Posts Tagged ‘Mahmoud Darwish’

Gaza: the logic of colonial power

December 31, 2008

As so often, the term ‘terrorism’ has proved a rhetorical smokescreen under cover of which the strong crush the weak

I have spent most of the Bush administration’s tenure reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia and other conflicts. I have been published by most major publications. I have been interviewed by most major networks and I have even testified before the senate foreign relations committee. The Bush administration began its tenure with Palestinians being massacred and it ends with Israel committing one of its largest massacres yet in a 60-year history of occupying Palestinian land. Bush’s final visit to the country he chose to occupy ended with an educated secular Shiite Iraqi throwing his shoes at him, expressing the feelings of the entire Arab world save its dictators who have imprudently attached themselves to a hated American regime.

Once again, the Israelis bomb the starving and imprisoned population of Gaza. The world watches the plight of 1.5 million Gazans live on TV and online; the western media largely justify the Israeli action. Even some Arab outlets try to equate the Palestinian resistance with the might of the Israeli military ma plight of 1.5 million Gazanschine. And none of this is a surprise. The Israelis just concluded a round-the-world public relations campaign to gather support for their assault, even gaining the collaboration of Arab states like Egypt.

The international community is directly guilty for this latest massacre. Will it remain immune from the wrath of a desperate people? So far, there have been large demonstrations in Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The people of the Arab world will not forget. The Palestinians will not forget. “All that you have done to our people is registered in our notebooks,” as the poet Mahmoud Darwish said.

I have often been asked by policy analysts, policy-makers and those stuck with implementing those policies for my advice on what I think America should do to promote peace or win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. It too often feels futile, because such a revolution in American policy would be required that only a true revolution in the American government could bring about the needed changes. An American journal once asked me to contribute an essay to a discussion on whether terrorism or attacks against civilians could ever be justified. My answer was that an American journal should not be asking whether attacks on civilians can ever be justified. This is a question for the weak, for the Native Americans in the past, for the Jews in Nazi Germany, for the Palestinians today, to ask themselves.

Terrorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept. An empty word that means everything and nothing, it is used to describe what the Other does, not what we do. The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims’ struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.

Counterinsurgency, now popular again among in the Pentagon, is another way of saying the suppression of national liberation struggles. Terror and intimidation are as essential to it as is winning hearts and minds.

Normative rules are determined by power relations. Those with power determine what is legal and illegal. They besiege the weak in legal prohibitions to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively as if a neutral court had produced them, instead of the oppressors. The danger in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation and colonialism.

Attacking civilians is the last, most desperate and basic method of resistance when confronting overwhelming odds and imminent eradication. The Palestinians do not attack Israeli civilians with the expectation that they will destroy Israel. The land of Palestine is being stolen day after day; the Palestinian people is being eradicated day after day. As a result, they respond in whatever way they can to apply pressure on Israel. Colonial powers use civilians strategically, settling them to claim land and dispossess the native population, be they Indians in North America or Palestinians in what is now Israel and the Occupied Territories. When the native population sees that there is an irreversible dynamic that is taking away their land and identity with the support of an overwhelming power, then they are forced to resort to whatever methods of resistance they can.

Not long ago, 19-year-old Qassem al-Mughrabi, a Palestinian man from Jerusalem drove his car into a group of soldiers at an intersection. “The terrorist”, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called him, was shot and killed. In two separate incidents last July, Palestinians from Jerusalem also used vehicles to attack Israelis. The attackers were not part of an organisation. Although those Palestinian men were also killed, senior Israeli officials called for their homes to be demolished. In a separate incident, Haaretz reported that a Palestinian woman blinded an Israeli soldier in one eye when she threw acid n his face. “The terrorist was arrested by security forces,” the paper said. An occupied citizen attacks an occupying soldier, and she is the terrorist?

In September, Bush spoke at the United Nations. No cause could justify the deliberate taking of human life, he said. Yet the US has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes on populated areas. When you drop bombs on populated areas knowing there will be some “collateral” civilian damage, but accepting it as worth it, then it is deliberate. When you impose sanctions, as the US did on Saddam era Iraq, that kill hundreds of thousands, and then say their deaths were worth it, as secretary of state Albright did, then you are deliberately killing people for a political goal. When you seek to “shock and awe”, as president Bush did, when he bombed Iraq, you are engaging in terrorism.

Just as the traditional American cowboy film presented white Americans under siege, with Indians as the aggressors, which was the opposite of reality, so, too, have Palestinians become the aggressors and not the victims. Beginning in 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were deliberately cleansed and expelled from their homes, and hundreds of their villages were destroyed, and their land was settled by colonists, who went on to deny their very existence and wage a 60-year war against the remaining natives and the national liberation movements the Palestinians established around the world. Every day, more of Palestine is stolen, more Palestinians are killed. To call oneself an Israeli Zionist is to engage in the dispossession of entire people. It is not that, qua Palestinians, they have the right to use any means necessary, it is because they are weak. The weak have much less power than the strong, and can do much less damage. The Palestinians would not have ever bombed cafes or used home-made missiles if they had tanks and airplanes. It is only in the current context that their actions are justified, and there are obvious limits.

It is impossible to make a universal ethical claim or establish a Kantian principle justifying any act to resist colonialism or domination by overwhelming power. And there are other questions I have trouble answering. Can an Iraqi be justified in attacking the United States? After all, his country was attacked without provocation, and destroyed, with millions of refugees created, hundreds of thousands of dead. And this, after 12 years of bombings and sanctions, which killed many and destroyed the lives of many others.

I could argue that all Americans are benefiting from their country’s exploits without having to pay the price, and that, in today’s world, the imperial machine is not merely the military but a military-civilian network. And I could also say that Americans elected the Bush administration twice and elected representatives who did nothing to stop the war, and the American people themselves did nothing. From the perspective of an American, or an Israeli, or other powerful aggressors, if you are strong, everything you do is justifiable, and nothing the weak do is legitimate. It’s merely a question of what side you choose: the side of the strong or the side of the weak.

Israel and its allies in the west and in Arab regimes such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have managed to corrupt the PLO leadership, to suborn them with the promise of power at the expense of liberty for their people, creating a first – a liberation movement that collaborated with the occupier. Israeli elections are coming up and, as usual, these elections are accompanied by war to bolster the candidates. You cannot be prime minister of Israel without enough Arab blood on your hands. An Israeli general has threatened to set Gaza back decades, just as they threatened to set Lebanon back decades in 2006. As if strangling Gaza and denying its people fuel, power or food had not set it back decades already.

The democratically elected Hamas government was targeted for destruction from the day it won the elections in 2006. The world told the Palestinians that they cannot have democracy, as if the goal was to radicalise them further and as if that would not have a consequence. Israel claims it is targeting Hamas’s military forces. This is not true. It is targeting Palestinian police forces and killing them, including some such as the chief of police, Tawfiq Jaber, who was actually a former Fatah official who stayed on in his post after Hamas took control of Gaza. What will happen to a society with no security forces? What do the Israelis expect to happen when forces more radical than Hamas gain power?

A Zionist Israel is not a viable long-term project and Israeli settlements, land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a two state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic Palestine. In coming decades, Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will they peacefully transition towards an equal society, where Palestinians are given the same rights, à la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue to view democracy as a threat? If so, one of the peoples will be forced to leave. Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been exterminated. But often, as in occupied Algeria, it is the settlers who flee. Eventually, the Palestinians will not be willing to compromise and seek one state for both people. Does the world want to further radicalise them?

Do not be deceived: the persistence of the Palestine problem is the main motive for every anti-American militant in the Arab world and beyond. But now the Bush administration has added Iraq and Afghanistan as additional grievances. America has lost its influence on the Arab masses, even if it can still apply pressure on Arab regimes. But reformists and elites in the Arab world want nothing to do with America.

A failed American administration departs, the promise of a Palestinian state a lie, as more Palestinians are murdered. A new president comes to power, but the people of the Middle East have too much bitter experience of US administrations to have any hope for change. President-elect Obama, Vice President-elect Biden and incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton have not demonstrated that their view of the Middle East is at all different from previous administrations. As the world prepares to celebrate a new year, how long before it is once again made to feel the pain of those whose oppression it either ignores or supports?

Failing Darwish’s Legacy

August 23, 2008

By Sumia Ibrahim

Relatives of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish along with Palestinian Authority officials mourn over his coffin during his state funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 13 August. (Mustafa Abu Dayeh/POOL/MaanImages)

Last Wednesday’s state funeral in Ramallah for the revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish revealed how far the Palestinian people are from realizing the justice imagined in Darwish’s writing, and was a sad reminder of how the Palestinian Authority (PA) helps undermine his people’s struggle.

On the day that Darwish’s body was laid to rest, amid tens of thousands of Palestinians mourning in the streets and many more in their homes, his criticisms of and hopes for the Palestinian and Israeli governments and societies remained unheeded and unrealized. However, Darwish’s official funeral at the PA headquarters, with all of its military pomp, demonstrated that the PA had its own interests in mind over that of respecting, never mind fulfilling, Darwish’s message and legacy.

Darwish joined the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1973 but broke 20 years later in disagreement with their signing with Israel the Oslo Accords which Darwish believed did not even minimally fulfill Palestinians’ rights. The Oslo Accords established the PA and initiated the “peace process” supposedly aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state, but were null and voided after Israel doubled its illegal settlement population in the years that followed, dashing any hopes of Palestinian sovereignty.

It is hard to imagine that Darwish would have been pleased with his PA-sponsored state funeral. Indeed, with the Oslo Accords he opposed came the establishment of the PA and the illusion of a Palestinian government in parity with Israel. However, in effect the PA served as an arm of the occupation, relieving Israel of its obligations as an occupying power. Meanwhile, Israel continues to colonize Palestinian land, control the borders and Palestinian movement, and the Palestinians are no closer to realizing their right to self-determination.

Furthermore, Darwish was overtly critical of political factionalism between Fatah and Hamas, Palestine’s leading governing parties. In July 2007, he described deadly infighting in Gaza as “a public attempt at suicide in the streets.” He said with irony, “We have triumphed. Gaza won its independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two prisons who don’t greet each other. We are victims dressed in executioners’ clothing.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas eulogized at Darwish’s funeral: “You remain with us, Mahmoud, because you represent everything that unites us.” Abbas spoke of Palestinian unity but in actuality, the PA has complied with Israel and the US’s attempt to further fracture Palestinian society by isolating Gaza from the West Bank. Renewed infighting emerged this summer between Fatah and Hamas, with the more severe rights violations occurring at the hands of Hamas in Gaza. But for their part, the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, closely linked to Fatah, abducted a senior member of Hamas in the West Bank in Nablus earlier this month. Palestinian security forces also detained up to 50 Hamas members, including senior party figures, also in the West Bank earlier this month.

Continued . . .

Darwish: The Anger, the Longing, the Hope

August 20, 2008
The Palestine Chronicle, August 18, 2008
‘We bade our silent farewell to a great Palestinian, a great poet, a great human being.’
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.

* * *

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.

Continued . . .

Farewell Mahmoud Darwish

August 16, 2008

Farewell Mahmoud Darwish


Sinan Antoon recalls the voice of a nation, August 14, 2008

Very few poets become the voice of their nation and even fewer succeed in transcending that to become much more. Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was that rare bird who crossed many skies and horizons. His death last week, following complications from open-heart surgery in Houston, Texas, ended an epic life and interrupted a stunningly creative and prolific output, especially in his later years. It is difficult to underestimate Darwish’s symbolic capital and his cultural and political significance. With his departure Palestine loses one of its most precious cultural icons, a poetic voice of universal echoes. The larger Arab world and its diaspora bid farewell to one of its best modern poets and the most popular and successful one in the last three decades. His poems were set to music, discussed in the Israeli Knesset, and his recitals could fill sport stadiums. Darwish’s absence will further enhance his near-mythical status in the collective memory of Palestinians and Arabs.

Darwish was born on 13 March 1941 in Al-Birweh in Palestine’s Galilee. At the age of seven he and his family were forced by Israeli forces to flee their village to Lebanon. Al-Birweh was destroyed by the Israelis and a settlement has taken its place. When Darwish’s family returned a year later they settled in Deir Al-Assad, near the traces of their destroyed village. The harrowing experience of losing his home and being an internal exile in his land at such a young age would haunt Darwish’s poetry and become a central theme with rich and complex variations running throughout his oeuvre. “I will never forget that wound,” he said. In one of his last books Darwish wrote of still hearing “the wailing of a village under a settlement”.

He was extremely precocious and discovered the power of words and poetry at a young age. At 12 he recited a poem at school on the anniversary of the Nakba about a child who returns to find his home taken by others. He was summoned by the Israeli military officer and threatened. His early fierce poetry registered his resistance to existential and cultural erasure practised by an apartheid colonial state. This is exemplified in Identity Card, which became an iconic poem of that phase and of what came to be known as “resistance poetry” with its famous refrain “Record, I am an Arab!” Darwish joined the Israeli Communist Party in 1961 and worked as a journalist in Al-Ittihad. He was imprisoned five times between 1961 and 1967 and was put under house arrest for three years.

He took the monumental decision not to return to Israel while on a scholarship to Moscow in 1971 and went to Cairo where his fame had already preceded him. Two years later he moved to Beirut and joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and remained there until 1982. In Beirut he was the editor of Shu’un Filastiniyya (Palestinian Affairs) and established Al-Karmil in 1981, one of the best cultural reviews to appear in the Arab world.

In Beirut, Darwish honed his poetic project and distinguished himself by continuous experimentation and engagement with developments in modern Arabic poetry, and by resisting the temptations and pressures of being pigeonholed as a “resistance poet”. Palestine and its concerns were always a central axis, but it was to be enriched through explorations of mythology and embedded in a more complex poetic narrative. Darwish witnessed and monumentalised key moments in the Palestinian saga in poems such as Ahmed Al-Zaatar (1977) on the 1976 siege and massacre of Tal Al-Zaatar and Madih Al-Zill Al-Aali (Praise for the Lofty Shadow), and Qasidat Beirut (The Beirut Poem) both written in 1983. Darwish was also a prose writer of exceptional beauty. Memory of Forgetfulness, a beautiful and haunting memoir about war, represented the daily horrors of the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut in 1982.

The Palestinian exodus from Beirut took Darwish to Tunis where the PLO found refuge until its return after Oslo in 1993. Darwish settled in Paris where he would have a most productive phase and transform his poetry to new heights in works such as I See What I Want (1990) and Eleven Planets (1992). His work enacted a poetic conversation with world epics and the Palestinian saga was rearticulated within a larger historical and cultural prism of the colonial moment of 1492 and its ramifications. Darwish reread Andalus and the genocide of the native Americans in mesmerising and epic poems simultaneously addressing the Palestinian question and universal postcolonial concerns. His poems were prophetic as to the fate of Palestinians. Darwish was elected to the executive committee of the PLO but resigned in 1993 over his objections to the Oslo Accords and his disagreement with Arafat. He correctly foresaw that they amounted to political suicide.

Why Have you Left the Horse Alone (1995) was a response of sorts to the challenges and threats of Oslo. It was an individual and collective poetic biography and an excavation of the memory of place. It also marked a shift in Darwish’s work towards the more personal and subjective. He continued to surprise and challenge his readers with A Bed for the Stranger (1999), a collection devoted to love. In 1998 Darwish had heart surgery for the second time and his heart stopped for two minutes. This encounter with death produced another epic poem, Mural (2000), about the triumph of art over death. Darwish decided to return and live in Ramallah as a citizen in 1996 and divided his time between the West Bank and Amman. A State of Siege (2002) was concerned with the horrors of Israeli occupation during the second Intifada, but also spoke of hope and resilience. Darwish was prolific and vibrant in his last years, stunning readers and critics with his ability to reinvent himself. In addition to three collections, ( Do not Apologise for What You Have Done (2004), Like Almond Blossoms or Beyond (2005), and The Butterfly Effect (2008), he left us one of the most powerful books of prose to be written in Arabic in modern times. In the Presence of Absence (2006) was a self-eulogy written in masterful poetic prose.

In the latter phase of his work Darwish was free to roam all themes no matter how mundane or metaphysical. The anchored and fixed I of his early years was now scattered in pronouns as the self became a site severed by time and space and open to all its others, in the widest sense. Darwish and his work contained multitudes and vast horizons, at the heart of which was Palestine in and of itself, but also Palestine as a metaphor for love, exile, and the injustice and pain of our contemporary moment.

Knowing surgery might not succeed, Darwish was keen on bidding farewell to his homeland and loved ones. He returned to Haifa for the first time since 1971 in July of last year for a historic poetry reading and a short visit. Permission had to be obtained from Israeli authorities. His family and friends had hoped he would be buried in the Galilee he loved but the Israelis refused and so he was buried in Ramallah.

“What can a poet do when confronted by the bulldozers of history?” asked Darwish once. To stand before them and preserve the memory and celebrate life as he did. “Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance,” he wrote in his last collection. And he left a treasure trove scattered in his 23 collections of poetry and four prose books. He lived in permanent exile and died in a strange land, but his poems are at home in the indestructible archive of our collective memory.

Obituary: Mahmoud Darwish

August 11, 2008

Poet, author and politician who helped to forge a Palestinian consciousness after the six-day war in 1967

Mahmoud Darwish

A file photo dated February 2008 shows Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Photograph: Jamal Nasrallah/EPA

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

With poems from the 1960s such as this, Mahmoud Darwish, who has died in a Texas hospital aged 67 of complications following open-heart surgery, did as much as anyone to forge a Palestinian national consciousness, and especially after the six-day war of June 1967. His poems have been taught in schools throughout the Arab world and set to music; some of his lines have become part of the fabric of modern Arabic culture.

Darwish was born in the village of Birwa, east of Acre. His parents were from middle-ranking peasant families. Both were preoccupied with work on their land and Mahmoud was effectively brought up by his grandfather. When he was six, Israeli armed forces assaulted the village and Mahmoud fled with his family to Lebanon, living first in Jezzin and then in Damour.

When, the following year, the family returned to their occupied homeland, their village had been obliterated: two settlements had been erected on the land, and they settled in Deir al-Asad in Galilee. There were no books in Darwish’s own home and his first exposure to poetry was through listening to an itinerant singer on the run from the Israeli army. He was encouraged to write poetry by an elder brother.

Israeli Arabs lived under military rule from 1948 to 1986. They were curbed in their movements and in any political activity. As a child, Darwish grew up aware that as far as those in control were concerned he, his family and his fellow Palestinians were second-class citizens. Yet they were still expected to join in Israeli state celebrations. While at school, he wrote a poem for an anniversary of the foundation of the state. The poem was an outcry from an Arab boy to a Jewish boy. “I don’t remember the poem,” he recalled many years later, “but I remember the idea of it; you can play in the sun as you please, and have your toys, but I can’t. You have a house, and I have none. You have celebrations, but I have none. Why can’t we play together?” He recalls being summoned to see the military governor, who threatened him: “If you go on writing such poetry, I’ll stop your father working in the quarry.”

But relations with individual Jewish Israelis varied. Some he liked, including at least one of his teachers, some he loathed. Relationships with Jewish girls were easier than with girls from the more conservative Arab families.

At his school, contemporaries remember him being very good in Hebrew. Israeli Palestinian culture was cut off from mainstream Arab developments. Arab poets who did impress him were the Iraqis Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Exciting innovations such as the Beirut group that clustered round the magazine al-Shi’r and the prosodic and thematic innovations of the Syrian poets Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) and Nizar Kabbani did not reach the beleaguered Palestinians directly. Instead, much of Darwish’s early reading of the poetry of the world outside Palestine was through the medium of Hebrew. Through Hebrew translations he got to know the work of Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. He also became influenced by Hebrew literature from the Torah to the modern poet Yehuda Amichai.

His first poetry symbolised the Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule. His first volumes, Leaves of the Olive Tree (1964), A Lover from Palestine (1966) and End of the Night (1967), were published in Israel. During this time Darwish was a member of the Israeli Communist party, Rakah, and edited the Arabic edition of the party’s newspaper, Al-Ittihad. Israeli Palestinians were restricted in any expression of nationalist feeling. Darwish went to prison several times and was frequently under house arrest.

His earliest poetry followed classical forms, but, from the mid-1960s, it became populist and direct. He used imagery that he could relate intimately to Palestinian villagers. He wrote of olive groves and orchards, the rocks and plants, basil and thyme. These early poems have a staccato effect, like verbal hand-grenades. In spite of an apparent simplicity, his short poems have several levels of meaning. There is a sense of anger, outrage and injustice, notably in the celebrated Identity Card, in the voice of an Arab man giving his identity number:

Write down at the top of the first page:

I do not hate people.
I steal from no one.
If I am hungry
I will eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware beware of my hunger
And of my anger.

But his poetry also contained irony and a universal humanity. For Darwish the issue of Palestine became a prism for an internationalist feeling. The land and history of Palestine was a summation of millennia, with influences from Canaanites, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks and British. Throughout all this has survived a core identity of Palestine. He was able to see the Israeli soldier as a victim of circumstances like himself. He expresses the bureaucratic absurdities of an oppressive military occupation.

Darwish left Israel in 1971, to the disappointment of many Palestinians, and studied at Moscow University. After a brief period in Cairo he went to Beirut and held a number of jobs with the Palestine Research Centre. He remained in Beirut during the first part of the civil war and left with Yasser Arafat and the PLO in 1982. He moved on to Tunis and Paris, and became editor-in-chief of the influential literary review Al-Karmel. Although he became a member of the PLO executive committee in 1987 and helped to draft the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood, he tried to keep away from factionalism. “I am a poet with a particular perspective on reality,” he said.

His literary work was changing. He wrote short stories and developed a style of writing poems that was a mixture of observation, humanity and irony. He argued that poetry was easier to write than prose. But the poetry continued inspired by incidents or relationships. There is often an optimism against all the odds in his works of the 1980s:

Streets encircle us
As we walk among the bombs.
Are you used to death?
I’m used to life and to endless desire.
Do you know the dead?
I know the ones in love.

During his Paris years Darwish wrote Memory for Forgetfulness, a memoir of Beirut under the saturation Israeli bombing of 1982 which has been translated into English. A poem in prose, it is a medley of wit and rage, with reflections on violence and exile.

His later work became more mystical and less particularly concerned with Palestine. Often it was preoccupied with human mortality. He was careless of his own health and suffered heart attacks in 1984 and in early 1998.

Darwish resigned from the PLO executive committee over the 1993 Oslo Agreements between Israel and the PLO, which he saw as a “risky accord”. He was able to return to Israel to see his aged mother in 1995. The Israeli authorities also gave him permission for an unlimited stay in the self-ruling parts of the Palestinian West Bank, and he spent his last years in Ramallah and Amman, the capital of Jordan.

In 2000 the Israeli ministry of education proposed to introduce his works into the school curriculum, but met strong opposition from rightwing protesters. The then prime minister, Ehud Barak, said the country was not ready.

Darwish’s work has been translated into Hebrew and, in July 2007, Darwish returned to Israel on a visit and gave a reading of his poetry to 2,000 people in Haifa. He deplored the Hamas victory in Gaza the previous month. “We have triumphed,’ he observed with grim irony. “Gaza has won its independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two prisons who don’t greet each other. We are dressed in executioners’ clothes.”

Over the years Darwish received many honours. He was given the Soviet Union’s Lotus prize in 1969, and the Lenin peace prize in 1983. He was president of the Union of Palestinian Writers. Married and divorced twice, he had no children; his first wife was the Syrian writer Rana Kabbani, who elegantly translated some of his poetry into English.

Margaret Obank writes: Mahmoud was a completely secular person, rather philosophical, an avid reader, elegant in his dress, and supremely modest in his opinion of himself. He liked to be alone, but would always be ready to speak on the telephone.

While I had been reading his poems since the early 1970s, I got to know him through my husband, the Iraqi author Samuel Shimon. Mahmoud supported Banipal, the literary magazine we founded in 1998, and took pride both in issues of the journal and the many dialogues we helpled to promote.

It presents work by Arab authors and poets in English for the first time. When we rang Mahmoud three months ago about doing a special issue on him, his reaction was: “Do you think I deserve that? If you think I do, then I like the idea.” Now it will be a tribute to him.

We were with Mahmoud when he was awarded the Prince Claus Fund of principal prize in Amsterdam in 2004, the theme being asylum and migration. His acceptance speech was both powerful and thoughtful: “A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace … with life.”

· Mahmoud Darwish, poet, born March 15 1941; died August 9 2008

Palestinian poet Darwish dies

August 10, 2008

Al Jazeera, August 10, 2008

Darwish’s poetry has been translated into more than 20 languages [GALLO/GETTY]

Mahmoud Darwish, the renowned Palestinian poet, has died after open heart surgery at the Memorial Hermann medical centre in Texas.

Ann Brimberry, Memorial Hermann’s spokeswoman, confirmed to Al Jazeera that Darwish died at 1.35pm (18:35 GMT).

Siham Daoud, a fellow poet and friend of the 67-year-old, had asked not to be resuscitated if the surgery did not succeed.

She said Darwish departed for the US ten days ago for the surgery, and he had undergone two operations for heart problems before Saturday’s surgery.

Best known for his work describing the Palestinian struggle for independence, the experience of exile and factional infighting, Darwish was a vocal critic of Israeli policy and the occupation of Palestinian lands.

Many of his poems have also been put into music – most notably Rita, Birds of Galilee and I yearn for my mother’s bread, becoming anthems for at least two generations of Arabs.

“He felt the pulse of Palestinians in beautiful poetry. He was a mirror of the Palestinian society,” Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist and lecturer in cultural studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem said.

Last year, Darwish recited a poem damning the deadly infighting between rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, describing it as “a public attempt at suicide in the streets”.

Early life

I Come From There,
Mahmoud Darwish
I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.

I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother,
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood,
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up,
To make a single word: Homeland….

He was born in the village of Barweh in Galilee, a village that was razed during the establishment of Israel in 1948.He joined the Israeli Communist Party after high school and began writing poems for leftist newspapers.

He was put under house arrest and imprisoned for his political activities, after which he worked as editor of Ittihad newspaper before leaving to study in the USSR in 1971.

Originally a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Darwish resigned in 1993 in protest over the interim peace accords that Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, signed with Israel.

As a journalist, he worked for al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo and later became director of the Palestinian Research Centre.

In 2000, Yossi Sarid, Israel’s education minister, suggested including some of Darwish’s poems in the Israeli high school curriculum.

But Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister overruled him, saying Israel was not ready yet for his ideas in the school system.

In 2001, he won the Lannan prize for cultural freedom.

Leaves of Olives was published in 1964 when Darwish was 22-years old. Since then more than 20 volumes of his works of poetry have been published.

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