Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Goodbye and Hello, Mahmoud Darwish

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.


Some links:

9 comments:

Nicholas Karavatos said...

The first poem by Darwish I ever read was several years ago in an anthology. It was a new translation of "The Song of Songs." We read it in a Contemporary Arab-American Literature course I taught in Muscat.

As I was driving up to Portland, OR yestday morning, I was listening to this radio program (it can also be watched):

http://www.democracynow.org/2008/8/11/mahmoud_darwish_poet_laureate_of_the

Nicholas Karavatos said...

...And I have also been reading his latest anthology having bought it at a used book store in Arcata in June.

Anonymous said...

I was waiiting for this note to come up the minute I heard about Darwish! I too wasn't as acquainted with his works before his death I'm ashamed to say, so I scoured the news articles and jstor and even wiki- To say he was a great man is an understatement. I like his poem "Identity Card" best because it's haunting and puts you in mind of a concentration camp victim (I am an Arab/ And my identity card is number fifty thousand).

Allahyarhama.

Nour Merza said...

Thanks for the link, Prof. Karavatos!

Omar said...

I think a small part of me curled up and died when I heard about Darwish's death. He was one of the few politicaly inclined poets whose work I enjoyed reading. It had a lot to do with a few of the qualities you mentioned, namely how he never limited himself to just one political party and how he never seemed to be seeking the approval of his audience. He wrote about what he saw and believed. While it's probably naive to think that his work wasn't influenced or restricted by others, I like to think it was his and his alone.

May he rest in peace.

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