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Home > News & Analysis > Analysis
FAQ on Mahmoud Darwish
IMEU, Sep 12, 2008

darwish-nablus-festival.jpg
A Palestinian dancer in traditional folk costume dances during a commemoration for the late poet Mahmoud Darwish, in the West Bank city of Nablus. (Rami Swidan, Maan Images)
Internationally-acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is widely viewed as the most important contemporary Arab poet. The recipient of several international awards, including the Mediterranean Prize in 1980, the Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres in 1997, and the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001, his works have been translated into more than 20 languages. Darwish died on August 9, 2008 at the age of 67. He was given a state funeral in Palestine, and eulogized by poets, politicians, and street vendors alike. He is buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the cultural palace has been renamed for him. The significance of his loss to world literature will likely be felt for decades. The IMEU offers answers to the following questions about Darwish's life and work.

1. Who was Mahmoud Darwish?
2. What experiences shaped Darwish's life and writings?
3. What are Darwish's most important works?
4. Did Darwish have any political affiliations?
5. Why is he such an iconic figure to Palestinians?
6. Is Darwish an important literary figure outside of Palestine?
7. Which of his works have been translated into English?
8. What is the most important aspect of his legacy?
9. Will any of Darwish's works be published posthumously?

1. Who was Mahmoud Darwish?

Renowned throughout the Arab world as the most important poet of his day, Mahmoud Darwish transformed modern Arabic poetry from an esoteric experiment in the hands of an elite few to a living metaphor for the universal experiences of exile, loss, and identity. Born into a middle-class family of farmers in the Palestinian village of Birwa on March 13, 1941, Mahmoud Darwish become the singular voice of his people, the ambassador of their wounds and aspirations. In addition to authoring 30 books of poetry and prose, Darwish was an accomplished editor. He first edited the Israeli Communist Party (Rekah)'s Arabic language journal. In Beirut he edited the journal "Palestinian Matters", then "Karmel," a literary journal which he resumed publishing and editing, through the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, largely to support young Arab writers.

2. What experiences shaped Darwish's life and writings?

Mahmoud Darwish became a stateless refugee at the tender age of eight, when he and his family fled their native village for Lebanon along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians escaping Israeli attacks on their homes. When the family sneaked back into their home village a year later, they found it had been razed by the Israeli army. This deeply traumatic seminal experience had a profound impact on the poet's life and resonated throughout his works. The family settled in nearby Deir Alasad, then Jdeideh village, and it is here that Darwish lived his first exile on the familiar soil of his own homeland. The irreparable break between 'home' and 'place' looms large in much of Darwish's poetry and prose.

Darwish wrote his first poem as a schoolboy on the occasion of an Israeli national holiday. The poem was a dialogue between a Jewish Israeli boy and his Palestinian counterpart, who complains that the Jewish boy has his home, toys, and hopes, while the Palestinian has nothing. The Israeli military commander threatened Darwish that if he didn't stop writing such poems, his father would lose his job.

In addition to his masterful command of Arabic language and literature, he read numerous world poets like Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca in the Hebrew translation. He was jailed and placed under house arrest numerous times. Darwish lived a life of perpetual exile, fleeing Haifa first in 1970 to the former USSR. He then moved to Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Paris, Ramallah, and Amman.

3. What are Darwish's most important works?

Darwish wrote more than thirty books of poetry and prose, beginning with Leaves of Olives (1964). Among his most well-known earlier works are A Lover from Palestine (1966), Birds Die in the Galilee (1969) and My Beloved Awakes from Her Sleep (1970). After witnessing the disastrous Israeli invasion of Beirut he wrote the prose Memory for Forgetfulness (1982) and In Praise of the High Shadow (1983). In the 1990s his most highly acclaimed volumes included I See What I Want (1990), Why Did you Leave the Horse Alone? (1995), The Bed of A Stranger (1996), and Mural (1999). In 2000 he took readers in a new direction with Do Not Apologize for What You Have Done, and wrote about the re-invasion of the West Bank from Ramallah in A State of Siege (2002). His latest works include Like Almond Blossoms or Farther Away (2006), Journal of An Ordinary Sorrow (2007), and The Butterfly Effect (2008).

4. Did Darwish have any political affiliations?

An Israeli citizen, Darwish was a member of the Israeli Communist Party Rekah when he lived in Haifa in the late 1960s. Darwish was civil with all Arab leaders, but had no love for any of their governments, which he described as "prisons." In 1982, he was elected to the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Though some interpreted his association with the PNC as support for Yasser Arafat's politics, Darwish remained an independent. At the highpoint of Arafat's political career, with the signing of the Oslo agreement in September of 1993, Darwish left the PNC over his objections to the agreement and his prescient view that it would lead not to peace but to "escalation."

5. Why is he such an iconic figure to Palestinians?

Darwish first gained enormous popularity for his thunderous poems which were described as part of Palestinian resistance literature by the writer and most important critic of his day, Ghassan Kanafani. In the aftermath of the Palestinians' forced exodus from their homeland in 1948, known as the Nakba, Palestinian identity and national sentiment suffered a huge blow. Darwish's writings addressed the unspoken suffering of millions. He forged new metaphors for this task and wrote poems that were accessible to everyone. Among his most famous is a poem entitled "Identity/Card." The words identity and identity card were both highly charged political terms in the Arab world of the 1960s, especially for Palestinians, who both struggled to maintain their national identity, and who were ruthlessly abused by their Israeli occupiers through a system of identity cards that restricted their movement. The poem fires away at the occupier: "Record, I am an Arab." The statement was a validation of existence and a rallying cry for Arabs across the region; the poem quickly became a defiant lyric sung by popular artists and memorized throughout the Arab world. Many of his poems of longing, like the famous "Mother", have been set to music and sung by the Lebanese artist Marcel Khalife and are loved by Arabs everywhere.

6. Is Darwish an important literary figure outside of Palestine?

Darwish is renowned throughout the Arab world as the most important poet of his day. He is considered part of the Beirut group, a circle of leading Arab poets who blazed new paths in modern Arabic poetry and prosody. He is the recipient, together with Syrian poet Adonis, of the Oweis Cultural Prize in 2004 in recognition of his lifelong and transformative contributions to Arabic literature.

Darwish's works have been translated into more than 20 languages, and are included in several anthologies of international poetry. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards including the Mediterranean Prize in 1980, the Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres in 1997, and the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001.

7.Which of his works have been translated into English?

Precious little of Darwish's works have been translated into English. Works available in English are:
  • Memory for Forgetfulness, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, 1995.

  • The Adam of Two Edens, edited by Munir Akash and Daniel Moore, 2000.

  • Unfortunately It Was Paradise, translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein, 2003.

  • The Raven's Ink, translated and edited by Munir Akash, Carolyn Forche, Amira El-Zein, and Sinan Antoon.

  • Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone, translated by Jeffrey Sachs, 2006.

  • The Butterfly's Burden, translated by Fady Joudah, 2006.

8.What is the most important aspect of his legacy?

Darwish's transformative work made poetry accessible to people from all walks of life. His language, though musical and eloquent, bore no resemblance to florid styles of classical Arabic poetry. His poems were made of the cadence and imagery of real Palestinian life in a new and accessible Arabic that readers throughout the Arab world could appreciate. He was the rare Arab artist whose work changed and grew richer with each new experiment, and who strove always to remain true to his craft and his calling, in spite of the demands of a highly politicized audience.

9. Will any of his works be published posthumously?

Darwish is said to have left behind some new poems, and it is generally thought that a publication is forthcoming. He also left a treasure trove of poetry and prose that has yet to be translated into English.


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