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 on Mahmud Darwish

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.