Mahmoud Darwish: A Love From Palestine

The Dome of the Rock (Arabic: قبة الصخرة, romanized: Qubbat aṣ-Ṣakhra) is an Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, a site also known to Muslims as the al-Haram al-Sharif or the Al-Aqsa Compound. [dok. Trasmedia Babel Associated Press]

By Ahmad Karim Amrullah

BABEL, – The Palestinian poet and author, Mahmoud Darwish, was born in al-Birwa in the Western Galilee, a village that was occupied and later razed by the Israeli army. Because they had missed the official Israeli census, Darwish and his family were considered “internal refugees” or “present-absent aliens.”

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During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, his village was captured by Israeli forces and the family fled to Lebanon, first to Jezzine and then Damour. Their home village was razed and destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to prevent its inhabitants from returning to their homes inside the new Jewish state.

Darwish lived for many years in exile in Beirut and Paris. He is the author of over 30 books of poetry and eight books of prose, and earned the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize from the Lannan Foundation, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres Medal from France.

And he published his first book of poetry, Asafir bila ajniha, or “Wingless Birds,” at the age of 19. He initially published his poems in Al Jadid, the literary periodical of the Israeli Communist Party, eventually becoming its editor. Later, he was assistant editor of Al Fajr, a literary periodical published by the Israeli Workers Party (Mapam).

In the 1960s Darwish was imprisoned for reciting poetry and traveling between villages without a permit. Considered a “resistance poet,” he was placed under house arrest when his poem “Identity Card” was turned into a protest song.

Darwish left Israel in 1970, to the disappointment of many Palestinians, and studied at the Soviet Union (USSR). He attended the Lomonosov Moscow State University for one year, before moving to Egypt and Lebanon.

After spending a year at a university of Moscow in 1970, Darwish worked at the newspaper Al-Ahram in Cairo. He subsequently lived in Beirut, where he edited the journal Palestinian Affairs from 1973 to 1982. In 1981 he founded and edited the journal Al-Karmel.

Darwish served from 1987 to 1993 on the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1996 he was permitted to return from exile to visit friends and family in Israel and Palestine.

Mahmoud Darwish’s early work of the 1960s and 1970s reflects his unhappiness with the occupation of his native land. Carolyn Forché and Runir Akash noted in their introduction to Unfortunately It Was Paradise (2003) that “as much as [Darwish] is the voice of the Palestinian Diaspora, he is the voice of the fragmented soul.”

Forché and Akash commented also on his 20 th volume, Mural: “Assimilating centuries of Arabic poetic forms and applying the chisel of modern sensibility to the richly veined ore of its literary past, Darwish subjected his art to the impress of exile and to his own demand that the work remain true to itself, independent of its critical or public reception.”

Margaret Obank writes: Mahmoud was a completely secular person, rather philosophical, an avid reader, elegant in his dress, and supremely modest in his opinion of himself. He liked to be alone, but would always be ready to speak on the telephone.

While I had been reading his poems since the early 1970s, I got to know him through my husband, the Iraqi author Samuel Shimon. Mahmoud supported Banipal, the literary magazine we founded in 1998, and took pride both in issues of the journal and the many dialogues we helped to promote.

It presents work by Arab authors and poets in English for the first time. When we rang Mahmoud three months ago about doing a special issue on him, his reaction was: “Do you think I deserve that? If you think I do, then I like the idea.” Now it will be a tribute to him.

We were with Mahmoud when he was awarded the Prince Claus Fund of principal prize in Amsterdam in 2004, the theme being asylum and migration. His acceptance speech was both powerful and thoughtful: “A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace… with life.”

And Darwish’s work has won numerous awards and been published in 20 languages. A central theme in Darwish’s poetry is the concept of watan or homeland. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote that Darwish “is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging…” Among his awards was the “Cultural Freedom Prize” by the United States Lannan Foundation, for the stated purpose of recognizing “people whose extraordinary and courageous work celebrates the human right to freedom of imagination, inquiry, and expression.

Darwish’s early writings are in the classical Arabic style. He wrote monorhymed poems adhering to the metrics of traditional Arabic poetry.

In the 1970s he began to stray from these precepts and adopted a “free-verse” technique that did not abide strictly by classical poetic norms. The quasi-Romantic diction of his early works gave way to a more personal, flexible language, and the slogans and declarative language that characterized his early poetry were replaced by indirect and ostensibly apolitical statements, although politics was never far away.

He was impressed by the Iraqi poets Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. And he cited Arthur Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg as literary influences.

Mahmoud Darwish, who has died in a Texas hospital aged 67 of complications following open-heart surgery, did as much as anyone to forge a Palestinian national consciousness, and especially after the six-day war of June 1967. His poems have been taught in schools throughout the Arab world and set to music; some of his lines have become part of the fabric of modern Arabic culture.

And these are the following poems by Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), the Palestinian Poet Laureate, whose work has been translated and read around the globe. 


In Jerussalem

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?

Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?

I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see

no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.

All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly

then I become another. Transfigured. Words

sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger

mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”

I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white

biblical rose. And my hands like two doves

on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.

I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,

transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?

I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I

think to myself: Alone, the prophet Muhammad

spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”

Then what? A woman soldier shouted:

Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?

I said: You killed me… and I forgot, like you, to die.


Identity Card 

I am an Arab

And the number of my card is fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth is due after summer.

What’s there to be angry about?

Put it on record.  

I am an Arab

Working with comrades of toil in a quarry.

I have eight children

For them I wrest the loaf of bread,

The clothes and exercise books

From the rocks

And beg for no alms at your door,

Lower not myself at your doorstep.

What’s there to be angry about?

Put it on record.

I am an Arab.

I am a name without a title,

Patient in a country where everything

Lives in a whirlpool of anger.

My roots

Took hold before the birth of time

Before the burgeoning of the ages,

Before cypress and olive trees,

Before the proliferation of weeds.

My father is from the family of the plough

Not from highborn nobles.

And my grandfather was a peasant

Without line or genealogy.

My house is a watchman’s hut

Made of sticks and reeds.

Does my status satisfy you?

I am a name without a surname.

Put it on record.

I am an Arab.

Colour of hair: jet black.

Colour of eyes: brown.

My distinguishing features:

On my head the `iqal cords over a keffiyeh

Scratching him who touches it.

My address:

I’m from a village, remote, forgotten,

Its streets without name

And all its men in the fields and quarry.

What’s there to be angry about?

Put it on record.

I am an Arab.

You stole my forefathers’ vineyards

And land I used to till,

I and all my children,

And you left us and all my grandchildren

Nothing but these rocks.

Will your government be taking them too

As is being said?


Put it on record at the top of page one:

I don’t hate people,

I trespass on no one’s property.

And yet, if I were to become hungry

I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.

Beware, beware of my hunger

And of my anger!


A Love from Palestine

Your eyes are a thorn in my heart

Inflicting pain, yet I cherish that thorn

And shield it from the wind.

I sheathe it in my flesh, I sheathe it, protecting it from night and agony,

And its wound lights the lanterns,

Its tomorrow makes my present

Dearer to me than my soul.

And soon I forget, as eye meets eye,

That once, behind the doors, there were two of us.

Your words were a song

And I tried to sing, too,

But agony encircled the lips of spring.

And like the swallow, your words took wing,

The door of our home and the autumnal threshold migrated,

To follow you wherever led by longing

Our mirrors were shattered,

And sorrow was multiplied a thousand fold.

And we gathered the splinters of sound,

Mastering only the elegy of our homeland!

Together were will plant it in the heart of a lyre,

And on the rooftops of our tragedy we’ll play it

To mutilated moons and to stones.

But I have forgotten, you of the unknown voice:

Was it your departure that rushed the lyre or was it my silence?

Yesterday I saw you in the port,

A long voyager without provisions,

Like an orphan I ran to you,

Asking the wisdom of our forefathers:

How can the ever-verdant orange grove be dragged

To prison, to exile, to a port,

And despite all her travels,

Despite the scent of salt and longing,

Remain evergreen?

I write in my diary:

I love oranges and hate the port

And I write further:

On the dock

I stood, and saw the world through Witter’s eyes

Only the orange peel is ours, and behind me lay the desert.

In the briar-covered mountains I saw you,

A shepherdess without sheep,

Pursued among the ruins.

You were my garden, and I a stranger,

Knocking at the door, my heart,

For upon my heart stand firm

The door and windows, the cement and stones.

I have seen you in casks of water, in granaries,

Broken, I have seen you a maid in night clubs,

I have seen you in the gleam of tears and in wounds.

You are the other lung in my chest;

You are the sound on my lips;

You are water; you are fire.

I saw you at the mouth of the cave, at the cavern,

Hanging your orphans’ rags on the wash line.

In the stoves, in the streets I have seen you.

In the barns and in the sun’s blood.

In the songs of the orphaned and the wretched I have seen you.

I have seen you in the salt of the sea and in the sand.

Yours was the beauty of the earth, of children and of Arabian jasmine.

And I have vowed

To fashion from my eyelashes a kerchief,

And upon it to embroider verses for your eyes,

And a name, when watered by a heart that dissolves in chanting,

Will make the sylvan arbours grow.

I shall write a phrase more precious than honey and kisses:

‘Palestinian she was and still is’.

On a night of storms, I opened the door and the window

To see the hardened moon of our nights.

I said to the night: Run out,

Beyond the darkness and the wall;

I have a promise to keep with words and light.

You are my virgin garden

As long as our songs

Are swords when we draw them.

And you are as faithful as grain

So long as our songs

Keep alive the fertile soil when we plant them.

You are like a palm tree in the mind:

Neither storm nor woodsman’s ax can fell it.

Its braids uncut

By the beasts of desert and forest

But I am the exiled one behind wall and door,

Shelter me in the warmth of your gaze.

Take me, wherever you are,

Take me, however you are.

To be restored to the warmth of face and body,

To the light of heart and eye,

To the salt of bread and song,

To the taste of earth and homeland.

Shelter me in the warmth of your gaze,

Take me, a panel of almond wood, in the cottage of sorrows,

Take me, a verse from the book of my tragedy,

Take me, a plaything or a stone from the house,

So that our next generation may recall

The path of return to our home.

Her eyes and the tattoo on her hands are Palestinian,

Her name, Palestinian,

Her dreams, and sorrow, Palestinian,

Her Kerchief, her feet and body, Palestinian,

Her words and her silence, Palestinian,

Her voice, Palestinian,

Her birth and her death, Palestinian,

I have carried you in my old notebooks

As the fire of my verses,

The sustenance for my journeys.

In your name, my voice rang in the valleys:

I have seen Byzantium’s horses

Even though the battle be different.

Beware, oh beware

The lightning struck by my song in the granite.

I am the flower of youth and the knight of knights!

I am the smasher of idols.

I plant the Levantine borders

With poems that set eagles free.

And in your name I have shouted at the enemy:

Worms, feed on my flesh if ever I slumber,

For the eggs of ants cannot hatch eagles,

And the shell of the adder’s egg

Holds but a snake!

I have seen Byzantium’s horses,

And before it all, I know

That I am the flower of youth and the knight of knights!


Mahmoud Darwish was born in the village of Birwa near Galilee in 15 March 1942. He is the Palestinian poet and author of more than 30 books of poetry and eight books of prose. And he died in Houston in 09 August 2008. (Trasmedia Literature)

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