Prince of Poets: Mahmoud Darwish was the voice off the Palestinian people--chronicling not just the struggles and political injustices but also the rhythms of daily life.

Author:Wasserstein, David J.
Position:BOOKS - Critical essay

In August 2011, three years after the death of Mahmoud Darwish, a TV series depicting the Palestinian poet's life began showing in the Middle East, and predictably, voices were raised against it. The actor playing Darwish was the wrong shape--Darwish was tall and lean, Firas Ibrahim shorter and plumper. Ibrahim was friendly in appearance, and Danvish was, well, more severe looking. The voice was all wrong, too--and as evidence, you could get Darwish reading his poetry all over the Internet. Websites and Facebook pages were created to protest against the series, and a petition to ban it acquired thousands of signatures.

Though Darwish would have relished the fuss--he loved a good fight--he would probably have considered the disagreements over Ibrahim's appearance trivial. He would certainly have abominated the calls for any sort of ban or censorship. In Israel, his own work had been subject to just that sort of ban, for example in March 2000, when Yossi Sarid, then the country's education minister, proposed including some poems by Darwish in the high school curriculum. Ehud Barak, the prime minister, facing an onslaught of right-wing vitriol at the idea, notoriously said that Israeli children were "not ready" for the Palestinian's poetry.

Around the birth of Islam, 14 centuries ago, Arabs saw poetry as their most characteristic literary form. Because it was ideal for public recital, it was also a natural home for politics. Political propaganda for (and by) a ruler, praise of him, boasting about him, satire criticizing him, elegy for him, memorialization of him--all have found their expression in Arabic poetry from the earliest times.

In the past century, the Arabic language--its vocabulary, syntax, and sentence structure--has been deeply influenced by the West, and Arab poets have adapted to modernist thought and patterning, in large part abandoning the characteristic models and meters of the classical past while addressing new and different subjects in ways shaped by Western models. Yet the demand for poetry in Arabic remains strong, with current audiences, far more literate than previous generations, buying books of poetry in numbers that make Western poets and their publishers gasp. Perhaps in part because of those changes, poetry still has the capacity to fuel political aspirations and reactions, inspiring and arousing its hearers as nothing else except religion can. Political poetry in Arabic is thus still poetry--and politics.

This is why the death of Mahmoud Darwish, on August 9, 2008, was more than just the passing of a distinguished man of letters. Far beyond the history of literature in Arabic, the study of modern Arabic poetry, even the expression of the 20th-century Palestinian tragedy, Darwish incarnates and reflects the tradition of the political poet in Islam, the man of action whose action is poetry. Darwish spent his life wielding a pen, not a Kalashnikov, yet even in death he remained persona non grata for the Israelis, who were unwilling to grant him burial in his home village inside Israel. In 1966, before he left Israel, Darwish wrote "My father" a poem that eerily prefigured his destiny: "He who has no country/ has no claim to burial" The ambiguities and shadows of poetry are more elusive than the battle cries of politics, and because of that, the death of a poet has a greater and a longer-lasting capacity to galvanize and to inspire than the ephemeral slogans and sound bites of a dead politician.

.................. BORN IN THE GALILEE in 1941, Mahmoud Darwish was just old enough to apprehend something of the Nakba, the Palestinian "disaster" or "catastrophe" of Israeli statehood in 1948. His family, exiled in Lebanon because of the fighting, illegally crossed the border back into Israel a year later--too late to be included in the first census of the new state. As a result, they were given the status of "present absentees" an anomalous Israeli legal invention, placing them in the interstices of being: present because they were, after all, physically there; absent because they had not been there at the right time.

After his native village was destroyed during the 1948 fighting, Darwish lived in a neighboring village, in sight of what had been his home and of the fields that had been his father's. At 12, invited to contribute to his village's observance of Israel's independence day, he recited a poem in which he described finding others in his home, sleeping in his bed, working his family's fields. The recitation drew a summons to the military governor and a warning to stop writing such poems or his father's work permit would be revoked. The story may seem apocryphal, implying an unlikely precociousness, but it shows some of the themes--the image of both outcast and rebel that Darwish would later project--that would continue to inform his work.

That early work apparently does not survive, but "Identity Card" written when he was around 20, does. Here, in what is probably his most popular poem, Darwish expresses not...

To continue reading