I'm ashamed to say that I never read any poetry by Mahmoud Darwish before yesterday. When I came across an Al Jazeera English article two days ago announcing Darwish's passing, I was not only upset at the news, but furious at myself for not being better acquainted with this icon of Palestinian literature. I resolved to sink my teeth into as many of his poems as possible.
Although I didn’t previously have a personal relationship with his work, I've long known that Darwish was one of the most recognized voices of the Palestinian struggle. He, according to Naomi Shihab Nye (a Palestinian-American poet whose work I have read), was "the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging."
His poems, besides winning various awards, have touched something essential in people around the world - to the extent that Israeli education minister Yossi Sarid (unsuccessfully) proposed that Darwish's work be incorporated into the Israeli high school curriculum in 2000. (After his death, a new debate on whether or not his work should be incorporated into high school curriculums has opened in Israel.) Darwish's work has also been praised by and incorporated into the work of various artists from both the Arab and Israeli worlds, and beyond.
What I really liked about Darwish as I read about him was his independence and his humanism. He never limited himself to a single audience, nor did he stick to a single political party for his whole life. He moved easily through a spectrum of people and ideas: intellectually, he cited poets as varied as Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Rimbaud and Yehuda Amichai as his influences; politically, he was involved with the Israeli communist party Rakah and the Palestine Liberation Organization; his personal life also followed this pattern, as he had both Arab and Jewish lovers, some of whom he dedicated poems to.
It's sad to think that an obituary was what it took for me to pay greater attention to this man. How many people struggling for noble causes are side-stepped during their lives, only to be truly appreciated after death? The situation seems to echo a line in one of Darwish's poems: "They want me to die so they can praise me."
As I researched Darwish and his poetry on the internet these last two days, one of his quotes caught my eye.
"I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, ... but now I think that poetry changes only the poet."
I'm sorry, Darwish. You were wrong. Your poetry speaks to us, helping us look beyond the boundaries of our privileged lives and into a world of anguish, beauty, and above all, struggle. That in itself is a change. You've done your work as a poet.
Now, it's up to us to decide how to respond to the vision of the world you've given us.