Palestine's Poetic Voice

Mahmoud Darwish, critically acclaimed as one of the most important poets of the Arabic language, is often referred to as "the voice of the Palestinian people". Now, two new publications provide an illuminating look at his life and work. By Martina Sabra

Mahmoud Darwish (
Mahmoud Darwish has played a crucial role in maintaining and developing Palestinian identity

​​"Here and now, set down the bier from your shoulders // Give your life the chance // To correct history." The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, regarded in his youth as a "resistance poet", now one of the most important poets in the Arab world, has experienced all conceivable highs and lows, as an artist and a human being, politically and physically.

At the age of 63, after a life-threatening bout with heart disease and confronted with the fact that after decades of struggle his people still had no state of its own, Darwish undertook a personal and political reckoning with his cycle of poems, "Do Not Ask Pardon for What You Have Done".

Thanks to the Syrian-born translator Adel Karasholi from Leipzig, just months after the publication of the Arabic original, a selection of poems from this collection is already available in German translation.

In this collection, entitled Wo Du warst und wo Du bist (Where You Were and Where You Are), Karasholi, himself a poet and Chamisso prizewinner, has also included poems from three of his friend's previous collections.

In the technically sophisticated, image-heavy poems of Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (1995), Darwish seems to have moved beyond the political activism of his early years. But hints of the poet's retreat into the self, the many-faceted linguistic game with the Self and the Other, also reflect Darwish's profound disappointment over the 1993 Oslo Agreement between the PLO and Israel.

Disappointment over the Oslo Agreement

At the time, Yassir Arafat's concessions prompted the poet to give up his long-held position as head of cultural affairs at the PLO and to resign from the Palestinian National Congress. Some passages seem to allude to this: "I see old prophets // Climbing barefoot toward Jerusalem // And ask: are there no new prophets // For our new time?"

Four years later, Darwish is happier and more relaxed. He now lives in Ramallah on the West Bank – thanks to the Oslo Agreement, ironically enough – coming at least one step closer to his homeland after twenty years in exile.

In early 2002 Darwish made his comeback as a political poet with State of Siege, a collection of poems written during the month-long siege of Ramallah and President Yassir Arafat's headquarters in early 2001. In the course of the siege, Darwish's workplace, the Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, was shelled and his office was ransacked by Israeli soldiers.

State of Siege expresses Darwish's embitterment at Israel's unwillingness to really make peace with the Palestinians, and at western governments which look on as the Palestinians are violently expelled from their homes while insisting that Arab are innately incapable of democracy and progress.

Darwish confronts a "pseudo-Orientalist" with the sarcastic and melancholy reproach: "What you suspect, might be // Let us assume that I am ignorant, ignorant // And dumb ((/)) And I have not mastered the game of golf // And I know nothing of technology // And I cannot fly an airplane ((/)) That, then, is why you take my life from me, to // Forge your life with it?"

Most comprehensive study on Darwish published in German

In his new book about Darwish, the young translator and Arabic scholar Stefan Milich provides orientation for those seeking to put Darwish's work in a historical and literary context. Milich's book Fremd meinem Namen und fremd meiner Zeit (Alien to my Name and Alien to My Time) offers an examination of Mahmoud Darwish's life and work which, though not entirely original, is the most comprehensive study published to date.

Amidst a wealth of material, Milich's analysis focuses on the issue of identity, both national – Palestinian – and personal – artistic.

Rather than merely providing a textual analysis or relating Darwish's poetry to current events, Milich presents a broader framework.

It is commonly assumed that the formation of a Palestinian identity was first and foremost a reaction to the foundation of the Jewish state and the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948.

Milich combats this misconception by examining the "new Palestinianism" of the thirties, when the inhabitants of British Palestine rose up against British and Zionist occupiers. The expulsions in 1948 and 1967 and the experience of exile reinforced the sense of Palestinian identity and the feeling of being under threat.

Poets, especially Mahmoud Darwish, have always played a crucial role in maintaining and developing this identity – to the point where the poet himself is completely identified with the idea of "Palestine".

Achieving an increasingly dynamic concept of identity

However, Mahmoud Darwish has been taking an increasingly radical stand against reducing him and his work to the "national cause". Stefan Milich sensitively probes Darwish's inner conflict between the desire for individual expression and for collective, national self-assertion as the "voice of the Palestinian people".

Milich distinguishes four phases in the course of which Darwish began to call into question his own positions as a person and as an artist, developing increasingly complex aesthetics and achieving an increasingly dynamic concept of identity.

Darwish started off in the sixties as a resistance poet, and in a certain sense he still is one, writes Stefan Milich: now, however, Darwish sees more subversive potential in love and beauty than in political programs.

One issue Milich doesn't deal with in his publication is why Darwish has not been more outspoken about the Middle Eastern conflict and internal Palestinian problems. Also, there is no discussion of why Darwish has rarely taken a concrete position on human rights abuses in the Arab world.

Martina Sabra

© 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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