Mahmoud Darwish On Loss And Identity

| Updated: January 28, 2022 8:39 pm

Last week, as I ended my column with the Jewish, Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, I made a promise that I would write about the greatest Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish was regarded as the Palestinian national poet. He authored over two dozen books and his was the voice widely accepted and respected across the Arab world. His poetry readings were heard by huge audiences. He was an icon during his life.

Darwish admired the poetry of Yehuda Amichai but as Darwish says, “his poetry put a challenge to me, because we write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes it better?” 

The quote above has been taken from an excellent tribute to Mahmoud Darwish by Maya Jaggi in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jun/08/featuresreviews.guardianreview19

Darwish was born in 1941 in Al-Birwa or Birweh, a village in Galilee. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, his village was destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces, so, its residents could not return to their homes in the new Israeli state. When the first Census took place in Israel, his family was not present in the country. Thus, his family was considered as “present-absent aliens” and he was refused an Israeli passport.

About Jews, Mahmoud Darwish says, “The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.” (“Poet of the Arab World” by Maya Jaggi in The Guardian).

This is a wonderful tribute to Darwish on his death: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/aug/11/poetry.israelandthepalestinians

Shreya Banerjee writes an insightful article on Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish for The Indian Express: https://indianexpress.com/article/research/children-of-exile-why-mahmoud-darwish-and-edward-said-are-poster-children-of-the-israel-palestine-conflict-7349342/

To quote Banerjee, “The loss of the homeland was followed by a lifelong search for something that could come closest to endurance. Darwish went on to create a homeland for him and his people through words, poetry, and lyrical prose. Darwish’s works aim to answer the ricocheting question ‘who am i?’, a question which tormented him his entire life.”

You can also read an article on Words Without Borders on Mahmoud Darwish here: https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/on-mahmoud-darwish

John Berger also pays a tribute to Mahmoud Darwish in this Lithub article, where he contemplates life and death at Darwish’s graveside: https://lithub.com/john-berger-contemplates-life-and-death-at-the-graveside-of-mahmoud-darwish/

Mahmoud Darwish wrote a poem “Tibaq / Antithesis”, as a homage to Edward Said, translated by Mona Anis. You can find Darwish reading the poem here, with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-Cxxg-D2TQ

“The sun a plate of shredded metal

I asked myself, estranged in the shadow:

Is this Babel or Sodom?

There, on the doorstep of an electric abyss,

High as the sky, I met Edward, thirty years ago,

Time was less wild then.” 

(“Antithesis” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Mona Anis)

“Tibaq / Antithesis” is a poem one must read or listen on Youtube in Darwish’s own voice. And as one re-reads or listens to the poem again, the deeper resonances sink in.

Darwish’s own life, of moving to and living in different places, is reminiscent of a troubadour in the Middle Ages, a travelling poet who spread the power of poetry and that of ideas far and wide. Darwish’s impact upon the world he inhabited is similar and thus, the comparison wouldn’t be considered far-fetched.

As Darwish says poignantly, “My birth place does not exist. You know that I was born in a village that does not exist. Settlements were built on top of its ruins.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu_cQaCGDoI

About his work, I would like to quote the poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, who says, “Mahmoud Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart. What he speaks has been embraced by readers around the world—his in an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.” (From “Mahmoud Darwish 1941-2008” https://poets.org/poet/mahmoud-darwish )

Darwish is always poignant in different ways. Here are a few lines from his poem “In Jerusalem” translated by Fady Joudah:

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,

I walk from one epoch to another without a memory

to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing

the history of the holy … ascending to heaven

and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love

and peace are holy and are coming to town.

I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How

do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?

(“In Jerusalem” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah, The Poetry Foundation website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52551/in-jerusalem )

In another one of his poems “I Belong There”, he writes:

I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.

I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell

with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by seagulls, a panorama of my own.

I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon,

a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.

(“I Belong There”, From Unfortunately, It Was Paradise by Mahmoud Darwish translated and Edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein, https://poets.org/poem/i-belong-there)

Loss is something that Mahmoud Darwish lived with all his life, and he represented it in different ways in his poetry. The loss of homeland also becomes loss of paradise in his works. About the idea of identity, Darwish has written that instead of the identity one is born with, a person often takes on different identities through one’s life, shaped and reshaped by one’s life experiences.

I would like to leave you with a few lines from one of his poems “Who Am I, Without Exile?”, translated by Fady Joudah. Adieu till next week:

Nothing brings me back from my faraway

to my palm tree: not peace and not war. Nothing

makes me enter the gospels. Not

a thing … nothing sparkles from the shore of ebb

and flow between the Euphrates and the Nile. Nothing

makes me descend from the pharaoh’s boats. Nothing

carries me or makes me carry an idea: not longing

and not promise. What will I do? What

will I do without exile, and a long night

that stares at the water?

(“Who Am I, Without Exile?”  from The Butterfly’s Burden. Copyright © 2008 by Mahmoud Darwish, English translation by Fady Joudah https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52549/who-am-i-without-exile )

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