Poetry of Mahmoud Darwish

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Poetry of Mahmoud Darwish

Select poems from Unfortunately, It Was Paradise

Includes the poems "On This Earth"; "I Belong There"; "Athens
Airport"; and "I Talk Too Much"
Printed in 2003

Poem from The Adam of Two Edens

Includes the poem "As He Walks Away"
Printed in 2000

"Our flutes would have played a duet / if it weren't for the gun."

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1942–) is widely considered to be the most significant Palestinian poet, and one of the most important poets to write in the Arabic language. According to Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché, editors of Darwish's poetry collection Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, he is "beloved as the voice of his people, he is an artist demanding of his work continual transformation and a living legend whose lyrics are sung by fieldworkers and schoolchildren." Darwish has spoken about Palestinian issues throughout the world, and he is cheered by huge crowds when he appears in the Middle East. His poems are considered some of the most moving to emerge from the clash between Jews and Arabs over who will control the territory once known as Palestine.

Darwish writes poems about olive trees, women that he loves or has loved, bread, an airport, speaking at conferences, and many other subjects. Yet in his best-loved poems, there is only one subject: Palestine. When he was a child Darwish and his family were driven from their home in the Palestinian village of Birwa during the 1948 war to create the Jewish state of Israel, a war in which Jewish settlers took over most of the land of Palestine and evicted numerous Arabs to neighboring countries. The lasting feelings of pain and loss that accompanied that removal are qualities that literary critics believe can be found in nearly all of his poems. Darwish reinforced this way of interpreting his poems when he told the New York Times in 2001 that he saw Palestine as 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."

Darwish's poetry provides a unique way of seeing the world. Poets, like Darwish, use language very differently from writers of fiction, journalists, or historians. They often seek to express an idea or emotion in very concise language, so they use figures of speech like metaphors and similes, in which unlike things are compared, to add meaning, or to suggest multiple meanings. Poets often use symbolism, a way of using words to suggest their association with larger concepts. For example, in Darwish's poetry, an olive tree represents the Palestinians' desire to cling persistently to their homes, as the roots of an olive tree hold to the soil, but it also stands for a desire for peace and for the prophet Muhammad, the central figure in the Islamic faith.

The poems excerpted below were chosen to show some of the different ways that Darwish expresses his sense of sadness, longing, and loss about Palestine. They come from two of his collections, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, published in 2003 but including poems written as early as 1986, and The Adam of Two Edens, published in 2000.

Mahmoud Darwish

Poet Mahmoud Darwish was born on March 13, 1942, in the Arab village of Birwa in what was then the British-controlled territory of Palestine. In 1948 Darwish, his family, and thousands of other Palestinians (Arabs living in Palestine) were driven from their homes when Jews living in the region fought a war to create their own independent state of Israel. Darwish and his family returned to their village, now in Israel, but Darwish was constantly offended by the ways that Palestinians were treated as second-class citizens in the land of their birth. When he was in elementary school, he began to write poetry that expressed his sense of anger and loss, and he has continued to write ever since.

Darwish's anger at Israel—expressed in poetry and political protest—led to his frequent arrest by Israeli police, and in 1970 Darwish fled his home to avoid further time in prison. For the next twenty-five years, he was a poet in exile and a spokesman for Palestinian causes. He published in Arabic literary journals, magazines, and newspapers, and was a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the political and military force of the Palestinian people. In 1996 Darwish returned to his homeland, settling in the city of Ramallah, a town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Darwish's works have won several prestigious literary prizes, and with the translation and publication of his work into English, Darwish has become known internationally.

Things to remember while reading from Selected Poems by Mahmoud Darwish:

  • Though Darwish is acclaimed in Arabic communities, he only became well known in the English-speaking community following the publication of the works from which the following poems are taken.
  • Darwish's early poetry was very angry, lashing out at Israel for its occupation of lands that Palestinians claim as their own. Look for traces of anger in the poems.
  • Athens Airport, in the Greek capital, is a common transfer point for travelers visiting or leaving the Middle East, and is also the site of several terrorist attacks associated with Palestinians.

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What happened next ...

Poetry does not have consequences in the same way that a declaration of war or a peace treaty has consequences. No one has ever claimed that one of Darwish's poems sparked a military victory or encouraged a soldier to lay down his weapon. Yet many who read Darwish's poetry remark that they emerge from that reading with a different sense of the world, that they feel a new compassion for the Palestinian sense of injustice at being removed from their land. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, editor of the anthology Modern Arabic Poetry, writes that "poetry is the main vehicle for expressing the emotional experience of a people, and for revealing their deeper consciousness of the world, and it may bring the reader into a more intimate knowledge of other people's actual life situations." In this subtle way, poetry can have consequences of its own.

"I thought that poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe, but now I think that poetry changes only the poet," Darwish told The Progressive in 2002. For Darwish personally, his poetry certainly has had very real consequences. He was punished for writing a poem as a schoolboy, imprisoned for his poetry and protest as a young man, and revered for his work and heralded as a spokesman for his people as an adult.

Did you know ...

  • Darwish won the Lannan Foundation Award for Cultural Freedom in 2001, which included a $350,000 prize. He also received the Sultan bin Ali al Owais Cultural Award for cultural and scientific achievement. Some critics suggest that he will be considered for the literary world's most prestigious prize, the Nobel Prize for literature.
  • Darwish is not the only poet writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many poets and writers on both sides of the conflict such as Kemal Nasir and Aharon Shabtai have offered their own unique perspective.

Consider the following...

  • Darwish is often considered to be making political statements in his poetry, though in a very subtle way. Select one of Darwish's poems and write a short essay pointing out how the poem engages with political issues.
  • Pick one of Darwish's poems and discuss the ways he uses figures of speech such as metaphor or simile to enhance the meaning of his poems.
  • Salma Khadra Jayyusi, editor of Modern Arabic Poetry, writes that "poetry is the main vehicle for expressing the emotional experience of a people." In what ways does Darwish's poetry express the emotional experience of his people?
  • Locate and read the work of another poet who has written about politics in the Middle East. How is his or her view of the situation different from that of Darwish?

For More Information


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

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

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

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.


Progressive (May 2002): pp. 24–27.

Web Sites

"Mahmoud Darwish." Khalil Sakakini Culture Centre.http://www.sakakini.org/literature/mdarwish.htm (accessed on June 24, 2005).

"Mahmoud Darwish." Poets from Palestine.http://www.barghouti.com/poets/darwish/bitaqa.asp (accessed on June 24, 2005).