In the Presence of Darwish
By Sinan Antoon
August 26, 2008
Mahmoud Darwish once said that he considered himself to be a Trojan poet recollecting and reconstructing the voices of the defeated: "The Trojans would have expressed a different narrative than that of Homer, but their voices are forever lost. I am in search of those voices." Darwish conducted his search as he roamed over a "map of absence," as he called his homeland of Palestine. On August 9 his odyssey ended when he died after complications from open heart surgery in Houston. Four days later, thousands of Palestinians flocked to Ramallah to bid him farewell at a state funeral, and countless others across the Arab world and elsewhere mourned his passing.
For nearly half a century, Darwish's heart, and the heart of his poetry, had been public spaces. In the Arab world, it was not uncommon for Darwish readings to draw thousands of people; many thousands more bought his books and listened to his poems as they were set to music. But Darwish was more than a "Trojan poet": his poetic odyssey included explorations of physical frailty, spiritual bewilderment, erotic love and metaphysical hunger. Darwish may very well have been one of the last great world poets. It is difficult to imagine another poet who enjoyed such immense popularity and endured such political scrutiny, one whose work embodies the collective memory of millions yet also has a universal orbit. Darwish truly contained multitudes. He was many poets at once; his work stubbornly resists categorization.
Darwish was born in 1941 in al-Birwi, a village in the Galilee in Palestine. In 1948 al-Birwi was occupied by Israeli forces, and his family fled to Lebanon; they snuck back a year later, but their village, like hundreds of others, had been destroyed and incorporated into Israel. All that remained of al-Birwi was the village cemetery. The Darwishes settled in another village and were categorized as "present absentees." Young Mahmoud witnessed and survived the obliteration, displacement and internal exile that would mark the Palestinian tragedy and become central themes in his poetry.
Darwish discovered the power of words early on and wrote fierce poems of resistance and love of land. He was imprisoned five times and placed under house arrest by the Israeli military authorities. Darwish's poem "Identity Card" (1964), with its unforgettable refrain "Write down, I'm an Arab!" crystallized Palestinian resistance against Israeli attempts to erase Palestinian identity and history. Darwish later joined the Israeli Communist Party, the only Israeli party at the time that admitted Arabs, and worked as a journalist and editor. In 1971, while on a scholarship to Moscow, he made the monumental decision not to return to Israel. He went to Cairo instead and then, in 1972, to Beirut, where he joined the PLO and stayed for a decade. He later lived in exile in Tunis, Paris and Amman.
By the time Darwish arrived in Cairo he was already a famous "poet of resistance." Palestinians found in his poetry their razed villages, confiscated houses and the scarred topography of their lost memory. But Darwish could also be quite defiant about not wanting his poetry to become a hostage of politics. "Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance," he once wrote. The symbolism of resistance became a burden at times, a theme he revisited often in his later years: "When I looked for myself I found others/And whenever I looked for them I only found my estranged self/Am I the collective I?" he wrote in Mural, crying out the refrain "I am not mine" whenever he recited the poem. In contemplating Darwish's legacy, one is reminded of Neruda's definition of poetry as combining solitude with solidarity. Darwish inhabited the space between solitude and solidarity (with others and one's surroundings), and navigated its dire straits like no other poet in recent memory. He gradually invited everyone to his internal dialogue with his scattered "I" as it traveled the wind on an eternal journey. He celebrated the resilience of Palestinians but also voiced their fragility and humanity.
If Palestine was and remained the heart of Darwish's poetic project, it also became a metaphor for history's devastation. His poetry began, especially after the Beirut period, to address a variety of historical experiences, narratives and myths in order to place the Palestinian saga within the broader context of postcolonial tragedies that have occurred since 1492. His poem "The Penultimate Speech of the Red Indian" is a powerful indictment of the erasure of indigenous cultures and of settler-colonialism: "Let's give the earth enough time to tell/the whole truth about you and us. O you who are guests in this place/leave a few chairs empty/for your hosts to read out/the conditions for peace/in a treaty with the dead."
With every collection, Darwish surprised and challenged his readers and critics. During his years in Beirut, he moved from the lyrical style of his early "resistance period" to a fusion of lyricism and longer epic poems employing biblical and Canaanite mythology and symbols. After the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, he resigned from the executive committee of the PLO over disagreements with Yasir Arafat. He predicted, correctly, that Oslo was political suicide for Palestinians. His poetry turned more autobiographical and explored the personal memory of place. Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (1995) was "a poetic defense of narrative and memory" against the erasure of the victim's rights. A Bed for the Stranger (1998) was devoted to love and erotic themes. So powerful and immense was his status that some complained he was abandoning the cause by writing such poems. Darwish's ultimate loyalty, however, was to poetry. In 1998 he encountered death for two minutes during heart surgery. He was revived, and the experience of living a brief death led to the epic poem Mural (2000), about confronting death and nothingness and the triumph of art over death. State of Siege (2002) was written during the second intifada, when Darwish was in Ramallah, where he had lived as a citizen since 1996.
Darwish was most inventive and productive during the last decade of his life. His tone grew more conversational and he felt free to address many topics, no matter how mundane or metaphysical. His last few collections, especially those written after his 1998 heart surgery and with the caldrons of Palestine and Iraq in mind, were increasingly concerned with the fragility of human existence and the paradoxical nature of being in an ailing and alienating world. In these works, the poetic persona is often fragmented and on an eternal journey to the unknown. Homes, real and imagined, and the excavation of memory are recurring threads in their narrative fabric. The impossibility of an actual return to a home begins to haunt many of his poems. He even went so far as to eulogize himself in a fascinating work of poetic prose, In the Presence of Absence (2006).
"Death does not pain the dead. It pains those who are alive," Darwish wrote in In the Presence of Absence. He was buried in Ramallah, never able to return, one last time, to the Galilee he so loved. Death may have eclipsed his body, but his poetry will endure. From The Butterfly Effect:
Sleep gently in your words
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About Sinan Antoon