Mahmoud Darwish Wanted to Be a Poet, Not a Symbol of Palestinian Nationalism

Are his works really, as Avigdor Lieberman labeled them, ‘fuel for terrorism?’

A man walks past street art showing the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in Erriadh, south of Tunis, Tunisia, October 28, 2015.
Mosa'ab Elshamy, AP

“I am a worker of metaphors; not a worker of symbols. I believe in the power of poetry, which gives me reasons to look ahead and identify a glint of light. Poetry can be a real bastard. It distorts. It has the power to transform the unreal into the real, and the real into the imaginary. It has the power to build a world that is at odds with the world in which we live. I see poetry as spiritual medicine. I can create in words what I do not find in reality. It is a tremendous illusion, but a positive one. I have no other tool with which to find meaning for my life or for the life of my nation. It is in my power to bestow on them beauty by means of words and to portray a beautiful world and also to express their situation. I once said that I built with words a homeland for my nation and for myself.” (Mahmoud Darwish, to Dalia Karpel (Haaretz, July 2007.)

The latest crisis is the attack against Army Radio by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman following her lead, after a program on the Palestinian poet aired. It was one of a series on formative Israeli texts in the station’s “Broadcast University program.

Darwish, who died in the United States of heart disease in 2008, is regarded as the Palestinian national poet. On the 23-minute show, host Kobi Meidan and the poet and translator Altayeb Ghanaim spoke mostly about “ID Card.” As Meidan noted, the poem is all defiance.

The program itself was not free from charged words, such as Nakba, occupation and occupier, but in the third minute Meidan announced that because of their “political significance” he would find alternatives — as if imagining the risk involved in even allowing the Palestinian narrative to be put forth in a cultural-academic conversation.

Even before the show was done, Regev issued a statement saying Army Radio had “gone off the rails” for “glorifying the anti-Israeli narrative” and “giving a platform to the Palestinian narrative that negates Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”

She vowed to speak to Lieberman on the matter, and at an urgent meeting the defense minister raked Army Radio head Yaron Dekel over the coals.

But Darwish is much more complex than Regev’s and Lieberman’s other targets in their culture wars, and they were not the first to attack him.

Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of El-Birweh (subsequently the site of Moshav Ahihud and Kibbutz Yasur) in the Galilee, which was destroyed in the War of Independence. He fled with his landed family in 1947 to Lebanon, returning to the Galilee to scrape by as outsiders in Deir al-Assad. Because the family had fled to Lebanon during the war and were not present for the original census and registration, they did not become Israeli citizens.

Darwish grew up in northern Israel and was a member of the Communist Party of Israel youth movement in Haifa. He worked as a journalist and editor for the party’s Arabic-language newspapers, and he published his first poems in Al Jadid, the party’s literary journal. He was 19 when his first book of poems was published. “ID Card” appeared in his second book of poems and became part of the canon for Arabs, in Israel and outside it. It was later revealed that Darwish was not pleased with his new status.

“I would not want to appear as a patriot or as a hero or as a symbol. I will appear as a modest poet,” he said in the 2007 interview with Haaretz.

“The symbol does not exist either in my consciousness or in my imagination. I am making efforts to shatter the demands of the symbol and to be done with this iconic status; to habituate people to treat me as a person who wishes to develop his poetry and the taste of his readers.”

Yet it is impossible to talk about Darwish’s poetry without relating to its political aspects, because since he began writing, Darwish has been characterized as the poet of the exile, refugees, who yearns for his homeland in a way that has made him into a symbol.

Alongside his great success, which included being invited to appear all over the country for poetry readings, he was arrested a number of times (for example after he violated an order forbidding him to leave Haifa and traveled to Jerusalem). In 1969 he left Israel to attend a political conference, and did not return. He moved about between Paris and Moscow, before moving to Egypt and later Lebanon. He joined the Palestine National Council, as a result of which he was not allowed to return to Israel.

In the 1980s he joined the PLO and ran the movement’s research center in Beirut. In 1988 he wrote the Palestinian declaration of independence. After the Oslo Accords, in 1995, Israeli authorities allowed him to return for the funeral of his colleague Emil Habibi. In 2007, he was again allowed to visit Haifa. He died in Texas the following year. Even though he wandered for almost his entire life and lived in Paris, Moscow, Cairo, Ramallah, Amman, Beirut, Israel and the United States, he was buried in Ramallah on the West Bank.

Darwish always had a complicated relationship with Israel and with Israeli poets and artists. Two years ago, Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin, an Israeli Arab film director, released a biographical documentary about Darwish, “Write Down, I am an Arab.” In the film, Mara’ana-Menuhin presents his romance Tamar Ben Ami, a Jewish Israeli member of the Communist Party, in the early 1960s when both were young and living in Haifa. The romance ended when Ben Ami was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, where she served in an entertainment troupe. She is said to have been the inspiration for “Rita and the Rifle,” which has been set to music, as have many other of his poems. But even without the romantic side, Darwish was always involved and entwined with Israeli and Jewish writers.

In 2000, then-Education Minister Yossi Sarid tried to include Darwish’s poems as part of the required high school literature curriculum. The political controversy that arose as a result put an end to the plan.

A short time later, Darwish told The New York Times in an interview: “The Israelis do not want to teach students that there is a love story between an Arab poet and this land. I just wish they’d read me to enjoy my poetry, not as a representative of the enemy.”

“I supported Sarid’s decision,” says the poet and editor Eliaz Cohen, from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion and one of the founders of the Israeli literary journal Mashiv Har-Ruach. “Great poetry is great poetry, certainly when it is poetry of our neighbor, our partner in the land, and it is important to know it. It is important to know one another, not only through the sights of the rifle but through the sights of the heart. Darwish said that every poet is built from a thousand poets who came before him. For me, Darwish is the foundation stone of the thousand poets who came before me.”

Mara’ana-Menuhin said this month: “Darwish is a figure that most of do not know when they met him for the first time. It is a sort of experience or memory that you grew up with. Darwish is something you grew up with, because Darwish is not just a poet, he is your identity. ‘ID Card’ is a text you grew up on and sang it like a birthday song. It is an essential part of your identity, your belonging, and not just politically, because Darwish wrote about his mother, that he misses her bread, and that is how he touched your identity as a minority and your human identity. It was easy to identify with him. That is why Darwish is canonic.”

When asked by Haaretz for his response to the recent political attacks against teaching Darwish and the radio program, the Israeli poet Erez Biton who recently headed a government panel that recommended changes to the way Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish heritage is taught in the Israeli public school system, said: “I have still not formulated a position on the matter.”