Mahmoud Darwish - the voice of a dispossessed people

By Kim Bullimore

In 1964, a 22-year-old Palestinian poet named Mahmoud Darwish shared the struggle of his people with the world, writing: “Record!/ I am an Arab/ And my identity card is number fifty thousand/ I have eight children/ And the ninth is coming after a summer/ Will you be angry? … Record! I am an Arab/ I have a name without a title/ ... My roots/ Were entrenched before the birth of time/ And before the opening of the eras/ Before the pines, and the olive trees/ And before the grass grew ... Record!/ I am an Arab/ You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors/ And the land which I cultivated/ Along with my children/ And you left nothing for us/ Except for these rocks./ ... Record on the top of the first page: I do not hate people/ Nor do I encroach/ But if I become hungry/ The usurper’s flesh will be my food/ Beware/ Beware/ Of my hunger/ And my anger!”

The poem, “Identity Card”, was to become one of Darwish’s most famous, a symbol of cultural and political resistance to Israel’s forced dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of their homeland. Darwish’s poetry, filled with Arab romanticism, political insight and protest, and often transformed into song, spoke to millions of Palestinians and Arabs around the world, resulting in him becoming the most well known and loved of Palestinian poets.

Darwish died in Houston, Texas, on August 9, age 67, as a result of complications from heart surgery. Like many of his generation, he was not a spectator but an active participant in the modern history of Palestine. His poetry recorded the losses of the Palestinian people as well as their resistance and refusal to bow to the calamity that befell them in 1948. His death therefore has come as a shock to millions of Palestinians worldwide. More than 10,000 turned out to pay their respects to their poet on August 14, when his body was brought home to be buried within the grounds of Ramallah Cultural Palace in the Occupied West Bank.

Refugee childhood

Born in 1941 in the village of al-Birwa in northern Palestine, Darwish became a refugee in 1948, when his family was forced to flee Zionist terror gangs that attacked and destroyed their village. In 1949, Darwish and his family returned from Lebanon to live “illegally” as “internally displaced” refugees in the new Israeli state. In an interview with the British Guardian daily in 2002, he recounted: “We lived again as refugees, this time in our own country. It’s a collective experience. This wound I’ll never forget.”

Along with more than 150,000 other internally displaced Palestinians, Darwish experienced the harshness of Israeli military rule from 1948 to 1966. Palestinians with Israeli residency or citizenship endured harsh restrictions on their movements, including being forced to obtain special permits to travel to and from their villages, limitations on where they could work, restrictions on their political and civil rights to freedom of speech and to organise politically. During this period, more than 80% of Palestinian-owned land within Israel was confiscated and placed under exclusive Jewish control and use.

In 1960, at the age of 19, Darwish published his first collection of poems, Asafir Bil Ajniha (Wingless Birds). The following year, he joined the Israeli Communist Party and began to publish his poetry in a range of leftist newspapers. In 1964, his second anthology of poetry, Awraq Al Zaytun (Leaves of Olives) was published; it included the celebrated “Identity Card”. As a result of his poetry and political activity from 1961 to 1970, Darwish was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned. When “Identity Card” was transformed into a protest song in 1967, becoming a collective cry of defiance against the Israeli oppressor, Darwish was again arrested.

First intifada

In 1970, he travelled to the USSR to study political economy. A year later, however, he left Moscow for Egypt. In 1973, he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation, resulting in Israel banning him from re-entering his homeland for more than 26 years. Darwish served on the PLO executive committee from 1987 to 1993 and wrote the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was announced by Yasser Arafat in Algeria.

In 1988, at the height of the first Palestinian intifada, Darwish wrote a poem that shook Israeli society to its core. The poem, “Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words”, aimed at Israel’s occupation army, which was violently putting down the unarmed Palestinian intifada. It was direct and uncompromising: “O those who pass between fleeting words/ Carry your names, and be gone/ Rid our time of your hours, and be gone/ Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea/ And the sand of memory/ Take what pictures you will, so that you understand/ That which you never will:/ How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky/”

Darwish concluded: “It is time for you to be gone/ Live wherever you like, but do not live among us/ It is time for you to be gone/ Die wherever you like, but do not die among us/ For we have work to do on our land/ We have a past here/ We have the first cry of life/ We the present, the present and a future/ We have the world here and the hereafter/ So leave our country/ Our land, our sea/ Our wheat, our salt, our wounds/ Everything, and leave/ The memories of memory/ Those who pass between fleeting words!”

Although Darwish was later to say the poem was not one of his best, he was amazed at the fear the poem aroused in both the Israeli “left” and those in control of the Zionist state. In the grip of the intifada, Israel’s then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, quoted the poem in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) to “prove” that the PLO posed a threat to existence of the Zionist state. In response, Darwish said that he found it “difficult to believe that the most militarily powerful country in the Middle East is threatened by a poem”.

Oslo

The first intifada forced Israel to the negotiating table. However, the resultant Oslo Accords signed by PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993 caused Darwish to resign from the PLO executive committee in protest. In the 2002 interview with the Guardian, he stated that with the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian people “woke up to find that they had no past”. Oslo, Darwish believed, would do little to bring justice, peace or a national homeland to the Palestinian people. In the wake of the failure of the accords, Darwish later said: “I hoped I was wrong. I am very sad that I was right!”

He returned to live in his homeland finally in the late 1990s, continuing to be a voice of his people, giving expression to their pain, yearnings and joys. The words within his 30 collections of poetry and prose, published in 35 languages, reflected the experience of millions of his countrymen and women and were their collective memory.

When Darwish wrote in the poem “Passport” that he carried within his identity, “All the wheat fields/ All the prisons/ All the white tombstones/ All the barbed boundaries/ All the waving handkerchiefs” and that “all the hearts of the people are my identity”, he spoke in the collective voice of his people. And while death has claimed him, his words of struggle and resistance will live on among his people, giving them a voice that can never be taken from them.

[Kim Bullimore has recently returned from living and working in the Occupied West Bank. She has a blog at livefromoccupiedpalestine.blogspot.com and is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]