Fifteen days ago Mahmoud Darwish died of complications following open heart surgery in a hospital in Texas. Millions around the world mourn the death of this 67 year old Palestinian poet who has been translated in more than 20 different languages around the world. His poetry got him into trouble from a very early age. As a Palestinian boy living under Israeli military rule from 1948 to 1986 he became aware that he, his family and his fellow Palestinians were second-class citizens but they were still expected to celebrate the foundation of the state of Israeli.
Darwish was born in the village of Birwa, east of Acre. His parents were hardworking peasants who spent most of their days in their fields. 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 totally destroyed: two settlements had been erected on the land, and they settled in Deir al-Asad in Galilee. While at school, he wrote a poem for an anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel. The poem was an outcry from an Arab boy to a Jewish boy. "I don't remember the poem," he said 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."
Although he has been called the heart and tongue of the Palestinians, his poetry has touched millions of hearts around the world as he has managed to speak for the millions of voiceless displaced persons around the world. Forty years ago he wrote:
“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.”
At the same time while in an Israeli jail he wrote a poem called "Ummi" ("My Mother"). It is now an anthem for many Palestinians and millions of other people around the world who have been deprived of a homeland:
“I long for my mother's bread,
And my mother's coffee,
And her touch.
Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day.
I must be worthy of my life
At the hour of my death
Worthy of the tears of my mother.”
At the hour of his death he was considered worthy of the tears of millions around the world. His poetry was so powerful that it was even admired by many within Israel. Apart from drawing on the tradition of Arab poets especially the Syrians and Iraqis he was influenced heavily by Hebrew literature from the Torah to the modern poet Yehuda Amichai. Through Hebrew he got to know the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda. In 2000 the Israeli Ministry of Education tried 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. Believe it or not, even Ariel Sharon liked his poems.
Although a staunch defender of the rights of Palestinians, Darwish did not demonise the Israelis. In ‘Under siege” he wrote:
“[To a killer] If you had contemplated the victim’s face
And thought it through, you would have remembered your mother in the Gas chamber, you would have been freed from the reason for the rifle
And you would have changed your mind: this is not the way
to find one’s identity again.”
Darwish’s poems are direct and concrete and full of imagery coming from the daily life of Palestinian villagers. His poems are full of olive groves and orchards, the rocks and plants, basil and thyme. But having seen so much suffering, violence and wars, having spent so many years in prison, do not expect sweet poems. In his ‘Psalm’ 3 he says:
“But when my words became
Though simple his poems have different layers 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.”
Writing about the destruction brought about by war he writes in what he calls a paragraph prayer:
“In one minute the lifetime of a house is ended. When a house is killed, it is a serial killing, even if the house is empty: a mass grave of all the things once used to give a home to Meaning, or, in times of war, to a marginal poem. … A slaughtered house is the severing of things from what they meant, from the feelings they inspired. … Houses are murdered just as their inhabitants are killed and the memories of things are slaughtered: stones, wood, glass, iron, mortar - scattered like human limbs. Cotton silk, linen, exercise books, books - torn apart like the unsaid words of people who did not have the time to say them… Land-deeds and marriage certificates torn apart with birth papers, water and electricity bills, identity cards, passports, love letters - torn apart like the hearts of their owners.
Photographs are swept away with combs, make-up, brushes, shoes, lingerie, sheets, and towels, swept away like family secrets betrayed to others and to devastation. All these things are the memories of people deprived of things, and the memory of things deprived of people …. Everything ends in one minute. Things die like we do, but they are not buried with us.”
He denounced the factionalism between Hamas and Fatah that is tearing apart the Palestinian people: "We have triumphed; 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."
But somehow he does not give up:
“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.”
He suffered several heart attacks throughout his life and many were worried about his health:
“My friends are always preparing a farewell feast for me,
A soothing grave in the shade of oak trees
A marble epitaph of time
And always I anticipate them at the funeral:
Who then has died...who?”
Fame did not go to his head as he was very aware of our fragility and mortality:
“I am not mine
And history makes fun of its victims
And its heroes
Takes a look at them and passes by
This sea is mine
This moist air is mine
And my name-
Even if I spell it wrong on the coffin –
As for me,
Now that I am filled with all the possible
Reasons for departure –
I am not mine.
I am not mine
I am not mine…”
When he was buried a few days ago in Ramallah, the sun was shining brilliantly and the birds were singing in the green trees as he expected them to be in one of his poems that ended with these words:
“…and other things of suspended memories
Reveal that this morning is powerful and splendid,
And that we are the guests of eternity.”