The Late Palestinian National Poet Will Continue to Haunt Israel

Mahmoud Darwish insists on mentioning what Israelis don't want to acknowledge: A great sin took place here when the State of Israel was founded in 1948.

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

The specter of Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish will never leave us. Every few years, a witch hunt will erupt over his poetry, stirring emotions and riling Israelis until they compare him to Hitler. It subsides but then revives again. There’s no escaping it. None of the ghosts of the 1948 War of Independence will leave us until we recognize the guilt, acknowledge the sin and take responsibility for it by apologizing, paying compensation and, above all, changing ourselves. Until then, the ghosts will continue to torment us and not give us rest.

The most recent Darwish scandal, which was fanned by two ignorant ministers – Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whom it’s doubtful ever read a Darwish poem – is another link in the chain. Even in their ignorance, the two knew whom to attack. They knew that, more than any other figure, Darwish hits Israeli society’s most sensitive nerve and drives Israelis crazy every time. They always try to cover up any way they can – concealing, denying, lying and repressing – but always without success.

Darwish touches on the original sin, which makes him Hitler. He exposes the gaping wound, which makes him off-limits. If Israelis had been convinced that there was no sin and no bleeding wound, they wouldn’t have been so afraid of his poetry. If they were convinced that everything had been done properly back then, in 1948, and that nothing could have been different, Darwish would have been left to the realm of literature departments.

But the late poet insists on mentioning what Israelis don’t want to know: a great sin took place here. The establishment of Israel – just as it was – was accompanied by the unforgiveable crime of ethnic cleansing of wide parts of the country. No Jewish National Fund grove can cover up the moral ruins on which the state was built. Israel added insult to injury by not allowing the Palestinians who were expelled or fled to return. A thousand historical testimonies, which we also avoid like fire, are not equal to one line of Darwish poetry: “Where will you take me, my father?”

I will never forget that punch to the stomach, or rather, the dagger to my heart, from the Spring 1996 issue of the Hebrew journal Hadarim, edited by Halit Yeshurun. A dozen pages of Darwish poems from “Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?” (translated into Hebrew by Anton Shammas): “And who will live in the house after us, my father? / The house, my son, will remain as it was! / Why did you leave the horse alone? / To keep the house company, my son. / When their residents go, the houses will die. / Together we will hold on / until we return. / When, my father? / Tomorrow, my son, and perhaps in another day or two! / That tomorrow trailed behind them, chewing the wind / in the endless winter nights.”

I didn’t know at the time, and don’t know today, what we as Israelis do with those lines. With: “In our hut, the enemy rids himself of his rifle / which he lays on my grandfather’s chair. He eats of our bread / like guests do, and without being moved. Grabs a little nap / on the bamboo chair.”

Or: “Ask how my home is doing, foreign sir. / My small coffee cups / of our bitter coffee / still left as they were. Will it enter your nose / the scent of our fingers on the cups?” Or: “And I will carry the yearning / until / my beginning and until its beginning / and I will go on my way / until my end and until its end”!

Darwish’s end came too early, unfortunately, and some time ago, in 2008. But it was not the end of his poetry – just ask Regev and Lieberman. The year 1948 was also some time ago but, just like Darwish’s poetry, it has never ended, not even for a moment. Israel has never altered its conduct – not its violent and overbearing approach to the Palestinians, who were born here, not their dispossession, the occupation and sometimes also their expulsions.

In 2016, Israel is handling the Palestinians exactly like it did in 1948. That’s why Darwish isn’t leaving Israel alone, and that’s why he’s so frightening to the country: He confronts Israel with the most primordial truth about itself.

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