Economist, 21 August 2008
Poetry exercises a special power for Arabs. To a people of desert origins, it takes the partial place of icons and cathedrals, stage drama and political oratory. Yet the Arab canon extends far wider, linking the tribal bards of pre-Islamic Arabia to Sufi mystics, bawdy medieval jesters and angst-ridden modernists. Poetry also carries a special meaning for exiles, who must sustain themselves with what they can carry, their lightest but most precious burdens being memory and language.
Exile was certainly personal to Mahmoud Darwish. His first forced flight came in 1948, when he was seven. Fearing the advance of Israeli forces, his family abandoned their ancestral wheatfields in Western Galilee and walked, destitute, to the apple orchards of Lebanon. Sneaking back across the border later, they found their village razed to make way for Jewish settlement. His father became a labourer; his family, having missed a census, were classed as “present-absent aliens”.
But exile was also an experience that Mr Darwish shared with his entire people, the Palestinians. Sixty years after the creation of Israel, more than half of them remain in physical exile from their homeland, while the rest, partitioned into enclaves under various forms of Israeli control, remain exiled from each other and from the wider Arab world. Mr Darwish was their voice and their consciousness.
It was a role that often bothered him. Rightly, he felt it belittled his devotion to the poetic craft and made him over-solemn. He sometimes berated his huge audiences when they clamoured for nationalist odes rather than the subtler, metaphysical verse of his later years. He fretted that some would recall only lines such as “Go! You will not be buried among us,” and forget those praising a Jewish lover or commiserating with an enemy soldier.
Yet it was inescapable that he should be lauded as Palestine’s poet laureate, and not merely because his words were made into popular songs and splashed as headlines to sell newspapers. His own life was entwined with the tragic Palestinian national narrative. When he was barely in his teens, the village schoolmaster tasked him with writing a speech to mark Israel’s independence day. He wrote it as a letter to a Jewish boy, explaining that he could not be happy on this day until he was given the same things that the Jewish boy enjoyed. This earned him a summons before the Israeli military governor, who warned him that such behaviour could get his father’s pass revoked, making him unable to work.
A few years later Mr Darwish took the bus to a poetry festival in Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel. He read one long poem, and was asked to recite more. All he had was a crumpled paper on which he had jotted some rough verse inspired by a visit to the Israeli police, to renew his travel pass. The poem included these lines:
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks…
The result was electric. The crowd demanded three encores, and Mr Darwish’s fame was born. By the mid-1980s, his 20 volumes of verse had sold well over a million copies.
For all that time he had no country of his own. Though a citizen of Israel, he was too often jailed there for his activism, and eventually had his citizenship revoked. He tried living in Moscow, then Cairo, then Beirut, where Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation had been allowed to build a proto-state in exile. When Israel invaded in 1982, Mr Darwish sailed for Tunis and later lived in Paris. Not until 1996, after the Oslo peace agreement made it possible, did he return to Palestine.
But Palestine was a shambles. Arafat’s dictatorial style repulsed him; the drift towards the second intifada of 2000, and the vicious schisms that followed, reduced him to despair. Much of his later verse avoided overtly political themes. After a heart attack in 1998, he wrote:
One day I shall become what I want.
One day I shall become a thought,
Which no sword will carry
To the wasteland, nor no book;
as if it were rain falling on a mountain
split by a burgeoning blade of grass, where neither has power won
nor fugitive justice.
One day I shall become a bird,
And wrest my being from my non-being.
The longer my wings will burn,
The closer I am to the truth,
Risen from the ashes.
Yet he could never fully escape the duty to help his people sustain their sense of destiny. In his last poem, Mr Darwish described Palestinians and Israelis as two men trapped in a hole:
He said: Will you bargain with me now?
I said: For what would you bargain
In this grave?
He said: Over my share and your share of this common grave
I said: Of what use is that?
Time has passed us by,
Our fate is an exception to the rule
Here lie a killer and the killed, asleep in one hole
And it remains for another poet to write the end of the script.