[While well-known as a poet, the late Samih al-Qasim was also a talented essayist, writing regularly in the Arabic-language press of Palestine/Israel. He was also a remarkable public speaker and letter writer. Over a period of two years—from May 1986 to May 1988—al-Qasim exchanged a series of extraordinary letters with Mahmoud Darwish. The letters are monuments to poetry and language and also friendship and love and, not surprisingly considering the authors, contain some of the most moving discussions of home and exile in the Arabic language. Published as a series of "packets," the collection of letters instantly became a classic of modern Arabic literature. The following letter comes early in the correspondence. In the letter that precedes this, Darwish has just asked al-Qasim to visit the ruins of his home village of al-Birweh in the Galilee, and to find the old carob tree that still remains there. "If you pass by the carob tree tomorrow," Darwish writes, "embrace it and engrave your name and mine on its trunk."]
My brother Mahmoud:
In the last days, it has become terribly hot, and the water in Lake Tiberias has fallen to its lowest level ever. This has alarmed official circles and compelled them to declare an official water emergency. Their Ministry of Agriculture is implementing strict measures to reduce irrigation allocations. Other circles anticipate the same in the economic, health, and perhaps military sectors as well.
In the beginning I was not worried. Not only that, but I was even a little glad. I started imagine how happy I would be if Lake Tiberias were to dry up completely. And what if snow did not fall on Jabal al-Shaykh next year? And what if the springs that fed the Jordan River went dry? Green velvety moss might appear, then it too would dry up, rust away, and gradually turn into rock. The reed thickets would dry out. Trees would wilt. Animals and birds would move away. The temperature would keep going up. Green would turn to yellow, yellow to brown, brown to gray. And then they would declare our country a wholly desertified region. It would continue to grow hotter and hotter until I would find myself, again, a Bedouin happy to be in his happy desert.
At first this did not trouble me. But then apprehension began to chew on me like a hungry rat. Still later, I realized they would solve the water crisis in the traditional Israeli manner. They would go to the United Nations and demand the lands of Greater Israel as stipulated by the Torah, and thus secure the waters of the Nile and the Euphrates.
No, Mahmoud—no, my friend! It would not be right for Lake Tiberias to dry up, nor for the Jordan River to shrink. Jabal al-Shaykh should not be allowed to go bareheaded. It must wear snow, both as a turban of sorrow and as the sure source of the waters of Zion!
In your letter you went right back to the first fractures—to the childhood that got up again after being kicked first by the boot of the English soldier George, then was surprised by Shlomo’s boot. You returned to the moment of being forceably removed from the games you played with al-Birweh’s lizards. What can I say to you after that? What can I tell you about our experience, about the three days and nights we spent wearing the same clothes and shoes, waiting for the Jewish armored cars coming back from the ruins of al-Birweh. What can I say about our senseless, intense fear (and only children are afraid, right?!), about the preparations to flee again. This time it was not to the olive orchards and the nearby caves of Jabal Haydar, but to one of the exiles in Arab lands. I am distraught that I stayed. I am chagrined that you left. The memory of the days we call the Nakba continue to trouble me. I am still tormented by my failure the day I rushed after my father into the street. He took a rifle and went to defend al-Liyat after hearing the news that al-Birweh had fallen and that the conquerors would soon arrive. My father wore the white kufiyyah and embroidered cord he had kept from his military service with the border patrol in Transjordan. I ran after him wearing the iron helmet that he had kept—saved for the difficult days ahead—after his discharge from the army. I still remember how upset he looked as he scolded me, “Go back to the house and stay beside your mother and siblings!” “What about the helmet,” I implored. “Take it, Father!” (I was not so worried about him as I was proud of him. And in those moments, I somehow remembered the little song we used to sing on the playground and climbing trees, “Jew, Jew, son of a bitch—what brought you to the land of war?”)
My father did not take the helmet. His rifle, with its small ration of bullets, was not able to defend a single square foot of land. As for all those who came to defend the land (and to “save” it)—they tore off their insignias, threw down their weapons and their honor, and ran north and east like sheep. They were the true sons of bitches!
A year after my father died, I finally dared to look at his papers. Among them I found a letter from “Major Amer,” the commander in the Arab Salvation Army in charge of the region around al-Ramah. In the letter, he promised to make my father a soldier and to give him the official rank of captain, so as to boost the morale of fighters. What happened, my brother, during the orphaning and the catastrophe is this: Major Amer ran away immediately, taking his officers and soldiers with him. Nothing remained in the valley except its stones and crushed civilians and their worthless little guns and meager rations of bullets.
You find today some who accuse our people of deserting their homeland, of choosing to run away. What a lie those pigs make up! Our people were steadfast and fought with the utmost sincerity and fierceness even though what we call today “the balance of power” was completely against them. Our people were a ready-made sacrifice, placed between the hammer of barbaric invasion and the anvil of duplicitous promise.
My brother Mahmoud, you miserable poet, what dragged you again into this sadistic mind game? Who loaded al-Birweh’s carob tree—and all the trees of Palestine—onto your exhausted body? Was it the bored Finnish settler? Or was it the painful song about the remains of the painful homeland?
My beloved brother, I can no longer bear even wild plum blossoms—so why do you try to burden me with al-Birweh’s carob tree? The plum blossoms we once plucked—before they plucked our childhood—are now the official symbol of the city of Carma’il. Do you remember those blossoms? Mahmoud: we are now nothing more than two parasites on a plum blossom.
And you press in your letter, you press on me with the carob tree and your flowing tears and with a sad song in faraway, cold Finland. In response, I present you with a rich truth, offered without adornment or polish. Our beautiful friendship has its own particular concerns and its own uninterrupted, never ending sorrows. We have dared to commit a mortal sin—the sin of completely and eternally conflating the human with the homeland, the person with the people, the individual with the cause. I sometimes ask myself: are we the ones who recite our poetry, or is it the homeland that sings it? Do we write the poem, or is it the poem that recites us? Where does the private end and the public begin? Can we call any of this about us private or personal? Sometimes I imagine that we have never loved a woman for herself. Nor has a woman ever loved us for ourselves. I imagine that when we eat and walk and love and travel and become angry and happy, we do so in a trance called the homeland.
Why tell you all this? Because you have bequeathed to me your carob tree. So let me be frank with you about something. Since we have been apart from each other, and even perhaps ever since we have known each other, I have avoided the ruins of al-Birweh, its olive trees, carobs, and cactus. Whenever I pass by I distract myself to avoid looking at it. And if I force myself to look at it directly, a horrible yellow scorpion immediately stings me in the heart and without mercy, and my journey is spoiled. Don’t envy me for having stayed. Here is Hell. There is Hell. Hell until the day of heaven, the day when the children of Palestine will wave Palestinian flags as part of official ceremonies to welcome a state guest or as part of some sacred celebration—the Feast of Return, Freedom, and Independence.
My dear brother—please forgive me. I will not visit your childhood tree in al-Birweh and I will not engrave our two names on it... Simply, and with complete honesty: I cannot do that. But there is something else I can do for my sake and yours: engrave our names on the wind. I can etch the wind into the homeland. I can inscribe the homeland on my flesh. I can scatter my flesh in the poem.
Finally, Nawal and the children send their regards to you... They have come to know you well through the photographs and poems and telephone calls. A while ago my son Watan Muhammad asked me, “Why doesn’t Uncle Mahmoud come to visit us like you visit him?” I said, “He is very busy, but he will come one day, when he finishes his work.”
Did I tell you that I gave up alcohol completely? It is good that I secured a place for myself in the elimination rounds for heaven. And I gave my stomach a break from excruciating pain. And you? Try to take it easy. The old saying goes, “An old man knows how to heal himself.” The old tricks don’t work any more, my friend. We have grown old.
Your brother Samih Al-Qasim