Anj — 3 obituaries for Mahmoud Darwish

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Dear All, this is sad and shocking news – we should all mourn his death. anjx
3 obituaries for Mahmoud Darwish
A war for war’s sake
What we are now seeing is the expression of the will of a people that has no choice but to resist, writes Mahmoud Darwish
This is a war for war’s sake, since it has no other aim than its self-perpetuation. Everyone knows this; and, once again, the sword will prove incapable of crushing the spirit. The Arabs have offered Israel a collective peace in return for Israeli withdrawal from a fifth of our historical homeland. Israel’s answer to this generous offer was to declare all-out war against the Palestinian people, and against the Arabs’ very imagination.
Once again, we will prove that we occupy the moral high ground — nothing remaining to us now but this proof. Those who control the international balance of power will continue to shape events without respect for intellectual or legal argument until we awake to the realisation that, just as they have proved themselves incapable of ensuring deterrence — though there is no option other than peace — they have also shown themselves incapable of ensuring peace.
In every corner crimes are being committed. On every street lie the bodies of the murdered. On every wall is blood. The living are deprived of the basic right to life, and the martyrs are denied graves in which to rest in peace. Above all, however, what we are now seeing is the expression of the will of a people that has no choice but to resist. Between one beat of a wounded heart and the next we ask: how long will we carry on cheering as Christ ascends to Golgotha?
Is the Palestinian side all that is left of the famous “Arab-Israeli struggle”? Does this account for such neutral incapacity before so lurid a black and red scene? How we fear now that Yasser Arafat’s cries will be pinned forever to a wooden cross: present events contain enough of the aesthetics of martyrdom to make a whole nation’s mourning superfluous on an endless Good Friday. Tears purify the soul, cleansing the body even as they sting with salt, and tearful spectators now await live coverage of the moment when the tragic hero is crowned with an appropriate end, making the tightly wrought elements of the story into myth, the hero ending, as Arafat has put it, “a martyr, a martyr, a martyr.”
But no. The Palestinians do not need such feelings of solitude or uniqueness. They do not need to play the part of sacrificial offerings any more than they already have done. Palestinians want to live outside of metaphors, in the place where they were born. They want to liberate their country from the heavy weight of mythology, from the barbarity of occupation and from the mirage of a peace that promises nothing but destruction.
Yet, Israeli forces, armed to the teeth with racist superstitions and military hardware, are besieging the Palestinians’ right to live ordinary lives, albeit lives lived on a margin narrower than dreams, and wider than nightmares. This right is also under siege from a world under American control, a world set on the horns of a raging bull that has abolished the conjunction, the “and,” that used to fall between America and Israel. The Palestinians are besieged by a condition of dependency that has robbed the Arab political establishment of the eloquence even to beg, and of the ability to placate a populace that is angry at everything.
How many times must the Palestinians be besieged before the Arab world realises that it, too, is under siege? How many times before it realises that it too is a hostage, even though it does not resist? Television has made it unnecessary for us to explain ourselves: now our blood is shed in every home and is on every conscience. From this day on, he who does not become Palestinian in his heart will never understand his true moral identity. This is not only because the unfashionable values that lay hidden beneath daily talk of a “peace process” empty of justice and freedom have now been brought back to life. It is also because the will has now been liberated from the simplistic calculation of profit and loss and from a debilitating intellectual pessimism. This has liberated the only real meaning human existence has: freedom.
The Palestinians have no other choice. In the face of the political genocide being offered by the American- funded Israeli occupation of their land, they offer their steadfast resistance no matter what the cost. Backs against the wall, their eyes fixed upon hope, they show a strength of spirit for which there can be no facile explanation.
Israel’s all-out war on the Palestinians has flung the doors wide open to every kind of question. The most important of these is the question of future Arab-Israeli and Arab-American relations. Israel has been quick to declare that this war is a “struggle for Israel’s existence” and that the war to found the Israeli state has not been finished yet. This can only mean that the elimination of the Palestinian national movement remains on Israel’s agenda despite the peace process, and that the Palestinians’ existence, not the Israelis’, is threatened with destruction.
Israel has invited us to take the struggle back to its very beginning and, ironically, to review all the stages through which we have passed, during which our concept of struggle changed. Israel has declared war on the very idea of peace. What is it that threatens “Israel’s existence,” this existence it defends with such aggression? Is it the war the Arabs have not declared on Israel? Or is it the peace the Arabs are offering?
The lie that is Israel’s current war is necessary for Israeli society, so that it can cohere around its founding myths. If occupation is the condition and essence of Israeli existence, as seems to be the case, then this is an issue not amenable to resolution.
What concerns us is the defence of our national and human existence — even if our backs are up against the wall. We have absolutely no other option.
Mahmoud Darwish
Poet, author and politician who helped to forge a Palestinian consciousness after the six-day war in 1967
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 thetelephone.
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
Obituary: Mahmoud Darwish
By Tobias Buck in Jerusalem
Published: August 11 2008 13:55 | Last updated: August 11 2008 13:55
The concept of a national poet with the power to shape a national movement and define a country’s collective spirit seems to belong to a different century. But for Palestinians, who have yet to see their dreams of an independent state realised, it was embodied by Mahmoud Darwish.
None of them doubted that the poet, who died in the US last Saturday after a major heart operation, was Palestine’s national poet. But unlike the dead literary heroes of Europe he was accessible in every sense of the word.
Poetry may have become a minority art form in much of the rest of the world, but in the Palestinian territories Mr Darwish’s poems were read, taught, learnt and sung everywhere. His work was refined, rich and complex – but it was always part of the Palestinian cultural mainstream.
Mr Darwish’s public readings – the latest took place in the West Bank town of Ramallah only last month – were big events. His popularity was enhanced by the fact that he never shied away from touching upon the painful realities of present day Palestinian society. Last year, he penned a widely-quoted work that dealt with the internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah, the two biggest Palestinian parties. Palestinians would also follow with fascination, and sometimes with scepticism, his political musings, not least his trenchant criticism of the Oslo peace process.
Mr Darwish was born in 1941, seven years before the creation of Israel, in the village of al-Birweh near the coastal city of Acre. He and his family fled to Lebanon in 1948, forming part of the huge stream of Palestinian refugees who were either expelled by advancing Israeli troops or left in the hope of returning after the war.
He published his first volume of poetry in 1960, and became an early member of Yassir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation. Until his death, he managed to straddle the worlds of politics and poetry with determination, if not always with ease.
On several memorable occasions, these two worlds fused, for example when he sat down to write Mr Arafat’s 1974 speech in front of the United Nations general assembly. It included the famous line: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” Mr Darwish also wrote the Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988.
Another seminal document – the Oslo peace accords agreed by Mr Arafat and the Israeli government in 1993 – led to a rupture between Mr Darwish and the PLO, and caused the poet to resign from the group’s executive committee.
Like several Palestinian intellectuals, he was deeply opposed to the agreement, arguing that it did not offer Palestinians a clear path towards statehood and did not commit Israel firmly enough to ending the occupation. His pessimism, much to his own regret, was proven right.
Though he was loved by Palestinian readers above all because he found the words to describe their suffering and quest for statehood, Mr Darwish was far more than a political poet. Indeed, the themes to which he returned again and again – exile, longing, alienation – resonated with readers all over the world. Mr Darwish insisted in one interview that “exile is more than a geographical concept”, stressing that his themes were far from unique to the Palestinian people.
For Palestinians, who are likely to turn out in their thousands when he is laid to rest at a state funeral in Ramallah on Wednesday, the death of Mr Darwish is a severe blow. After Edward Said, the famous literary critic and author who died five years ago, they have now lost their second intellectual of world repute.
Mr Darwish himself was acutely aware of the power that words and poems and their writers hold in a nation that remains stateless and politically impotent. As he wrote in his 1986 poem Fewer Roses: “We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing…Ours is a country of words: Talk, Talk. Let me see an end to this journey.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008