Obituary: the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish

Loss of the Last Undisputed National Symbol

Mahmoud Darwish, the most influential contemporary Arabic lyricist, has died at the age of 67. Darwish repeatedly addressed the subject of Palestine's struggle for independence, describing the Palestinians' fate in exile. Stefan Weidner pays his respects.

Mahmoud Darwish, the most famous Palestinian poet and most influential contemporary Arabic lyricist, has died at the age of 67. Darwish repeatedly addressed the subject of Palestine's struggle for independence, describing the Palestinians' fate in exile. Stefan Weidner pays his respects

Mahmoud Darwish (photo: AP)
The poet Darwish was not only the poetic voice of the Palestinians, but also a moral instance for his people

​​Mahmoud Darwish was the favourite of the gods among Arabic writers, a diva, a superstar. Whenever he read, there was such a crowd of groupies that even his translator couldn't get through.

The last time I saw him was two months ago in Paris. He had turned up out of the blue at a reading by his Iraqi colleague Saadi Yussef at the Théâtre de l'Odéon.

So he still existed, the man who filled the football stadiums of the Arab world in the 1970s and 80s, the one-time friend of Arafat, the increasingly self-critical conscience of Palestine. He died last Saturday in a hospital in Houston after his third coronary operation.

Responses to the Palestinians' suffering

Born in Akka in 1941, he grew up in Israel, became a member of the Israeli Communist Party at an early age and left the country in 1970, already famous, having spent several periods in prison. From then on he lived in Beirut, Tunis, Paris and Ramallah.

His entire oevre can be interpreted as a response to the living conditions and the suffering of the Palestinians. Yet even when his work is a direct reaction to contemporary events he frequently succeeds in bringing out the metaphorically general aspects of the Palestinian fate.

A poem should be "a plough and a bomb," he wrote in the 1960s; but the shock of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War put an end to his naiveté.

From then on, poetry's relationship with the propaganda exploiting the martyrdom of hundreds and thousands of falling resistance fighters became ever tenser, forcing Darwish to distance his work from political rhetoric.

Tired of dancing to the rhythm of the lie

A poem written in 1970 illustrates this development:

​​"They taught me everything the director demands / The dance to the rhythm of his lie / Now I have grown tired / Have hung my legends on the washing line / And therefore... I make my exit."

Even the poet has no solution to offer for the Palestinians' main problem – that they do not know how to proceed, but cannot sit back and accept their situation.

The situation of the Palestinian population further deteriorated during the Lebanese civil war and came to a head in the Israeli siege on Beirut in the summer of 1982 and the subsequent exiling of the PLO, drawing a line under this phase of his work, still marked as it was by an underlying tone of hope.

Traumatic experience of the PLO's withdrawal

Darwish experienced the enforced exodus from Beirut as similarly traumatic to the 1967 defeat. The prose work Memory for Forgetfulness, available in German and English translations among other languages, is testimony to this trauma – a report on the Palestinians’ time in Lebanon with autobiographical elements.

Mahmoud Darwish (photo: dpa)
Darwish received numerous literary awards during his career,
including the Ibn Sina Prize, the France's Knight of Arts
and Belles Lettres medal in 1997 and the 2001 Prize for Cultural
Freedom from the Lannan Foundation

​​While the superficial plot deals with the last days of the siege, a collection of memories, dreams, characterisations of friends whom the poet meets, and reflections on the fate of the Palestinians create a kaleidoscope of a dying era for the Palestinian diaspora.

Whereas the last faint militant tones celebrating matyrdom and armed resistance rang out in the poetry volume Less Roses (German: Weniger Rosen, 1986), Darwish's poetry retained its political and critical dimension.

The poem "I am Yusuf, oh father" retells the biblical and qur'anic story of Joseph in a stark, unrhymed version, rendering it as a bitter criticism of Arab solidarity, which Darwish had called for in so many texts: “Oh father, my brothers do not love me. They do not want me in their midst, oh father."

Laboratory of the Palestinian self-image

There is an echo of the political changes after the 1991 Madrid peace conference in the eleven-part poem "Eleven Stars" (1992), where the negotiations with Israel appear as a threat to the Palestinian self-image – emanating from the Palestinians' own political leaders:

"(...)Who will bring down our flags: we or they? / And who will recite the 'peace accord' / O king of dying? / Everything's prepared for us in advance; / who will tear our names from our identity: you or they?"

Poetry has become the laboratory of a new Palestinian self-image.

Since his gradual turn away from the call for direct efficacy and his abstention from the grand gestures of announcement of the 1970s, the universal character of Mahmud Darwish's poems has come more and more to the forefront.

Taking the Palestine issue as their starting point, they encircle the conditio humana in a world that can barely make a credible promise of a homeland. His last work was pure thought poetry, often revolving around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in parabolic form, conciliatory and without great rhetoric.

It is texts like these that make an impression in translation as well as the original, and have founded Darwish's late international fame. In recent years, there was repeated speculation that he might receive the Nobel Prize. The Palestinians have lost their last undisputed national symbol, and the literary world a great poet.

Stefan Weidner

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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