Two years have passed since the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) died at a hospital in Texas from complication of heart surgery on August 9, 2008. His death left a considerable void in Palestine and the Arab world. He was, after all, a unique figure by any measure. By the end of his life he had been widely recognized and admired as a great world poet who left behind an oeuvre of staggering beauty and sophistication. He was the most popular and inventive Arab poet in the last three decades. But he was also a political and cultural icon whose symbolic capital and influence were quite immense. His name and poems became synonymous with Palestine and the epic history and struggle of its people. Although he transcended the label, he is still mostly remembered as “Palestine’s poet.”
Yet despite his death, Darwish is more present today in Palestinian and Arab collective memory than ever before. In addition to numerous films, plays, and songs based on his work, his poems are remembered and recited at intense moments and junctures, both political and personal. A few months after Darwish’s death, the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydon wrote in the Lebanese daily as-Safir that Darwish’s centrality in Palestinian history and collective memory will one day surpass even Arafat’s, because he, Darwish that is, was their true father figure. Beydon was not off the mark at all.
If the colonization of Palestine entailed the (still ongoing) uprooting of its indigenous inhabitants and the erasure of their history and culture, Darwish’s monumental achievement was to preserve and re-inscribe Palestine in his poetry and “build a homeland out of words.” A homeland in and of words is not a luxury, but the cultural and political oxygen for millions of refugees who are born in camps in and outside of Palestine and who are denied the right of return, among many other rights. With prophetic genius, Darwish realized at a young age that his task, as a poet, was to resist what he called “the bulldozers of history.” As a seven year old, Darwish himself had witnessed the Nakba and its catastrophic aftermath and was one of its victims when Israeli forces destroyed his village, al-Birweh. He became a refugee in neighboring Lebanon and after sneaking back into his own homeland, whose name had become Israel, he and his family were labeled “present-absentees” by Israel. Darwish devoted his entire life and much of his work to resisting this violently imposed absence, both physically and discursively, and reestablishing his presence and that of his people in Palestine, both in words and deeds. His early political activism and fierce poems cost him numerous imprisonments and house arrest. He joined the Palestinian Resistance in Beirut and lived the tumultuous history of the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the exodus of the PLO from Beirut to Tunis.
His poems chronicled the major events of the era and responded to its challenges, but he continued to develop aesthetically and reinvent himself with each new collection. Darwish was elected to be a member of the executive committee of the PLO, but resigned after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, which Darwish saw as an act of political suicide. He eventually returned from Paris, where he had lived for a decade and had his most prolific phase, to live in Ramallah as a private citizen. He refused Arafat’s offers to become the minister of culture. He kept editing the prestigious literary periodical al-Karmil until his death and divided his time between Ramallah and Amman where he had settled since 1996.Darwish always acknowledged that being the national poet was an honor he was lucky to have bestowed on him. This status, however, was an immense burden of sorts, and required subtle negotiations, especially since he was never one to be content with popularity and was intent on leaving his mark on Arabic poetry. Not many national poets succeed in adding a universal dimension to their work and engaging and attracting a global audience, but Darwish did and did so beautifully. In his work, Palestine is present as itself, but also as a metaphor for the postcolonial moment and its implications. Darwish’s vast readings and his openness to other cultures and traditions further enriched his poetic narrative and technique and saw him writing epic poems in the voice of the native Americans, for example, or writing sonnets in Arabic.
If he succeeded in giving voice to the collective, Darwish was also attentive to the individual and subjective. Palestinians, he said, are not professional fighters and should not be imprisoned in stereotypes. They are also lovers and vulnerable humans and the occupation’s brutality should not disabuse them of their humanity. Perhaps one of Darwish’s more memorable lines was “ There is on this earth, what makes life worth living.” For his readers all over the world, his poetry makes life worth living. He lives through his poetry.