Are Love and Politics Mutually Exclusive in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

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A scene from Write Down, I Am an Arab. Mahmoud Darwish fell for Tamar Ben-Ami when he was 22. Credit: Zuzana Janku

In times of protracted conflict, can matters of the heart exist apart from politics? An award-winning documentary from Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin left me at once spell-bound, uplifted, sad and restless, as I found myself wrestling with this question.

“Write Down, I am an Arab” depicts the life of Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. The politics is important — more on that below — but what makes the film especially gripping is the story of Darwish’s catapult to national and international fame against the backdrop of his private longings for a woman on the other side of the Palestinian-Jewish divide.

As young political activists on the fringes often do, Darwish met Tamar Ben Ami in the early 1960s at a political rally — this one for the Communist Party in Israel. Frequently separated geographically, he under military administration (as all Palestinian citizens were until 1966) in Haifa, she studying in Jerusalem — Darwish documented his feelings for her in a series of letters.

I spoke with Tamar — by phone, Facebook and email — over the course of a few days. A dancer and choreographer (the film chronicles her stint in the Israeli Navy’s performing troupe), Tamar divides her time between Tel Aviv and Berlin. She describes her art — and really her entire personal life — as being shaped by her time with Darwish. Her love for him is palpable, still.

Caught up as I am as a political scientist and columnistn contemplating political arrangements — refugees, Jerusalem, borders, one-state, two-state, federation or separation — Tamar operates differently. 

“It’s cliche, and maybe I sound naive, but I believe in unconditional love,” Tamar tells me when I ask her what kind of political future she envisions. She is disturbed by what she sees as the artificial divisions of nations, races, ethnicities and religions, including what she sees as a dangerous interpretation of Jewish chosenness. “On this, the occupation has been nurtured.”

And while it’s hard to disagree, I find myself confounded. Is the Palestinian national struggle one over occupation? Is it about the West Bank settlements, the land appropriation, the checkpoints and night raids and administrative detention? Or is it about the stones and earth of Palestinian towns and villages within Israel itself to which many Palestinians long to return? And if it is the latter, how can the two national dreams ever be squared?

In the film, we see video footage of Darwish meeting a resident of Kibbutz Yas’ur, which was founded on the ruins of Darwish’s childhood village, al-Birwa. “It’s a moment of sadness and hope,” Darwish says to the man. “The sadness is that I’m not allowed to go back to that place and you have the right to go back there. But if we have the ability to be friends and we are friends, then peace is still possible.”

On one hand, it’s a wholly human encounter. On the other hand, once we put the subject of Israeli towns, cities and kibbutzim within pre-1967 Israel on the table, we are talking about the core of Israel’s identity, one which Israelis — and most Jews worldwide — are loathe to give up. And if I’m really honest with myself, as a (liberal) Zionist who shares the Jewish national dream of those kibbutzniks, then perhaps the pain is also mine.

Nowhere was the tension between resisting occupation and demanding more fundamental claims more evident than in Darwish’s highly controversial 1988 poem called “Passers Between the Passing Words.” There, Darwish wrote: “It is time for you to be gone. Live wherever you like, but do not live among us.For we have work to do in our land. So leave our country, our land, our sea, our wheat, our salt, our wounds, everything; and leave.”

With the first intifada raging at the time, Tamar is certain that the poem is about the occupation — not about Israel itself. “What can the occupied do?” Tamar recalls Darwish saying. The irony is that Darwish didn’t even think it was a good poem, Tamar says. To be judged by that poem pained him, and more than anything he longed to be considered a universal poet, Tamar adds.

After the 1988 poem controversy, Tamar found herself in Paris, trying to reconnect with Darwish who was now at the center of Palestinian politics. While she was sitting with him, Darwish took a call from Yasir Arafat. They spoke in Arabic. She could not make out what they were saying. The next day, when she called him again, Darwish rebuffed her. “You are not my girlfriend.”

We can never know whether Darwish, who died in 2008, chose politics over matters of the heart, or whether this unkind ending was just like so many ruptures between once-lovers: prosaic and universal.

But Darwish and Tamar did have contact again. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Mahmoud reached out to her in compassion. And in 2000, Education Minister Yossi Sarid attempted to introduce two Darwish poems to the Israeli (Jewish) national curriculum. Stormy Knesset debate ensued, and the government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote. Darwish called Tamar. “My poetry is so important that over it the government nearly fell?” he mused.

Though their romance had ended, they clearly shared a sense of absurdity in how the universal language of poetry can be thrust into the forefront of the ugly struggles over land, narratives, history and invisibility. It’s a story that continues to be told, even as Tamar will always think in terms of interpersonal love as much as in terms of borders and territory.

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