Look Homeward, Angel: The death of Mahmoud Darwish

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by Rich Broderick • August 12, 2008 • This past Saturday, one of the world’s leading writers died. He was a towering figure whose more than 30 volumes of poetry place him alongside international literary giants like Yeats and Lorca, Eliot and Mandelstam, Whitman and Rilke, Dickinson and Montale, Dario and Amachai.

Beyond that, he was a writer who rose to even more rarified ranks, joining Anna Akhmatova and Pablo Neruda and a handful of other poets who transformed themselves into what Yeats called the voice of the tribe by channeling the suffering, joy, dreams and thirst for justice of their respective peoples while overcoming the parochial limiations of individual place, historical circumstance, and ethnicity to produce verse that speaks to us all.

His name was Mahmoud Darwish. If you’ve never heard of him don’t be embarrassed.

After all, under the best of circumstances, poets are marginalized figures in our culture. As far as his lack of fame in the United States is concerned, however, Darwish suffered in life as he suffers in death from another, far more consequential liability.

He was a Palestinian.

In a nation like ours, fully committed to helping finance, arm, rationalize, and provide political and military protection to Israel’s now 60-year old attempt to achieve the politicide of the Palestinian people, in a nation where even daring to discuss openly our complicity in Israeli policies of apartheid, collective punishment, torture, brutality, theft of land and resources, and other well-documented atrocities, human rights violations and transgressions of international law and the Geneva Conventions will earn you charges of anti-Semitism, it is virtually impossible for the mainstream media to acknowledge even the existence of a Mahmoud Darwish let alone celebrate his work. Just as another writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, also recently deceased, was lionized in the West because his work and his life fit into the larger metanarrative of the Cold War, so Darwish, whose work and whose life paid witness to Palestinian humanity – even to the point of expressing compassion for the very Israelis who persecute his people – has had to be consigned to the oubliette.

Though he confessed that politics touched everything he wrote, Darwish was not a “political” poet, with all that epithet implies. As _The Butterfly’s Burden_ (Copper Canyon Press), a recent collection of the last of his books (translated by Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet who has just won the Yale Younger Poets award) makes clear, Darwish was a lyricist and elegist at heart who sang about love and loss of all kinds. At the same time, his every word betrayed the universal longing of dispossessed peoples in every place and every age to live in peace and justice in their own homeland.

Not coincidentally, his own life story embodied the banishment and exile of the Palestinian people. This is what I wrote about him in a review published in 2003 of _Unfortunately, It Was Paradise_ (University of California Press), an earlier translation of his collected works:

“Born in 1941, Darwish grew up in a village in Galilee that was razed in 1948 by the Israeli Army along with more 400 other Arab towns and hamlets. Between that time and when he left Israel in 1970, he lived as a de facto displaced person with the official title of “present-absent alien”—a status that undoubtedly contributed to his heightened sensitivity to the relationship between language and memory.

In 2001, in an act that could symbolize his life and self-appointed vocation, Israel began driving a road through the site of Darwish’s boyhood village, in the process disinterring centuries of human bones from the village graveyard. Small wonder that, like Akhmatova’s epic “Poem without a Hero,” the 20-page “Mural,” written in 2000… is an echo chamber of voices Darwish evokes from virtually every spirit, both living and dead, that has touched his life. Early in the poem, he announces his intention to serve as channel for these voices:

“And take the ode if you wish. I have nothing in it but you.
Take your ‘I,’ I will complete my exile in your handwriting.
You can give it to the doves to mail.
Who among us is ‘I’? For ‘I’ will end.
Between writing and speech a star will fall.
Memory swells our reflections.”

Later in “Mural,” he expands the network of his compassionate channeling to include even the doomed aspirations of the very people who drove the Palestinians off their land.

“I asked: _How long have you watched me and imprisoned yourself within me?_
He said: _Since you wrote your first songs._
I said: _But you weren’t born yet!_
He said: _I have time and I have eternity._
_I want to live like an American_
_but also within the walls of Jerusalem.”_”

With Darwish’s death, we have lost not just a great but a universal poet. Despite America’s neglect, his voice will not lapse into silence.

All over the Arab world, his verse is memorized, recited aloud at public occasions, even set to music and sung by peasants tilling their fields. If, as Milan Kundera wrote, the history of our times is of the struggle between memory and forgetting, Darwish offered up the lifeblood of memory. His work will live so long as human beings anywhere continue to struggle for peace and justice and a place to call home.