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Laureate of Arabia

books Updated: Aug 18, 2008 14:18 IST
Peter Clark
Peter Clark
Hindustan Times
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They fettered his mouth with chains And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You're a murderer They took his food, his clothes and his banners, And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You're a thief.
They threw him out of every port, And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You're a refugee.


With poems from the 1960s such as this, Mahmoud Darwish, who died in a Texas hospital on August 9 aged 67 did as much as anyone to forge a Palestinian national consciousness. Specially after the Six-Day War of June 1967, some of his lines have become part of the fabric of modern Arabic culture.

Darwish was born in the vnage of Birwa, east of Acre. His parents were from 'middle-ranking peasant families'. When he was six, Israeli armed forces assaulted Birwa and Mahmoud fled with his family to Lebanon, living first in Jezzin and then in Damour.

When, the following year, the family returned to their occupied homeland, their village had been obliterated: two settlements had been erected on the land, and they sett1ed in Deir al-Asad in Galilee. There were no books in Darwish's own home and his first exposure to poetry was through listening to an itinerant singer on the run from the Israeli army.

While at school, he wrote a poem for an anniversary of the foundation of Israel. The poem was an outcry from an Arab boy to a Jewish boy "I don't remember the poem," he recalled many years later, "but I remember the idea of it; you can play in the sun as you please, and have your toys, but I can't. You have a house, and I have none. You have celebrations, but I have none. Why can't we play together?"

He recalls being summoned to see the military governor, who threatened him: "If you go on writing such poetry, I'11stop your father working in the quarry" But relations with individual Jewish Israelis varied. Some he liked, some he loathed.

Relationships with Jewish girls were easier than with girls from the more conservative Arab families. Much of Darwish's early reading of the poetry of the world outside Palestine was through the medium of Hebrew. Through Hebrew translations he got to know the work of Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda. He also became influenced by Hebrew literature from the Torah to the modern poet Yehuda Amichai.

His first poetry symbolised the Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule. His first volumes, Leaves of the Olive Tree (1964), A Lover from Palestine (1966) and End of the Night (1967), were published in Israel. During this time Darwish was a member of the Israeli Communist party, Rakah, and edited the Arabic edition of the party's newspaper, Al-Ittihad. Israeli Palestinians were restricted in any expression of nationalist feeling. Darwish went to prison several times and was frequently under house arrest.

His earliest poetry followed classical forms, but, from the mid-1960s, he used imagery that he could relate intimately to Palestinian vnagers. He wrote of olive groves and orchards, the rocks and plants, basil and thyme. These early poems have a staccato effect, like verbal handgrenades. In spite of an apparent simplicity, his short poems have several levels of meaning.

There is a sense of angel outrage and injustice, notably in the celebrated 'Identity Card', in the voice of an Arab man giving his identity number: "Write down at the top of the first page: I do not hate people. I steal from no one. However if I am hungry I will eat the flesh of my usurper Beware beware of my hunger and of my anger"

But his poetry also contained irony and a universal humanity Darwish left Israel in 1971, to the disappointment of many Palestinians, and studied at Moscow University After a brief period in Cairo he went to Beirut and held a number of jobs with the Palestine Research Centre. He remained in Beirut during the first part of the civil war and left with Yasser Arafat and the PLO in 1982. He moved on to Tunis and Paris, and became editor-in-chief of the influential literary review Al-Karmel. Although he became a member of the PLO executive committee in 1987 and helped to draft the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood, he tried to keep away from factionalism. "I am a poet with a particular perspective on reality" he said.

His literary work was changing. He wrote short stories and developed a style of writing poems that was a mixture of observation, humanity and irony He argued that poetry was easier to write than prose.

In July 2007, Darwish returned to Israel on a visit and gave a reading of his poetry to 2,000 people in Haifa. He deplored the Hamas victory in Gaza the previous month. "We have triumphed," he observed with grim irony "Gaza has won its independence from the West Bank.

One people now have two States, two prisons who don't greet each other We are dressed in executioners' clothes."