George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
August 14, 2008 - 4:33pm

The last time Arab masses (and Mideast watchers) were mesmerised was when they heard that Jamal Abdul Nasser, the popular Egyptian president, passed away prematurely in 1970 - an event that changed the political climate in the Middle East and presaged the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

At present, these same audiences were shocked by the untimely death last Saturday of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian icon whose poetry and prose has captivated the entire region in the last 40 years. He was only 67 years old.

Obviously, Darwish is not being compared to Nasser, an unmatched Arab hero in modern times, but the unexpected news from Houston, Texas, where he underwent open heart surgery hit the region like a thunderbolt.

The reaction was even echoed elsewhere. Unlike his American counterpart who did not utter a word about the demise of this renowned Palestinian poet, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said his country shared Palestinian admiration for "this great figure whose poetry, which reflects nostalgia and liberty, speaks to us all".

In a statement, he added: "Mahmoud Darwish knew how to express the attachment of an entire people to its land and the absolute desire for peace. His message, which calls for coexistence, will continue to resonate and will eventually be heard."

Darwish encapsulated the Palestinian Nakbha or calamity. He was born in 1941 in Al Birwa, a small Palestinian village in the Galilee region close to the Lebanese border.

In 1948 Jewish militias occupied his village, which was razed along with more than 400 others in northern Palestine. His family escaped to Lebanon but, a year later, returned secretly and lived in another village close to his residence.

However, under Israeli martial law they were considered internal refugees, classified as "present-absent aliens", thereby denied any rights to their property.

At 19, Darwish published his first book of poetry, many were political poems, especially the most popular, Write down, I am an Arab, and my identity card number is 50,000 - a jab at Israeli restrictions on the Arab population within Israel that could not travel without an identity card. His political activities, including membership in the Israeli Communist Party, had also led to his several arrests.

In 1970, he left Israel to study in the Soviet Union. However, after spending a year at the University of Moscow, he opted to live in Egypt and then Lebanon. In 1973, he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Beirut which at the time was led by the late Yasser Arafat.

In the following years, Darwish was known as the poet of Palestinian resistance. He was also elected member of the PLO's executive committee but he resigned in 1993 in protest over the Oslo Peace Accords which Arafat signed with Israel.

"I knew that the agreement held out no promise that we would reach true peace based on independence for the Palestinians and the end of the Israeli occupation," he told Haaretz, the Israeli daily more than a year ago.

"The situation now is worse. Before Oslo, there were no checkpoints, the settlements [colonies] had not expanded like this, and the Palestinians had work in Israel."

Here, Darwish hit the nail on the head.

His audiences in the Arab world were always in the thousands. His fellow poets recognised this towering literary figure. Egypt's vernacular poet, Ahmad Fuad Nejm, recognised the ability in him "to translate the pain of the Palestinians in a magical way, and made us happy and shook our emotions."

He added, "Apart from being the poet of the Palestinian wound, which is hurting all Arabs and all honest people in the world, he is a master poet."

Memorable words

Among his memorable words were those spoken by Arafat at the United Nations in 1974: "Today, I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

Darwish also penned the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988, read by the Palestinian leader in Algiers when he unilaterally declared statehood. And last year, he castigated the bloody infighting between the rival Palestinian factions - Hamas and Fatah - describing it as a "public attempt at suicide in the streets".

Darwish has published over 30 volumes of poetry and eight books of prose, and many of his poems have also been put into music, most importantly, I yearn for my mother's bread which many Palestinians considered the "mother" to be a poetic disguise for Palestine.

Whatever, the lines of Darwish are everlasting for many.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017