Israel-Palestine conflict: A bit of Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said in all those affected
The burning conflict between Israel and Palestine, which dates back decades, was all over the news in May. On social media too, along with snippets of air strikes between Hamas and Israel, there were polarised opinions on whether the Palestinian families should be evicted and their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood near Damascus Gate, be given to Israeli settlers.
What gave rise to the latest clashes?
The conflict that has its roots in the early 19th century was stirred once again after a skirmish broke out between the Palestinian worshipers and Israeli police at Al Aqsa Mosque on the last Friday of Ramadan. The Temple Mount is considered the holiest place in Judaism and is the place to which Jews turn during prayer. It is also a site of the third-holiest shrine in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The site is one of the most sensitive in the Middle East conflict and a tussle there sparked off the Israel-Hamas conflict which culminated in air strikes from Hamas in Gaza in response to the clash and counter-air strikes from Israel.
Who was Mahmoud Darwish?
Social media was flooded with images, poems and videos of Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said around the time of the clashes. Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet and author who was also regarded as his country's national poet, remains relevant even today as his works speak for the many internally displaced people who fled or were expelled from their homes in Mandatory Palestine during the 1947-1949 Palestine war but remained within the area that became the state of Israel.
Mahmoud Darwish was legally classified as ‘present-absent-alien’ after he was forced to first leave his homeland for Lebanon in 1948, when the village of al-Birwah in the district of Galilee was demolished along with 416 other Palestinian villages, then returned to Palestine ‘illegally’ a year later. Now an ‘internal refugee’, he settled in the nearby village of Dayr-al-Asad upon his return.
Edward Said was a Palestinian American academic who was born in Jerusalem in 1935. He was also a political activist and a literary critic whose major works were in the field of, but not limited to, postcolonial studies — an academic field he was also a founder of.
Like Darwish, Said was a Palestinian exile who claimed that his work was aimed at easing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. When a photo of him throwing stones at Israeli authorities was published in 2002, he rubbished reports that said it was a "violent" gesture on his part and reiterated his claim. “One stone tossed into an empty place scarcely warrants a second thought,” he said in an official statement issued two days after the incident.
When asked why he did it, Said said, "If my child asks me one day 'Dad what did you do in the war?', I will say that I threw a stone to vile and injustice."
The image of him throwing the stone angered many Israelis but Said justified it as ‘a symbolic gesture of joy’. Following the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after 18 years of occupation in May 2000, it became a custom for Arab tourists to throw stones over the wire fence. The fence was erected at the border after the Israeli withdrawal.
Sense of identity
For Said, whose family was a Protestant Christian and Palestinian, he was a "minority inside a minority". Said was a citizen of the United States as his father was a war veteran in the US army. In an interview with novelist Salman Rushdie in 1986, which was published in the New Left Review, Said talked about the Palestinian identity and consciousness in general and his alienation in New York.
"In Edward’s view, the broken or discontinuous nature of Palestinian experience entails that classic rules about form or structure cannot be true to that experience; rather, it is necessary to work through a kind of chaos or unstable form that will accurately express its essential instability. Edward then proceeds to introduce the theme…that the history of Palestine has turned the insider (the Palestinian Arab) into the outsider," Rushdie wrote after the interview.
The last line of Said's memoir 'Out of Place' reads, “With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.”
Darwish's sense of identity was also complex. Following the loss of his homeland at an early age (he was 6 when he was first forced to flee from his country), he went on to find solace and purpose in creating an identity through his poetry, and lyrical prose. His works aim to answer one question -- 'Who am I?' -- and are a site of resistance.
For him, “the personal and the public are always in an uneasy relationship” Said wrote in his essay 'On Mahmoud Darwish'.
The Rita-element in Mahmoud Darwish
Reports suggest that Darwish was in love with a woman whom he called 'Rita' in his works. 'Rita' is the pen name for the Jewish-Israeli Tamar Ben-Ami, with whom Darwish met in Haifa and fell in love with when he was 22.
This transgressive love, which was out of place with when it came to the poet's politics, was commemorated through his poems like 'Rita and the Rifle', 'Rita’s Winter' and 'The Sleeping Garden'. The complexity of Arab-Jewish relationships is explored in his work and we see an attempt to humanise the enemy.
Darwish seems to be an advocate of dialogue with Israelis. He embraced the Israeli component in his Palestinian identity and did not condemn the former for being the 'other'.
His poem 'Rita and the Rifle' is one such example in which he acknowledges the two lovers' differences and yet reminisces their time together and expresses his love for 'Rita'.
"Between Rita and my eyes is a gun
and whoever knows Rita kneels
to some divinity in those hazel eyes..."
"And I kissed Rita
when she was young
and I remember how she clung to me
and how my arm was covered by the loveliest of braids
and I remember Rita
as a sparrow remembers its stream..."
"Once upon a time …
O silence of the evening
my moon migrated far in the morning
in the hazel eyes
and the city
swept away all the singers and Rita.
Between Rita and my eyes is a gun."
Said's way forward
In Said's view, the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) gave Palestine very little control and a limited territory. The Palestinian Authority was given self-governance of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the accord.
Separate Palestinian and Jewish states would be unrealisable, Said argued and while he recognised that both Palestinian and Jewish sides were against forming a single binational state, he claimed it to be the most suitable solution.
“I see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together, and sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen,” he wrote in a 1999 essay in The New York Times.
Darwish and Said, in their own capacities, remain relevant to the conflict of the Arab world till date. While the works of the former help explain the lack of coherence when it comes to identities of those affected by the conflict, the latter, among other things, addresses the problematic takeover of the East by the West which was guided by a sense of the white man's burden.