Hardly a Palestinian #MeToo: Don't Slaughter the Sacred Cow Called Mahmoud Darwish

I have no interest in singling out national poet Darwish as a statue that must be toppled for my own liberation as a woman and my people's liberation as a nation

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An image in graffiti of the late Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, on a wall in the city of Jaffa
Graffiti of poet Mahmoud Darwish, in Jaffa. The poet of Palestine has urges and hormones like everyone else. We can't claim it's a Palestinian "MeToo" situation.Credit: David Bachar

As usual, the virtual uproars in the Arab world reach Hebrew readers in the Middle East belatedly, and there will always be some Arab writer who will explain what’s going on to curious Zionist neighbors. That’s an important status whose advantages I discovered when I started my career as a blogger. It took me time to understand the power of a word that describes in Hebrew what Arabs think about an intra-Palestinian issue – if there is such a thing.

I have translated several of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems into Hebrew, to use them in my lectures, and to annoy a certain Israel Defense Forces brigadier general who studied with me. Why do you translate so many of his poems, he once asked. Out of compassion and kindness toward you, I replied – you Jews who are living in cultural darkness in the heart of an expanse of Middle Eastern creativity. Otherwise how will you understand how things were here decades ago, with my people, the Palestinians?

I recently read what Rajaa Natour wrote here (“The Palestinian National Poet and the Silencing of Women’s Voices”) in response to the uproar that ensued after Syrian writer and poet Salim Barakat revealed a secret about his friend: He said that Darwish had told him that he had fathered a daughter with a married woman.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t at all upset by the man’s exploits. And I didn’t understand all those who enlisted in his defense, after they discovered that in the final analysis a poet of Palestine was a man, with urges and hormones like everyone else, and that he had some unknown partner for moments of passion, something that did not contribute honor and nobility to his stature. I consoled myself with the fact that there is no forced act of violence or sexual harassment here, so we can’t claim that it’s a Palestinian “MeToo” situation.

But to my surprise, Natour turned this juicy, minor affair into an opportunity to slaughter the sacred cow called Mahmoud Darwish. A campaign of revenge originating in a childhood experience – an unsuccessful encounter between a young girl and a poem she didn’t understand, anger and frustration at a vague and complex text with an even stranger title.

Who hasn’t had such a moment? An encounter with a poem that everyone raves about except for us, who are simply incapable of getting excited about it as expected? Most of us ignore the feeling of alienation from the poem, pretend that we understood the poet’s intention. And some of us are told: “When you grow up you’ll understand.” But Natour still can’t forgive and forget. And she now has tools, a language and a platform, for dealing with the “sacred cow” named Darwish.

As a feminist I find the act of slaughter and spilling blood very difficult; it’s a violent act that symbolizes death, from which there can be no rebirth. I don’t pretend to provide a feminist interpretation of Darwish’s texts. There has been broad and incisive criticism of his poetry throughout the years; many studies and papers have been dedicated to the status of women in his works. But as a woman I can’t ignore the beginning of his revolutionary path in the shaping of Arab masculinity, whose openness was considered far-reaching in the 1980s.

I am neither one nor the other

no, I am not a sun or a moon

I am a woman, no more and no less

So be the Qyss of longing,

if you wish. As for me

I like to be loved as I am

not as a color photo

in the paper, or as an idea

composed in a poem amid the stags …

– “No More and No Less,” Mahmoud Darwish

In the eyes of most of the Palestinian people, Darwish was able to bring the Palestinian narrative into every home where an olive-wood map of Palestine hangs in the living room, on which the following words are engraved in Arabic: على هذه الارض ما يستحق الحياة – “We have on this land all of that which makes life worth living.”

I have no interest in slaughtering the man, nor have I singled him out as a statue that must be toppled in my revolution of liberation as a woman and of my people as a nation. As a Palestinian woman, my role – like that of all the women in the world who have suffered from political, national and cultural exclusion – is to rewrite history, to recreate the written, aural and spoken narrative – and to give voice to the Palestinian women who are singing, weeping and awakening from the dormancy forced upon them in the shadow of the Palestinian national struggle for liberation.

I have no desire to bury thousands of Darwish’s works with the claim that he used patriarchal tools to commandeer the story of the heroism of the Palestinian people and to appropriate it for himself. Poets, including Darwish, the intellectuals, the writers and the critics, have dominated the cultural space that belongs to all of us and ignored the writing of strong and rebellious women. They have preferred to see the female poets and writers shedding a tear for the beloved homeland and for the sons and husbands who fell in battle. When it comes to that, we Palestinians are no different from any other nation.

Natour erred when she exclusively attributed to Darwish the masculine commandeering of the narrative of the huge sacrifice of the Palestinian people, as though it is he who is mainly to blame for the disappearance of women from the cultural arena. The irony of this claim lies precisely in the deification of Darwish that Natour actually wants to toss into the cultural garbage bin. When one attributes all that power to a single person, it only strengthens his image as the god of the Palestinian national narrative, the one with the undisputed abilities, who influences every Palestinian wherever he or she may be.

I think Darwish earned that place by means of an endless march of writing that lasted for decades, of poems and texts – some of which were formative and some incomprehensible, some more accessible and some less so. The most important of them, in my opinion, is the wording of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, written in his handwriting.

“Between Rita [a Jewish woman] and my eyes there is a rifle,” he wrote in one of his poems. Who needs more than that in order to understand our conflict between love and hate, peace and war, an Arab man and a Jewish woman, who want each other and are separated by an accursed conflict?

Darwish the poet, the male, may have excluded women from the cultural arena, but many men have also failed to get anywhere near the place he built for himself. And as yet there has been no poet, male or female, to replace him. And perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m in favor of more poetry, culture, resistance. And of pumping more fresh and lively blood into the arteries of the despairing Palestinian people, in any form – from any male or female poet, writer and artist. That is the role of culture: to write, to rewrite, and to reshape and improve the narrative, rather than to slaughter, to bury and to erase, and await a rebirth ex nihilo.

In my opinion that is the most feminist-nationalist act possible in our time for the sake of the people to whom Natour and I belong. And yes, this is the nation that is the victim here, there is no need to be confused or to stammer, there is a victim here and a victimizer, there is an occupier and the occupied, there are the strong and the oppressed – even if Natour’s anger at the poet stimulates the impulses of the Zionist Jews who read Haaretz, who want to rush toward the embrace that will liberate us from the rule of the right.

We have no right to blur reality, or history, according to which an injustice has been done to the Palestinian people. What can be done is to repair the future. Together, in our own language, from the platforms we will create for ourselves because nobody will invite us there of his own free will.

And so, at some point we will also have to embrace our cousins and bring them into the circle. Perhaps then we will be able to translate for them our poetry and our shared space as human beings who want to live here.

My people must understand, even if it’s the hard way, that any language, profound as it may be, won’t do the job, because we women are part of the rebirth that won’t arrive without us. And there is a need for a great deal of hard work, of writing and creating and bringing the stories and the oral history, of documenting the struggle from the point of view of women and men, of illuminating dark places with interpretations of female versus male, rural versus urban, popular versus elitist, secular versus religious, militant versus civil.

Every such illuminating act brings more and more life into the Palestinian narrative and gives rise to hope for the future.

Samah Salaime is a feminist activist and blogger who lives in Neve Shalom – Wahat al Salam.

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