|By Uri Avnery – Israel
One of the wisest pronouncements I have heard in my life was that of an Egyptian general, a few days after Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem.
We were the first Israelis to come to Cairo, and one of the things we were very curious about was: how did you manage to surprise us at the beginning of the October 1973 war?
The general answered: “Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets.”
I reflected on these words last Wednesday, at the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish.
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During the funeral ceremony in Ramallah he was referred to again and again as “the Palestinian National Poet”.
But he was much more than that. He was the embodiment of the Palestinian destiny. His personal fate coincided with the fate of his people.
He was born in al-Birwa, a village on the Acre-Safad road. As early as 900 years ago, a Persian traveler reported that he had visited this village and prostrated himself on the graves of “Esau and Simeon, may they rest in peace”. In 1931, ten years before the birth of Mahmoud, the population of the village numbered 996, of whom 92 were Christians and the rest Sunni Muslims.
On June 11, 1948, the village was captured by the Jewish forces. Its 224 houses were eradicated soon after the war, together with those of 650 other Palestinian villages. Only some cactus plants and a few ruins still testify to their past existence. The Darwish family fled just before the arrival of the troops, taking 7-year old Mahmoud with them.
Somehow, the family made their way back into what was by then Israeli territory. They were accorded the status of “present absentees” – a cunning Israeli invention. It meant that they were legal residents of Israel, but their lands were taken from them under a law that dispossessed every Arab who was not physically present in his village when it was occupied. On their land the kibbutz Yasur (belonging to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement) and the cooperative village Ahihud were set up.
Mahmoud’s father settled in the next Arab village, Jadeidi, from where he could view his land from afar. That’s where Mahmoud grew up and where his family lives to this day.
During the first 15 years of the State of Israel, Arab citizens were subject to a “military regime” – a system of severe repression that controlled every aspect of their lives, including all their movements. An Arab was forbidden to leave his village without a special permit. Young Mahmoud Darwish violated this order several times, and whenever he was caught he went to prison. When he started to write poems, he was accused of incitement and put in “administrative detention” without trial.
At that time he wrote one of his best known poems, “Identity Card”, a poem expressing the anger of a youngster growing up under these humiliating conditions. It opens with the thunderous words: “Record: I am an Arab!”
It was during this period that I met him for the first time. He came to me with another young village man with a strong national commitment, the poet Rashid Hussein. I remember a sentence of his: “The Germans killed six million Jews, and barely six years later you made peace with them. But with us, the Jews refuse to make peace.”
He joined the Communist party, then the only party where a nationalist Arab could be active. He edited their newspapers. The party sent him to Moscow for studies, but expelled him when he decided not to come back to Israel. Instead he joined the PLO and went to Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Beirut.