Darwish, Mahmud (1942–)

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Darwish, Mahmud

Darwish is one of the leading Arab poets of the early twenty-first century and certainly the most eminent Palestinian poet since the late 1950s.


Darwish was born on 13 March 1942 to a landowning Muslim Sunni family who fled to Lebanon when their village, al-Birwa, was destroyed during the first Arab-Israeli war that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Internationally recognized for his poetry of strong affection for a lost homeland, Darwish has become the main voice for the Palestinian struggle for independence. His poetry is simple in terms of style and vocabulary, but uses everyday words for effective expressions and profound feelings.

Darwish's village of Birwa in Galilee was razed to the ground by Israelis in 1948. At a later point his family chose to return to their homeland, and he grew up within the borders of Israel in the village of Dayr al-Asad to become an activist and briefly joined the Israeli Communist Party beginning in 1961. He then decided to pursue his higher education in the Soviet Union and he attended Moscow University in 1970 for a year. Darwish's political advocacy brought him a great deal of negative Israeli attention, which included harassment and house arrest. After he left Israel and completed a year of study in the USSR, he went to Egypt to work for the al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo. He then moved to Beirut, Lebanon.


Darwish made his living as a journalist, worked for the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) research center in Beirut starting in 1973, and edited a prestigious monthly magazine called Shu'un Filistiniyya (Palestinian affairs). He meanwhile was also publishing his poetry, which began to gain notoriety. His simple vocabulary and direct discourse about his uprootedness and exile marked most of his writings.

By the time Darwish went to work for al Ahram in Cairo, he by then had established and upheld a reputation as one of the leading poets of resistance. Many of his poems have been converted to music and were memorized not only by Palestinians, but Arabs everywhere.

His first collection of poems, Asafir Bila Ajniha (Birds without wings) appeared in 1960 when he was still a teenager. His collection Awraq al-Zaytun (Olive leaves; 1964) shaped his reputation as the a leading poet of Palestinian resistance. Love, politics, and the fate of his homeland were the major themes that dominated his writings. Open wounds, stones, and mirrors (the shape of the soul in a mirror) are recurring images in his works that merge the love for a woman with the love for the land that was lost.


Name: Mahmud Darwish

Birth: 1942, al-Birwah, mandatory Palestine

Family: Twice divorced. First wife: Rana Qabbani (Syrian). Second wife: Hayat Heeni (Egyptian)

Nationality: Palestinian from Israel

Education: Secondary school; brief study at Moscow University, 1970


  • 1960: Releases first collection of poetry, Asafir Bila Ajniha (Birds without wings)
  • 1964: Second poetry collection, Awraq al-Zaytun (Olive leaves)
  • 1971: Leaves Israel, moves to Egypt
  • 1973: Begins working for Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) research center in Beirut
  • 1982: Leaves Beirut for Tunis
  • 1984: Becomes president of the Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists
  • 1987: Elected to PLO executive committee
  • 1993: Resigns from PLO executive committee
  • 1995: Settles in Ramallah, West Bank, in territory governed by the Palestinian Authority

In his prose writings as well as his poetry, Darwish has pondered the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and qualified it as a struggle between two memories. His poems in many ways are chronicles of the tragic events within the Arab Middle East, and the many conflicts that afflict that part of the world. "Qasidat Bayrut, a Poem for Beirut" chronicles the Israeli siege of Beirut during the summer of 1982. During that period Beirut was relentlessly bombed from June to August by the Israelis in an effort to oust the PLO out of the city. Ultimately the group left to temporarily settle in Tunisia, and. Darwish relocated there as well.

In his poem "Memory of Forgetfulness," published later in English in 1995, he reconstitutes painful memories in a fragmented text that refracts the war-ravaged scenes on the streets of Beirut, and hopes that "a jet fighter may not miss me." In almost a hallucinatory incantation he relives the infernal dawns:

The sea is walking in the streets.
The sea is dangling from the windows and the branches of shriveled trees.
The sea drops from the sky and comes into the room.
Blue white, foam, waves.
I don't like the sea.
I don't want the sea, because I don't see a shore, or a dove.
I see in the sea nothing except the sea. (from "Memory of Forgetfulness")


The sorrows of dispossession and of exile permeate all his poetry. His complex feelings are yet transmitted in simple accessible language. Workers, children, literati, and intellectuals memorize his lyrics. His poetry has gained great sophistication over the years and has gained international fame. He has published more than thirty collections, which have been translated into thirty-five languages. He is currently the editor in chief and founder of the prestigious literary review al-Karmil.

In 1998 he published a poetry collection (Sarir al-Ghariba; Bed of the Stranger), considered his first collection of love poems. In 2000 he published Jidariyya (Mural), a book consisting of one poem about his near-death experience in 1997. In 2002 his collection Stage of Siege was received with great enthusiasm throughout the Arab world and was selected as Readers Club Selection in 2003.

Darwish was granted the French Order of the Arts and Letters in 1993. He is also an honorary member of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. He received the Lotus Prize from the Union of Afro-Asian Writers in 1969, the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1983, the Prize for Cultural Freedom from the Lannan Foundation in 2001, and the Principal Award from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development in 2004.

His earlier poems, read to Arab audiences in coffee houses on street corners and in village squares through Galilee, were memorized by all segments of the Palestinian population living within the Jewish state. The impact of his poetry, which places him at the vanguard of Palestinian poets, won him in 1969 the International Lotus Prize for poetry. Two years later Darwish chose exile to constant harassment by the Israeli authorities, including imprisonment and house arrest.


Adonis Samih al-Qasim (1939–). Born in al-Zarqa, Jordan, of a Palestinian family from al-Rama in the Galilee region of Palestine. He grew up in Nazareth and received his education there. His poetry expresses the resistance of Palestinian Arabs to Israeli rule, and because of that he was imprisoned on several occasions. He was one of the founders of the nationalist al-Ard organization in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He now lives in Haifa, and his collections include Mawkib al-Shams (Processions of the Sun; 1958) and Suqut al-Aqniya (The Fall of Masks; 1969), and Marathi Samih al-Qasim (Elegies of Samih al-Qasim; 1973).


Your eyes are a thorn in my heart
Inflicting pain, yet I cherish that thorn
And shield it from the wind
I sheath it in my flesh, I sheathe it protecting it from night and agony, and its wounds 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….


His volumes of poetry include Asafir Bila Ajniha (Birds without wings), Awraq al-Zaytun (Olive leaves) Ashiq min Filastin (A lover from palestine), Akhir al-Layl (The end of night), al-Asafir Tamut Jalil (Birds die in Galilee), Habibati Tashu min Nawmiha (My beloved wakes up), Uhibbuki, aw la uhibbuki (I either love you or I don't love you), Muhawala Raqm 7 (Attempt no. 7), Tilka Suratuha wa hadha Intihar al-Ashiq (That is her picture and this the lover's suicide), and A'ras (Weddings).

Darwish's works have been translated into English, Dutch, French, Italian, German, Polish, Japanese, Persian, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, Malay, and Danish, to name a few languages. English translations of his work have appeared in the International Poetry Review, Paintbrush, Mundus Artium, and the Journal of Arabic Literature.

Among anthologies that include selections from his work are A Lover from Palestine and Other Poems, Selected Poems: Mahmoud Darwish, The Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, Modern Arab Poets, and Splinters of Bones.

Darwish has read his poetry to capacity audiences in many international cities, including Rotterdam, Damascus, Cairo, Prague, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, New Delhi, London, Tunis, Belgrade, and Rome. He also held memorable appearances throughout the United States, mainly at major universities, as well as at the United Nations in New York.

In Darwish's masterpiece, A Lover from Palestine, the speaker, a true Arab who seeks answers in the wisdom of the forefathers, sings the elegy "of our homeland." He also finds salvation in the theme of his songs. Palestine remains "a virgin garden" as long as songs are sources of fertility that bring life to the land. The speaker in the poem becomes "the poet-warrior" of classical Arabic poetry, such as the ancestral Antar (529-619 CE) or the great al-Mutannabi (915-965 CE).


Darwish will be remembered as the Palestinian poet laureate of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as well as one of most significant poets anywhere in the Arab world during that time period.


Al-Jarrah, Nouri. "Mahmoud Darwish: Home Is More Lovely Than the Way Home." al-Jadid 3, no. 19 (June 1997). Available from http://leb.net/∼aljadid/interviews/0319aljarrah.html.

Darwish, Mahmud, and Adonis Samih al-Qasim. Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry. London: Saqi Books, 2006.

Handal, Natalie. "Mahmoud Darwish: Palestine's Poet of Exile." Progressive. Available from http://progressive.org/node/1575.

Mahmud Darwish's Web site. Available from http://www.mahmouddarwish.com/english/index.htm.

                                        Mona Mikhail