Darwish, Mahmoud

views updated Jun 27 2018

Mahmoud Darwish

Born on March 13, 1942 (Birwa, Palestine)


Few poets in modern history have meant as much to their people as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In hundreds of poems published over the course of nearly fifty years, Darwish has given voice to the deep regret and anger felt by Palestinians living both inside and outside the borders of Israel and its occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Darwish is something of a hero among supporters of the Palestinian cause throughout the Arab world; he is greeted with large and adoring crowds wherever he appears to read his poems. In the introduction to Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, a collection of poems translated into English and published in 2003, Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché wrote that Darwish "is the poet laureate of Palestine—a poet sharing the fate of his people, living in a town under siege, while providing them with a language for their anguish and dreams."

"I thought that poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize...but now I think that poetry changes only the poet."

Raised in a country torn apart by war

Darwish was born on March 13, 1942, in the village of Birwa (sometimes spelled Birwe), not far from the major city of Akka (Acre) in the northwest corner of what was then Palestine. Darwish was the son of a prosperous farmer, though little is known about his family. At the time, Palestine was under British mandate, which meant that British authorities ran the government of the region. Though the majority of the population of Palestine was Arab, a small but powerful minority of Jewish settlers in the region wanted to make Palestine a homeland for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and around the world. In 1948, with the support of the United States and Great Britain, Jews fought a war to create the nation of Israel, which ended up consisting of most of Palestine. During this war they evicted many Arabs from their homes or placed them under arrest. The Darwish family was among the many thousands driven from their homes and into exile in neighboring countries, in their case Lebanon.

A year after the war that created the nation of Israel, the Darwish family returned home to find that their entire village had been destroyed to make way for Jewish settlers. The family was forced to move to a new village, called Deir el Asad (also called Dayr al-Asad), where Darwish's father worked as a common laborer. Darwish attended Israeli schools and learned a new language, Hebrew. But the Darwishes and others like them were not considered Israeli citizens; instead they were labeled "internal refugees." Inea Bushnaq described their condition in Parnassus: "Cut off from the rest of the Arab world, second-class citizens in a Jewish state, by law required to carry an identity card at all times, the Arabs in Israel had to work at maintaining their Palestinian identity."

The conditions that Darwish experienced as a youth—eviction, exile, and an identity defined by an occupying power—proved to be powerful influences on his life. He first recorded his dislike of the inequalities faced by Arab children in a poem written when he was fourteen, and was promptly told by local military officials that if he kept writing such poetry his father would lose his job. From that time on, Darwish wrote poetry that reflected the feelings he and his people had about losing their land, and the anger they felt at those who evicted them from that land and treated them with such violence and disdain.

A life in exile

From the very beginning, Darwish's published works provoked Israeli authorities. In 1960 he published his first collection, Asafir bila ajnihah (Sparrows without Wings), when he was nineteen, and was promptly jailed by the police. His second collection, Awraq al-zaytun (Olive Branches), in 1964, earned him a reputation as one of the leading poets of the growing Palestinian resistance movement—as well as immediate arrest. When he was not in prison, Darwish was often under house arrest. This strife only fueled his poetry, encouraging him to see Palestinians as allied against Israeli oppressors. He soon allied himself with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a political group formed in 1964 that called for the creation of an independent state for the Palestinian people and for the destruction of Israel (a goal they later withdrew).

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a dark time for the Palestinian people. In 1967 and again in 1973 Israel warred with its Arab neighbors, and both times Israel claimed additional territory, displacing more Palestinians. After 1973 Israel occupied the territories known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where thousands of Palestinians lived. During this period of upheaval Darwish moved frequently and began to work as a journalist. Politically, he became active with the Communist Party in Israel. By 1971, however, he saw that it would be impossible for him to continue writing his brand of poetry within Israel, and he embarked on an exile that would last twenty-five years.

Darwish began his exile in Moscow, Russia, where he studied for a year. He then moved to Cairo, Egypt, and then to Beirut, Lebanon, the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East at that time and home to a growing community of Palestinian refugees. In Beirut he edited Shu'un Filastiniyya, a journal published by the Palestine Research Center that focused on Palestinian affairs. By the early 1980s the PLO was waging war with Israel from Lebanon, and in 1982 Israel drove the PLO from that country. Darwish, who was then a member of the Palestine National Council, the elected legislative body of the PLO, was forced to leave the country.

Between 1982 and 1996 Darwish lived mainly in Paris, France, though he also spent time in other European cities and in the Middle East. Beginning in 1981 he edited the magazine Al Karmel, and devoted time to promoting Palestinian political causes. His most notable involvement in Palestinian politics came in 1988 when he authored the Algiers Declaration, which declared the PLO's willingness to accept what is known as a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Before the Algiers Declaration, the PLO had insisted on the destruction of Israel and the restoration of an Arab state in Palestine. The Algiers Declaration opened the door to the existence of two states, one Jewish and one Arab. It also allowed many countries to officially recognize the existence of the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people. This declaration became the basis for the Oslo Peace Accords, which were signed between the PLO and Israel in 1993 and which established a vague plan for the Israeli government to grant Palestinian control in the Occupied Territories (the name for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). However, the vagueness of the plans outlined in the Oslo Accords angered Darwish, who withdrew from the PLO in 1993.

Darwish returned to the land of his birth in 1995, when the Israeli government, which had long banned him from its territories, granted him permission to return for the funeral of a friend. When he arrived, thousands of Arabs celebrated his arrival and asked him to stay. Though he could not stay within Israel, the Israelis granted him permission to stay in the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, and he settled in the town of Ramallah in 1996. Darwish continued to live in Ramallah in the 2000s, although he has remarked that he finds it difficult to write in a city that is under Israeli occupation.

Poet of exile and loss

Throughout his years in exile, Darwish published a regular stream of works: diaries, essays and, most important, poetry. Over time, his work was embraced by Palestinians and by Arabs throughout the Middle East as the poetic voice of displacement and loss. Darwish wrote in Arabic, and the intense emotion of his works inspired those in the Middle East who worried that Arabic was a declining language. Readers interpreted nearly all of his poems as speaking of the sense of longing for his and their lost homeland, Palestine. Palestine, Darwish told the New York Times in 2001, became a metaphor "for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and exile, for the declining power of the Arab world in its dealings with the West."

Though all of Darwish's poetry relates to the loss of Palestine, critics have traced three distinct stages in his work. In the first stage, up to his departure from Israel in 1971, many of Darwish's works are fierce and defiant, written out of a seeming desire to urge others to resist Israeli oppression. One of the most popular of these early works is "Identity Card," written in 1964. The poem closes with this warning: "Beware... // Beware... // Of my hunger // And my anger!" Darwish also wrote a number of love poems during this stage of his career. The poems of his second stage were written

Identity Card (1964)

Write Down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?
Write Down!
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks ...
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of
your chamber
So will you be angry?
Write Down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father ... descends from the family of the
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather ... was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman's hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!
Write Down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks ...
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!
Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper's flesh will be my food
Beware ...
Beware ...
Of my hunger
And my anger!

(Darwish, Mahmoud. "Identity Card" from Poets from Palestine. http://www.barghouti.com/poets/darwish/bitaqa.asp.)

between 1971 and 1982, when Darwish lived in exile but still within the Arab world. These poems echo with a sense of loss and longing, as the poet tries to stay in touch with the sights and sounds of his country of birth. Many of the poems are written about people, especially a female lover, but have been interpreted as being about Palestine. Darwish complained in the New York Times that readers sometimes misinterpreted poems about people. "When I write a poem about my mother, Palestinians think my mother is a symbol of Palestine. But I write as a poet, and my mother is my mother. She's not a symbol."

Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words (1987)

O those who pass between fleeting words
carry your names, and be gone
Rid our time of yours, and be gone
Steal what you will from the blueness of the
sea and the sand of memory
Take what pictures you will, so that you
That which you never will:
How a stone from our land builds the ceiling
of our sky.
O those who pass between fleeting words
From you the sword–from us the blood
From you steel and fire–from us our flesh
From you Yet another tank–from us atones
From you tear gas–from us rain
above us, as above you, are sky and air
So take your share of our blood–and be gone
Go to a dancing party–and be gone
As for us, we have to water the martyrs'
As for us, we have to live as we see fit.
So leave our country
Our land, our sea
Our wheat, our salt, our wounds
Everything, and leave
The memories of memory
those who pass between fleeting words!

(Darwish, Mahmoud. "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words." Left Curve, No. 13 [1988/89].)

After 1982 Darwish's poems grew even longer, and he proved able to use his poetry to create longer narratives. Critics praised his ability to use symbols that spoke to universal longings for peace, and his works began to be translated more widely, including into English. Within the Arabic-speaking world, critics spoke highly of his ability to use the language and style of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, to interpret modern conditions. Darwish began to win notice throughout the world, but his poems remained intensely political. A 1987 poem, "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words," seemed to speak to Israeli occupiers and demanded "So leave our country // Our land, our sea // Our wheat, our salt, our wounds." Israelis were outraged by the poem; Palestinians were thrilled. Interviewed in the New York Times,Darwish stated: "I said what every human being living under occupation would say, 'Get out of my land."'

Darwish's poetry became a source of controversy within Israel in 2000, when the nation's minister of education, Yossi Sarid, urged that some of Darwish's works be included in the nation's high school curriculum. Members of the Israeli Knesset, the nation's legislative body, debated his poetry, and some even called for the resignation of President Ehud Barak (1942– served 1999–2001) if the poems became part of the school curriculum. Eventually Barak declared that "Israel is not ready" to consider such poetry. Interviewed by Newsweek International, Darwish recognized that some Israelis would have difficulty accepting his poetry: "When a poet speaks about nostalgia and love for his country, it destroys what the Israelis have taught, which is that this country was empty when Israel was founded. My poems are a love story with this country. This clashes with their story. But we have to realize that this country belongs to two peoples. Everybody has the right to love it and to write poetry about it."

Those who criticize Darwish's works sometimes claim that he is on the side of terrorists, who would use violence to reclaim Palestine for Arabs. Darwish is quick to dispel any notion that he supports terrorists. "Nothing, nothing justifies terrorism," he was quoted by Progressive writer Nathalie Handel. Darwish told Handel: "We should not justify suicide bombers. We are against the suicide bombers, but we must understand what drives these young people to such actions. They want to liberate themselves from such a dark life. It is not ideological, it is despair."

In the 2000s Darwish's work continues to inspire and move readers around the world. The publication in English of several of Darwish's collections, including The Adam of Two Edens (2000) and Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2003), has raised his profile to those outside of the Middle East. The latter work came about after Darwish was awarded the Lannan Foundation Award for Cultural Freedom in 2001, an award that carried with it a $350,000 prize. Since that time Darwish has also received the Sultan bin Ali al Owais Cultural Award for cultural and scientific achievement.

For More Information


Contemporary World Writers. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1993.

Darwish, Mahmoud. The Adam of Two Edens: Selected Poems. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

——. Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. Translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

——. The Music of Human Flesh. Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. London: Heinemann, 1980.

——. Sand, and Other Poems. Translated by Rana Kabbani. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

——. Splinters of Bone: Poems. Translated by B. M. Bennani. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1974 (includes "Identity Card.").

——. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems. Translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

——. Victims of a Map. Translated by Abdullah al-Udhari. London: Al Saqi Books, 1984.


Darwish, Mahmoud. "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words." Left Curve, no. 13 (1988/89).

Nation (April 10, 2000): p. 29.

Newsweek International (March 20, 2000): p. 62.

New York Times (December 22, 2001).

Parnassus, vol. 14, no. 2 (1988): pp. 150–188.

Progressive (May 2002): pp. 24–27.

Web Sites

"Mahmoud Darwish." Khalil Sakakini Culture Centre.http://www.sakakini.org/literature/mdarwish.htm (accessed on July 7, 2005).

"Mahmoud Darwish." Poets from Palestine.http://www.barghouti.com/poets/darwish/bitaqa.asp (accessed on July 7, 2005).

Mahmud Darwish

views updated May 18 2018

Mahmud Darwish

Probably the foremost Palestinian poet of the late 20th century, Mahmud Darwish (born 1942) was one of the leading poets of the Arab world.

Mahmud Darwish was born in al Birwah, a village that lies to the east of Acca (Acre), now in Israel, in 1942. In the 1948 war when he was a boy, Darwish fled with his family and walked across the mountains and forests to southern Lebanon. But when he returned with his family two years later, he found that his village had been completely razed by the Israeli forces and the land ploughed.

Darwish's impressions of this period of his life—the military government and the police harassment—remained with him and influenced much of his poetry, which he began to write at a young age. Darwish, who worked as a journalist in Haifa, became a victim of Israeli authorities as his poetry became more popular and widely read. His poetry, like other resistance poetry, was a strong indictment of Israeli society and its attitude toward Palestinians. It reflected unyielding resistance to their conditions and a refusal to accept the fait accompli. The poetry was often recited in village meetings and in the fields because it served as an effective channel of political communication in a society with few political leaders. Darwish was sentenced to jail many times and his freedom of movement was restricted for several years. Several of his poems were written in prison.

During the early phase of his writing words such as refugees, Red Cross, security, occupation, UNRWA, Arabness, revolution, and love permeate his poetry. A growing shift from sorrow and grief to anger and challenge can also be discerned. Yet Darwish, despite his revolt against the challenge of what he viewed as an oppressive system, continued throughout much of his writings to emphasize the prospect of co-existence and pluralism as alternatives to exclusivism. Early on, Darwish complained bitterly about the barriers between Arab and Jewish literature, as was reflected in one of his articles, "The Siege." He often challenged liberal and humanist Israeli writers to interact with their Arab colleagues because of their common concerns in the areas of civil rights and liberties, social change, and opposition to militarism. Darwish's poetry has been characterized by various transformations both in content and in form, ranging from traditional verse in his early works to prose poetry, especially in his work in the late 1980s.

His poetic language was new in the sense that it created a metaphoric and symbolic atmosphere that transformed the ordinary meaning of words and contained hidden meanings that could only be discovered in that atmosphere. The atmosphere is Palestine, in whose context words assume new meanings and new symbolic values and evoke different concepts and relationships. In the poetry of Darwish, love of the land, the woman, and the homeland (Palestine) merged together and became symbols of dignity, life, and the future. Merging of the three, as in "Lover from Palestine," comes to symbolize humanity and manhood as well as acts of declared opposition and resistance. Darwish's poetry of resistance became widely publicized and utilized by the Palestinian resistance as did the poetry of other resistance poets. Consequently, his poetry gained him much fame in the Arab world, particularly among Palestinians. In 1969 a book about him was published under the title "Mahmud Darwish: the Poet of Resistance."

In 1971 Darwish, in a move that stirred a great deal of controversy among Palestinian and Arab intellectuals, left his homeland to go to the U.S.S.R. He later settled in Beirut, which was then the cultural capital of the Arab world. Many believed that this was tantamount to a capitulation to Israel and an abandonment of his principles and of his compatriots. In Beirut, he edited Shu'un Filastiniyya, a journal focusing on Palestinian affairs and published by the Palestine Research Center. This self-imposed exile was widely credited with broadening his intellectual horizons.

This period ushered in a more complex and intricate form of poetry. Darwish, unlike a number of modern poets, showed that he could sustain an emotion for more than a few verses. He showed that he had the capacity to make his symbols undergo a number of transformations and to sustain them in long poems. It is easy to see in his earlier poems a poet experimenting in traditional form and a tendency to feel a voice instructing the poem from the outside. There is also a penchant toward oratory in evidence. In his later poetry, however, he seemed to achieve the dramatic voice that blurs the distinction between the poet and the poem, where the poet's individuality becomes an important function of the poet's power and impact. In his poems about Beirut, for example, he was able to eliminate the distinction by allowing the poem to stand on its own. This achievement, when it occurs, allows the poem to become more universal and to go beyond the question of Palestine, to delve into and deal with broader and universal moral issues the world over.

In 1982 Darwish was forced into a second exile when Israel invaded Lebanon. As an active member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and as a member of its parliament, the Palestine National Council, he was compelled to leave Beirut. In 1990 he lived in Europe and edited the literary periodical al-Karmel.

Darwish published a number of volumes of poetry and was the subject of scholarly study in the Arab world. His poetry also received much attention outside the Arab world. Several of his poems have been translated into over 20 languages, including English, French, and Russian. He was the winner of the Lotus Prize, 1969, and the Lenin Prize, 1982. Some of his well-known works include "Ashiq min Filastin" (Lover from Palestine, 1966), "al-Asafir tamut fi al-Jalil" (Birds Die in Gallilee, 1970), "Muhawalah Raqm 7" (Attempt Number 7, 1974), "A'ras" (Weddings, 1977), "Wda'an Aytuha al-harb wda'an Ayuha al'Salam" (Farewell to War, Farewell to Peace, 1974), Hisar li-mada'ih al Bahr (Siege of the Sea Songs, 1984), Tunis, Hiya Ughniyyat (She's a Song, 1986), Ma'sat alnarjis wa-malhat al-Fiddha (The Tragedy of Narcissus and The Comedy of Silver, 1989), Ara ma urid (I See What I Want, 1990), and Ihda ashar kawkaba (11 Planets, 1992). His most important prose work, focusing on his experiences in war-torn Beirut, is Thakiratun lil-nusyan (A memory for forgetfulness, 1987).

Further Reading

Some of Darwish's works have been translated into English or published as part of anthologies of Palestinian or Arab poetry. In 1970 a number of his poems were included in N. Aruri and E. Ghareeb, editors/translators, Enemy of the Sun: Poetry of Palestinian Resistance. More of his poems were translated in other Arabic and Palestinian anthologies, including M. Khoury and H. Algar, editors, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (1974); A. al-Udhari, translator, A Mirror for Autumn: Modern Arabic Poetry (1974); A. al-Udhari, translator, A Mirror for Autumn: Modern Arabic Poetry (London: 1974); I. Boullata, editor/translator, Modern Arab Poets 1950-1975 (1976); and A. Elmessiri, The Palestinian Wedding (1982). In 1980 a collection of Darwish's poetry, The Music of Human Flesh, was published in English. □