Opinion |

The Palestinian National Poet and the Silencing of Women's Voices

After the report that Mahmoud Darwish had a daughter out of wedlock, legions of men came out to defend the honor of the national poet, demonstrating to what extent the Palestinian narrative, molded by Darwish, is masculine

Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour
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A woman walks past a mural of the late Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish in Jenin, West Bank, September 2, 2008.
A woman walks past a mural of the late Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish in Jenin, West Bank, September 2, 2008.Credit: SAIF DAHLAH / AFP
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour

I admit it: I’ve been waiting for this moment. I’m addicted to the slaughter of sacred cows of all kinds, genders and colors. For a long time I’ve wanted to slaughter Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet, the myth, the God, the saint, who is above all criticism, political or literary. Don’t worry, I will be precise and sharp, and you won’t notice the blood.

I remember well the first time I discovered Darwish. I was a young girl and took a book from my father’s library whose cover had the face of a handsome, bespectacled man I wasn’t familiar with. I read the title, “A Siege for the Sea Eulogies,” and didn’t understand a thing. I tried to read a few passages from the book and choked with frustration. What the hell is this, I asked myself?

I didn’t have the tools or knowledge back then for a literary review, but this month the opportunity I spent years waiting for finally came up. On June 6 Salim Barakat, a well-known Syrian novelist and poet with a respectable literary resume, published a personal-literary article in the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper recounting his long, wonderful friendship with Darwish. But toward the end of the article he revealed a small, negligible detail: Darwish had a daughter from a one-night stand with a married woman.

The sky fell, hard. The Arab media and social media, Palestinian writers and Arab writers in general fired volleys of posts, tweets and opinion pieces. They all responded, all felt obliged to protect Darwish’s honor, privacy and literary and cultural status from his friend, who had stabbed him in the back. The sea of content produced a few interesting pieces but failed to generate a complex cultural discourse beyond turning Barakat into a traitor and calling for open season on him.

As expected, most of the content was written by men. They rose like a devoted, blind army and systematically defended and scrubbed clean the great poet’s moral “blunder.” Their texts were shallow and trivial, ranging between two main poles: Barakat’s treachery and the claim that Darwish’s private life is his personal affair and none of the public’s business.

The most outrageous thing was that most of the texts didn’t deal with the cultural subject matter of Barakat’s article and went as far as to disqualify the man’s poetry and writing out of hand. Five books, dozens of articles and a significant contribution to Arab poetry were wiped out in a second. The Darwish cult lead a personal and cultural lynching of Barakat.

Mahmoud Darwish in an undated photograph.Credit: Reuven Kopichinsky / AP

One response was interesting, challenging and enlightening. It was written by Jordanian-Palestinian poet Musa Hawamda, who claimed that Darwish made clever use of the works of other poets of his generation, Arabs and non-Arabs. Hawamda even maintained that Darwish quoted entire biblical texts and concluded that Darwish’s bread was full of others’ flour.

Barakat isn’t the first Arab writer to expose other writers and artists’ personal secrets. He was preceded by the Syrian writer Ghada al-Samman and the Egyptian writer Rajaa al-Nakash. Al-Samman published letters sent to her by Ghassan Kanafani and was castigated for exposing a part of the private life of another male Palestinian legend. In contrast, al-Nakash, a man, published the letters of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan to Egyptian Anwar al-Madawi, and wasn’t criticized for revealing Tuqan’s secrets.

I imagine that had these articles been published in the era of social media, al-Samman would have paid an even higher price.

As far as many are concerned, the Palestinian narrative must remain invincible. Any attempt to undermine, crack and stain it is a costly endeavor: The price is being silenced and personally or culturally blacklisted. For many writers, although they haven’t admitted it, Barakat not only breached Darwish’s privacy and revealed an intimate or “shameful” secret, but damaged, tarnished and even profaned the essence and core of the holy and pure Palestinian question.

This is because Darwish delivered the purest national goods; he wrote, faithfully communicated and defended the undisputed Palestinian narrative – the linguistic realm that dealt with the homeland and its loss, with displacement and being a refugee. It shaped the awareness and work of many Palestinians, which turned the poet, knowingly or not, into the Palestinian narrative itself and even into the Palestine lost. Numerous Palestinians would see any tarnishing of his work as a serious undermining of the Palestinian narrative. Darwish became a kind of Palestinian Jesus. I don’t envy him; I wouldn’t want to bear that Palestinian nationalist cross, which has no cracks, tensions or questions about my Palestinian identity today.

Mahmoud Darwish at a reading in Haifa, July 15, 2007.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen / AP

Darwish systematically espoused a masculine Palestinian victim narrative and at no point in time did he try to confront the ugly, frightening, confusing and paralyzing aspects of this identity. I’m not denying the collective Palestinian identity of victimhood or its legitimacy, but it’s not supposed to be the be-all and end-all. We, Palestinian men and women, must ask political, cultural and identity questions separately from Darwish and his male poet colleagues, for whom nationality, masculinity and victimhood are the essence of the Palestinian narrative.

And why is it that Palestinian men’s only answer to the historic national disaster is classic victimhood, no questions asked, without any examinations or resistance? Because victimhood is the only equivalent to the heroism they have lost as men, heroism that isn’t our political language as Palestinian women.

Darwish’s deification enabled him, poetically and culturally, to dominate and even dictate the form, content and boundaries of the Palestinian narrative in an almost indisputable manner. This not only created a specific, nationalist Palestinian narrative, but a specific, nationalist, masculine narrative that automatically excludes poetic, cultural and political feminine narratives.

The result is a political and historic narrative devoid of Palestinian women’s presence, memories and voices. In this sense the masculine, cultural and poetic narrative that Darwish brought was the exact reflection and continuation of the broad, political, masculine Palestinian narrative that prevails in the political arena to this day.

Yes, the Nakba story is a masculine story without feminine Palestinian content, analysis and interpretation. Palestinian men confiscated the narrative from us not only by silencing, exclusion and the historical obliteration of our Palestinian mothers’ stories. They did it through death, its glorification and sanctification, through the shahada, or the Islamic statement of faith; who can compete with that?

I see the attack on Barakat as another attempt to preserve the masculine, nationalist Palestinian narrative with the blind, artificial and shallow defense of Darwish’s honor. It’s an attempt to perpetuate the masculine heroism discourse.

This little scandal was supposed to be a window of opportunity for a profound, contemporary, critical discussion of Darwish’s work. Was the opportunity missed? Perhaps, but for this to really happen, Darwish the God must die, and in his place Darwish the mortal poet will rise.

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