10 Facts About Legendary Poet Mahmoud Darwish
By: Cait O’Connor/Arab America Contributing Writer
Known as the “Voice of Palestine,” Mahmoud Darwish is one of the most beloved poets both within and beyond the Arab World. As a political activist and literary icon, he wrote prolifically and received enormous praise. His reading in Beirut in 2008, shortly before his death, drew a crowd of over 25,000. Writing frequently about his own experiences of dispossession and exile, his words have given voice to tales of suffering the world over.
1. A Window Into His Soul
Any reader of Darwish’s work can detect the emotion that spills forth from his writing, but the subject matter was often more deeply for Darwish than commonly known.
Growing, Darwish was convinced that his family hated him, especially his mother. When he was jailed in 1965 for political action, he wrote “I Yearn for My Mother’s Bread” out of guilt for misjudging the hatred he perceived from his mother.
The poem, set to music and performed by renowned singer Marcel Khalife, is today hugely popular. For Darwish an intensely personal expression, his work resonates deeply across Palestine and beyond.
2. Early Communist Ties
In 1961, at age 19, Darwish joined Rakah, the Communist Party of Israel. At the time, the group was among the only political organizations that recognized Palestinians as equals. The party also published Darwish’s first compilation, “Wingless Birds” (excerpted above) in their journal, of which he would later become an editor. His work with the Communist Party helped launch both his editorial and literary careers.
3. Metaphorically Speaking
Drawing upon his deep connection toward his homeland, and his grief upon exile from it, Darwish uses Palestine throughout his work as a metaphor for the loss of Eden. The reality of this sentiment can be seen in the title of his 2003 publication “Unfortunately, It was Paradise.” Themes of birth and resurrection and the pain of exile and removal are all summarized by Darwish’s reflection upon his home. It is for this reason that he was given the unique distinction of “national poet,” revealing the sentiment and emotion of the Palestinian people.
Nearly all his poems are written in Arabic, leading some critics to label him the “savior” of the Arabic language. In simple yet highly metaphorical, nuanced language, he uses his native tongue to craft entirely new images to express his passionate ideas. Some of his writing has even been called “prophetic” for its accuracy of representation.
In the 1970s, after moving to Lebanon, Darwish worked with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In addition to writing and editing for their monthly journal, he also worked as the director of their research center. In 1980, he founded Al-Karmel, a popular literary and cultural journal still in operation today. He would work with the journal for the rest of his life. In their obituary for Darwish, the New York Times reported his dedication to publishing the work of young Arab writers.
5. A Controversial Voice
Darwish has written and published over 20 collections of poetry, as well as several works of prose. His work has been translated into 35 different languages, and he is considered one of the most influential Arab poets. Incidentally, most of his criticism comes close to home. His works have even been discussed and debated in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. His work “Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words” was particularly debated for its suggestion about Jewish departure from the West Bank and Gaza, published in the early days in the first intifada.
6. A Voice for Everyone
Darwish’s writing consistently represented the voices and expressed the concerns of those who were silenced. In some of his pieces, he imagined the struggles of other marginalized groups, including African Americans under colonial rule, and attempting to adapt their voice and understand their pain. One of his most famous works from another’s perspective, entitled “Speech of the ‘Red Indian'” imagines the struggles of Native Americans and questions how to live in accord with nature.
7. A Hidden Romance
The “Rita” character who appears throughout his work, most notably in his poem “Rita and the Rifle,” was actually written for Darwish’s long-time Jewish girlfriend Tamar Ben Ami, with whom he lived in Haifa. Their relationship was the subject of the documentary film “Write Down, I am an Arab.”
Today, the poem has been set to music by many Arab artists, making it one of Darwish’s most well-known pieces, a beautiful love song.
8. A Troubled Heart
Darwish suffered from heart disease and other health problems throughout his life. His first heart attack came in 1984, after which he had surgery. His second heart surgery in 1998 was a near-death experience. It was in the recovery period following this surgery that Darwish largely wrote and dedicated his epic poem “Mural,” a reflection on death and mortality.
9. “Identity Card”
One of Darwish’s most well-known poems is a piece called “Record: I Am An Arab” or “Identity Card.” In the poem, Darwish as the narrator takes on the perspective of a Palestinian oppressed by Zionist forces. The poem seems to address these officers directly. Since its publication in 1964, the poem has served as both a source of pride for Palestinians and a target of Israeli criticism for its exploration of Arab-Palestinian identity. In 1965, Darwish read his poem aloud to a crowded movie theater in Nazareth. It was an instant hit, but Darwish was arrested shortly after, one of five arrests between 1961-1967.
Criticism only increased after the poem was read aloud in Hebrew on an Israeli radio program. For months following the reading, Israeli political leaders attacked the poem and accusing Darwish of anti-Semitism. Darwish, always cautious of the spotlight, fled the toxic atmosphere of Palestine and settled in Beirut, refusing to read the poem out loud. This disappointed many of his supporters, yet the poem remains a rallying cry for justice and identity, always a reminder of the Nakba and its horrors. Darwish was the first to describe and undermine the “victorious enemy” devoid of identity. This enemy is shapeless and formless in its abuses and victories, but it lacks the richness and depth of the Palestinian identity it oppresses. This aspect perhaps accounts for the powerful appeal of the poem.
10. Palestinian Declaration of Independence
In 1988, Darwish wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, proclaimed to a standing ovation by Yasser Arafat at the 19th Palestinian National Council. The document calls for an independent state of Palestine, open to “Palestinians wherever they may be,” with Jerusalem as its capital. In the piece, Darwish calls once again for the fortitude of Arab-Palestinian identity, saying that Arab-Palestinians have “triumphed over the plan to expel us from history.”