A Thunderous Absence

A year and a half after he passed away at age 67, a film about the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish only heightens the feeling of loss that characterized his life and work - and now his death.

At some point Mahmoud Darwish began to speak of Troy as the mythic vanquished party - the one no one would speak for, not even Euripides, the other side of the conventional story. In this story Israel and the West are Greece. The Palestinians are Troy. Troy is a cultural absence, because the vanquished are not remembered; they are missing. Absence is a common word in Palestinian discourse, poetry, life. The abandoned home, the field from which you were expelled, the place that awaits your return - all of it speaks of absence (ghiab, in Arabic). It's a term that recurs in Darwish's poetry, and not only in his exquisite book "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?"

Director Nasri Hajjaj constructs his film "As the Poet Said" ("Kama Qal a-Shai'r") around Darwish's absence as the distilled essence of the absence in his poetry. The absence that recurs in the poems resonates in the images that Hajjaj has sought to craft out of those poems.

Hajjaj is a Palestinian, born in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon and now a documentary maker living in Beirut. In "As the Poet Said," he undertook a difficult task and made two brave decisions: He did not use any of the many hours of footage that show Darwish reading his poems to an audience or to the camera; and he let the images captured by his camera be accompanied by Darwish's voice, along with the voices of others reading in their own languages - Portuguese, French, Kurdish, Hebrew and, of course, Arabic. This is a film whose text is pure poetry, nothing but poetry, read all throughout the movie. Most of the images are accompanied by Darwish's clear, musical voice. In this sense, watching its premier in the packed Al-Kasaba theater in mid-January in Ramallah was an intriguing experience. The audience was spellbound. No, they didn't recite the better-known poems along with the film, but they drank them in eagerly, silently.

The film is built around the absence of a figure, in particular by using the very strong presence of a voice. For example, there is an empty auditorium (the Odeon Theater in Paris), where Darwish once gave a poetry reading. No one is there now, only empty seats, an empty stage, a microphone, a table, a chair - but this is the documentation of a place where he once read his work in a great recital. There, but now gone. The film builds up a thunderous absence.

It's a seemingly simple trick: writers, poets and authors who knew Darwish (Nobel Prize for Literature laureates Jose Saramago and Wole Soyinka, French writer Dominique de Villepin, Kurdish poet Sherko Bekas, and Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad), read from his poems in the settings of their choice, in translations into their own languages.

Soon the viewer runs into two difficulties: The visual images cannot compete with Darwish's metaphors, and the attempts are at times downright uncomfortable (a horse struggling to climb up a sandy dune; billowing cigarette smoke; an Arab peasant woman walking by an old locomotive; a stream of clear water). On the other hand, the music, piano and a woman's wordless singing give the elegy its aesthetic dimension, for the film is a work of mourning. Here is the place of his birth, Al-Birwa, although the place itself is gone, and soon afterward we see the Houston hospital where he died while undergoing heart surgery: an empty corridor, the operating room, the deathbed. And then the Paris hotel room where he slept on his way to Houston, the room where he worked in Ramallah, the offices of the Al-Karmel literary review, his desk.

Mother's house

Sometimes the choices are impressive. The remains of Al-Birwa, under what is now the Ahihud Forest; a house that has remained whole, barred and locked; an abandoned field; as well as his mother's house in Jedida, also near Acre. And the loveliest image of all (one that, I believe, Darwish would have found moving): 80-year-old Nimer Murkus, one of the leaders of the Communist Party in Israel, tending to an olive tree outside his home in Kfar Yassif, with his daughter, the amazing singer Amal Murkus, by his side, singing one of Darwish's early poems. She sings and quietly plays, while her father recites and cares for the tree.

Nimer Murkus was an elementary school teacher in Deir al-Assad, and Mahmoud studied with him after his family stole back across the country's closing borders. And then - this is not told in the movie, which has no text beyond Darwish's poems - the teacher gave the little refugee boy a gift: a box of crayons and a sketchbook, because young Mahmoud liked to draw. Later, when Darwish was a high school student in Kfar Yassif, Murkus was his leader in the communist youth movement and gave him his first reading materials, which opened the world up to him.

This is a precipice at which all those who wish to describe Darwish's biography inevitably arrive. He refused to grant entry into his private life. The movie shows Haifa. This was the city where he took his first steps as a poet and editor, and to which he was confined under the "1945 Defense (Emergency) Regulations."

Poet Dahlia Ravikovitch could not believe, during a visit to his home in Haifa, after the 1967 war, that he really had to report to the police station every morning and every evening. Darwish invited her to join him and see for herself, how he, a man charged with nothing, had to register with the desk sergeant twice a day (they both told me this story, in almost identical terms). And here is Haifa the way that Haifa is shown on film: a mountain, a port, the Bahai Temple. But it is the Haifa he loved to visit in his final years, far from Palestinian public consciousness. A Darwish biographer would need to follow his desire in his final years to return to Haifa, to live there as a private man. The odds were all against it: Not only was the Shin Bet security service extremely unlikely to permit his return, but it was impossible for him to tear himself away from Ramallah, which became, temporarily at least, the center of Palestinian life. This was the dilemma he grappled with, and as far as I may be allowed to guess, based on our few conversations, he largely gave up his private life. The question of where he should be buried - in the Galilee, as his friends and those close to him demanded, or in Ramallah, as the top officials of the Palestinian Authority decided and somehow convinced his family - demonstrated the ownership of the national poet.

Helit Yeshurun's interview with Mahmoud Darwish in the 12th issue of the journal Hadarim (Spring 1996) is therefore worth reading. There may be no other place where Darwish spoke about such a strong desire to be and yet not to be the representative of his people, with all the contradictions that led a brilliant intellectual like himself to his insights (that's also why I appear in the movie, holding the issue and reading from it).

I left the theater. The reading from the Hebrew translation (by Anton Shammas) was received quietly, as were the readings in French, English and Portuguese (only the Kurdish aroused a few giggles of foreignness). I stood with my friend, film director Dahlia Hager, at the exit and watched the crowd. There was something horrific about the contrast between the ends of the earth where the poems had been read (Tanzania, Spain, France), the places where Darwish had traveled, and the fact that the theater was packed with people who cannot come and go as they wish. Freedom of movement - the standard of Western democracy - stops at the Qalandiyah checkpoint.

And on the way back, we, two Israelis, are free individuals, making the necessary loop around the checkpoint. We pass through the suburbs of Ramallah, outside the high walls that separate families, workplaces and homes, and the profound neglect of the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. A national life whose center used to be Jerusalem, which is now cut off from all of its Palestinian sides; Ramallah, which is not a capital and does not want to be one. And, on every side, the walls.