Mahmoud Darwish

Peter Clark

Mahmoud DarwishThey 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.

With poems from the 1960s such as this, 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.

Darwish was born in the village of Birwa, east of Acre. His parents were from middle-ranking peasant families. Both were preoccupied with work on their land and Mahmoud was effectively brought up by his grandfather. 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 obliterated: two settlements had been erected on the land, and they settled in Deir al-Asad in Galilee. There were no books in Darwish's own home and his first exposure to poetry was through listening to an itinerant singer on the run from the Israeli army. He was encouraged to write poetry by an elder brother.

Israeli Arabs lived under military rule from 1948 to 1986. They were curbed in their movements and in any political activity. As a child, Darwish grew up aware that as far as those in control were concerned he, his family and his fellow Palestinians were second-class citizens. Yet they were still expected to join in Israeli state celebrations. While at school, he wrote a poem for an anniversary of the foundation of the state. The poem was an outcry from an Arab boy to a Jewish boy. "I don't remember the poem," he recalled 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."

But relations with individual Jewish Israelis varied. Some he liked, including at least one of his teachers, some he loathed. Relationships with Jewish girls were easier than with girls from the more conservative Arab families.

At his school, contemporaries remember him being very good in Hebrew. Israeli Palestinian culture was cut off from mainstream Arab developments. Arab poets who did impress him were the Iraqis Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Exciting innovations such as the Beirut group that clustered round the magazine al-Shi'r and the prosodic and thematic innovations of the Syrian poets Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) and Nizar Kabbani did not reach the beleaguered Palestinians directly. Instead, much of Darwish's early reading of the poetry of the world outside Palestine was through the medium of Hebrew. Through Hebrew translations he got to know the work of Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. He also became influenced by Hebrew literature from the Torah to the modern poet Yehuda Amichai.

His first poetry symbolised the Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule. His first volumes, Leaves of the Olive Tree (1964), A Lover from Palestine (1966) and End of the Night (1967), were published in Israel. During this time Darwish was a member of the Israeli Communist party, Rakah, and edited the Arabic edition of the party's newspaper, Al-Ittihad. Israeli Palestinians were restricted in any expression of nationalist feeling. Darwish went to prison several times and was frequently under house arrest.

His earliest poetry followed classical forms, but, from the mid-1960s, it became populist and direct. He used imagery that he could relate intimately to Palestinian villagers. He wrote of olive groves and orchards, the rocks and plants, basil and thyme. These early poems have a staccato effect, like verbal hand-grenades. In spite of an apparent simplicity, his short poems have several levels 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.

But his poetry also contained irony and a universal humanity. For Darwish the issue of Palestine became a prism for an internationalist feeling. The land and history of Palestine was a summation of millennia, with influences from Canaanites, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks and British. Throughout all this has survived a core identity of Palestine. He was able to see the Israeli soldier as a victim of circumstances like himself. He expresses the bureaucratic absurdities of an oppressive military occupation.

Darwish left Israel in 1971, to the disappointment of many Palestinians, and studied at Moscow University. After a brief period in Cairo he went to Beirut and held a number of jobs with the Palestine Research Centre. He remained in Beirut during the first part of the civil war and left with Yasser Arafat and the PLO in 1982. He moved on to Tunis and Paris, and became editor-in-chief of the influential literary review Al-Karmel. Although he became a member of the PLO executive committee in 1987 and helped to draft the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood, he tried to keep away from factionalism. "I am a poet with a particular perspective on reality," he said.

His literary work was changing. He wrote short stories and developed a style of writing poems that was a mixture of observation, humanity and irony. He argued that poetry was easier to write than prose. But the poetry continued inspired by incidents or relationships. There is often an optimism against all the odds in his works of the 1980s:

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.

During his Paris years Darwish wrote Memory for Forgetfulness, a memoir of Beirut under the saturation Israeli bombing of 1982 which has been translated into English. A poem in prose, it is a medley of wit and rage, with reflections on violence and exile.

His later work became more mystical and less particularly concerned with Palestine. Often it was preoccupied with human mortality. He was careless of his own health and suffered heart attacks in 1984 and in early 1998.

Darwish resigned from the PLO executive committee over the 1993 Oslo Agreements between Israel and the PLO, which he saw as a "risky accord". He was able to return to Israel to see his aged mother in 1995. The Israeli authorities also gave him permission for an unlimited stay in the self-ruling parts of the Palestinian West Bank, and he spent his last years in Ramallah and Amman, the capital of Jordan.

In 2000 the Israeli ministry of education proposed 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.

Darwish's work has been translated into Hebrew and, in July 2007, Darwish returned to Israel on a visit and gave a reading of his poetry to 2,000 people in Haifa. He deplored the Hamas victory in Gaza the previous month. "We have triumphed,' he observed with grim irony. "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."

Over the years Darwish received many honours. He was given the Soviet Union's Lotus prize in 1969, and the Lenin peace prize in 1983. He was president of the Union of Palestinian Writers. Married and divorced twice, he had no children; his first wife was the Syrian writer Rana Kabbani, who elegantly translated some of his poetry into English.

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 helpled 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."

• Mahmoud Darwish, poet, born March 15 1941; died August 9 2008

The Guardian, Monday August 11 2008

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