them my wound was an exhibit
For a tourist
Who loves to collect photographs
They did not recognize me,
Ah ... Don't leave
The palm of my hand without the sun
Because the trees recognize me
Don't leave me pale like the moon!

All the birds that followed my palm
To the door of the distant airport
All the wheatfields
All the prisons
All the white tombstones
All the barbed boundaries
All the waving handkerchiefs
All the eyes were with me,
But they dropped them from my passport

Stripped of my name and identity?
On soil I nourished with my own hands?
Today Job cried out
Filling the sky:
Don't make an example of me again!
Oh, gentlemen,
Prophets,
Don't ask the trees for their names
Don't ask the valleys who their mother is
From my forehead bursts the sward of light
And from my hand springs the water of the river
All the hearts of the people are my identity
So take away my passport!



Excerpts from "Under Siege"

translated by Marjolijn De Jager


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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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?



Ahmad Al-Za’tar:

translated by Tania Nasir

For two hands, of stone and of thyme
I dedicate this song. For Ahmad, forgotten between two butterflies
The clouds are gone and have left me homeless, and
The mountains have flung their mantles and concealed me
From the oozing old wound to the contours of the land I descend, and
The year marked the separation of the sea from the cities of ash, and
I was alone
Again alone
O alone? And Ahmad
Between two bullets was the exile of the sea
A camp grows and gives birth to fighters and to thyme
And an arm becomes strong in forgetfulness
Memory comes from trains that have left and
Platforms that are empty of welcome and of jasmine
In cars, in the landscape of the sea, in the intimate nights of prison cells
In quick liaisons and in the search for truth was
The discovery of self
In every thing, Ahmad found his opposite
For twenty years he was asking
For twenty years he was wandering
For twenty years, and for moments only, his mother gave him birth
In a vessel of banana leaves
And departed
He seeks an identity and is struck by the volcano
The clouds are gone and have left me homeless, and
The mountains have flung their mantles and concealed me
I am Ahmad the Arab, he said
I am the bullets, the oranges and the memory

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