Remarque Peace Prize to Palestinian and Israeli

Mahmud Darwish and Dan Bar-On Awarded

This years's Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize is awarded to the Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On and the Palestinian peot Mahmud Darwish. Samir Grees reports from Remarque's home town Osnabrück

Since 1991, the city of Osnabrück has awarded a biennial peace prize named after the writer Erich Maria Remarque. Born in Osnabrück, Remarque became world famous after the publication of his anti-war novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front".

In view of the current political situation, the novel has acquired a new topicality. The Remarque Prize is awarded in recognition of literary, scholarly or journalistic work which deals, in the broadest sense, with the theme of "Inner and Outer Peace" This year's award ceremony took place in Osnabrück on June 27th.

"This year, the jury decided to award the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize in equal measure to the Israeli scholar, Professor Dan Bar-On, and the Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwisch. In their various ways, each of these writers has dealt impressively with the humanitarian consequences of oppression and violence, and made public the human effects of lasting conflict."

These were the words of Prof. Dr. Rainer Künzel, who headed the jury. Thus, this year's award honours a poet and a scholar, both of whom are very well acquainted – from direct or indirect personal experience – with the meaning of injustice and forced exile, and who know how difficult it is to make peace in an atmosphere of hatred and oppression.

Recognizing the "Other"

Dan Bar-On was born in Haifa in 1938, ten years before the foundation of the State of Israel. His German Jewish parents had emigrated there, having just barely escaped the Holocaust. After studying psychology, Bar-On specialised in the treatment of Holocaust survivors. In 1992, in the German city of Wuppertal, he arranged a meeting between descendants of Nazi war criminals and people whose families had died in the Holocaust.

Their conversations made it clear to him how similar were the sufferings of the two groups; for in both cases, this distress was largely a result of (self-)repression and a refusal or inability to communicate. This experience led him to develop a model of how identity is constructed by recognising the history of "the other" – including, and especially, "the enemy".

Dan Bar-On has applied this model of conflict management to various members of various conflicting parties, and not least to Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Through a process of dialogue, of speaking openly and listening to the other side, he found that it was possible for people to overcome personal hatred and the denial of the other. In East Jerusalem, Professor Bar-On is in charge of a project involving Jewish and Palestinian schoolchildren:

"For the last two years, we have been working with a group of six Israeli and six Palestinian teachers. And for each historical event – for example, the Balfour Declaration – we develop an Israeli narrative and a Palestinian narrative. The teachers then place these narratives side-by-side to create a book. The texts are translated into Arabic and Hebrew, and the teachers then teach their pupils both texts - the Israeli and the Palestinian versions."

Dan Bar-On is under no illusions; he does not believe that the two sides will succeed within the next few years in developing a common view of the historical events. But he does hope that, in future, two states will be able to live side-by-side in peace; and then it will be very important for each side to know how the other side sees and explains those events. For if they succeed in doing so, each side can then come to recognise and respect the other.

An illegal alien in his home country

Mahmud Darwisch was born in 1941, in the Galilean village of al-Barwa, east of the coastal town of Haifa. Al-Barwa no longer exists; in 1948, the year in which the State of Israel was founded, Darwisch was forced to flee to Lebanon with his family. He returned, however – illegally, according to Israeli law – settling in a village near Akka.

In 1964, "Olive Leaves" appeared, a collection that brought him widespread recognition as the poet of the Palestinian people. As a result of his literary activities, Darwisch was arrested several times and sentenced to house arrest.

Having been subjected to increasing repression, he left Israel in 1970, living initially in Moscow and Cairo before eventually settling in Beirut. In 1982, the Israeli army laid siege to the city, forcing the Palestinians (Darwisch among them) to move out. Since 1995, he has divided his time between Amman in Jordan and Ramallah on the West Bank.

One of the great poets

Today, the poet Mahmud Darwisch is regarded as "one of the greatest of the great, and not only in the Arab world", as Johano Strasser, President of the German PEN Centre, said in his laudatio:

"He is also a medium who brings to expression all the fears, dreams and yearnings, all the inspiring and traumatic memories of his people. Stefan Weidner recently wrote of him as follows: ‘He may be counted among that endangered species of poets who acquire mythical status in their own lifetimes, such as Lorca, Mayakowsky, Aragon, Neruda or Hikmet.'"

Even amongst his Israeli colleagues, said Strasser (who had attended a meeting of Israeli writers in Tel Aviv this Spring), there was nothing but admiration for the poet Mahmud Darwisch – despite any political differences. And this, he said, was perhaps also "a small sign of hope in a time that provides little occasion for great expectations."

Reasons of health made it impossible for Mahmed Darwisch to attend the award ceremony in person. In his speech, which was read by Abdallah Frangi, General Representative of the Palestinian General Delegation in Germany, the poet asked: "Is there any people that is capable of living in peaceful co-existence with the forces that occupy its country?" In view of the current situation, he is pessimistic, for his people continue to suffer from oppression and injustice. Under such circumstances, can there be peace? The poet replies with an image:

"Talking about peace in the absence of a basis of freedom and justice is like playing a guitar without strings."

Darwisch regarded the award to Professor Bar-On as a tribute to all Israeli forces for peace, and as an encouragement to them to continue working for peace and co-existence with the Palestinian people.

Samir Grees

© Deutsche Welle 2003

Translation into English: Patrick Lanagan

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