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Home > Life & Culture > Literature
Roundtable on Mahmoud Darwish
IMEU, Sep 12, 2008

Today marks the end of the traditional forty-day mourning period in Palestine and across the Arab world for one of the Arab world's most adored and influential thinkers - Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away at the age of 67 on August 9. Darwish was the recipient of several international awards and his poetry has been translated into 35 languages. On this occasion, the IMEU asked four lovers of his poetry - Palestinian and non-Palestinian - to discuss their experience with his work, the impact Darwish has had on their lives, and what his legacy means to them.

  • Ibtisam Barakat - Palestinian American writer, author of Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood.

  • Oraib Khalifeh - Palestinian American woman, fan of Darwish's poetry.

  • Andy Barker - High School Teacher, Humanities, Shorecrest High School, Shoreline, WA.

  • Diana Buttu - Palestinian-Canadian, Lawyer and friend of the late Mahmoud Darwish.


1. What do you think the passing of Mahmoud Darwish means to the Palestinian people?

Ibtisam Barakat - It means that it's now our turn - the Palestinian writers, poets, thinkers, in solidarity with all humans around the world who wish to see humanity heal from its wounds - uphold the torch of the Palestinian voice in its cry for justice and human rights. Darwish taught us to not be silent... And in his speaking up for us when we were in too much pain and could not utter a word, he was our witness and held our memory together. He was a leader of our spirits. When he was in exile and I was growing up under occupation, I felt he was like a bird that sat at the gate of our large prison. Quickly we learned his songs and sang with him. Now that I live in the US, I know that following the compass of Darwish's words, Palestinians find one another in the internal and external Diaspora that has been forced onto our lives. He gave us a map that included us, let us exist in our full humanity, a map no one can alter in order to erase our identity.

Oraib Khalifeh - Darwish put the ordinary words of the Palestinians in a poetic form and made us all remember them. Although his death is a big loss, Palestine is big enough to produce more talents.

Andy Barker - He belonged to the first generation of Palestinians to grow up with the reality of Israel as a hostile neighbor and occupying force. His poetry has helped to set a tone and a tradition for today's writers, artists, film-makers in defining what it means to be a Palestinian - a tone that combines hope, defiance, pride, love, and anger.

Diana Buttu - Mahmoud Darwish's passing affected virtually every Palestinian. Darwish was the voice of a dispossessed, stateless people who used words to convey not only that dispossession but the hope that one day Palestine would be free. His writing encompassed all of the emotions that Palestinians have felt for more than six decades: hopelessness, helplessness, anger, love, power, defiance and hope. Irrespective of political allegiance - or lack thereof - Darwish served as a unifying force for Palestinians. With his passing I feel that Palestinians have been orphaned. That said, though Darwish is gone, he has not left us. Future generations of Palestinians will be inspired by his works as they learn of our painful history, beautifully transcribed.

2. Do you read Darwish in Arabic or in translation? When or how were you first introduced to Darwish's poetry? Do you have a favorite poem or collection and why?

Ibtisam Barakat - I read Darwish in Arabic, and I translate his work as needed too. And I read translations of his work. Darwish wrote his first collection of poetry before I was born. So as I grew up, he always was there, my dad, my mom, the blue sky, the olive trees,  the occupation pressing down on our lives, and the words of Darwish standing up to the occupation. I read him in graffiti on the streets of the West Bank, on refugee camp walls, in chants in demonstration, and memorized his poems... he gave us a language... And we loved our language through his words...

I love much, much of Darwish's work... And my favorite poem today is one of his last... It's called "Think of Others." Because it is the core of what needs to happen for the entire world to heal... One must think of others...

Oraib Khalifeh - I read his poetry in Arabic. I was first introduced to his Poetry in my 1st year of college, all the Palestinian girls in the dorm would quote him when they drank their coffee "I long for my mother's coffee, and my mother's touch". That is my favorite of his poems, entitled "My Mother". He says, "And I love my life/because if were to die/I would be ashamed to bring her to tears." I also love "ID # 50000" popularly known as "Record, I am an Arab." In my mind this is what I fear the most ...we become numbers...not human.

Andy Barker - I have read Darwish only in translation. I was first introduced to his work (along with the writings of Fadwa Tuqan, Ghassan Kanafani, and a few others) at a workshop for high school teachers about Palestinian literature and culture, back in the early 1990s. My students always react to the pride, anger, and concrete imagery of "Identity Card." Students respond to the narrator's frustration at the unfairness experienced by a people who have found their sense of identity erased, rewritten, and limited by an occupying power.

Diana Buttu - I have read Darwish in Arabic and in English translation. But nothing compares to hearing Darwish read his works. The words come alive - they jump from the page and you are left on the edge of your seat waiting for the next word to roll off his lips. It is magic.

The first poem that I read was "Identity Card" and the stanza haunts me now as much as it haunted me then:
Record on the top of the first page: I do not hate people
nor do I encroach
but if I become hungry
the usurper's flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
and my anger!

I cannot point to a single favorite piece - they all have moved me. He gave us voice to things that were difficult to cope with: exile, alienation and siege. He translated his - and our - personal experiences in order for us to be able to cope. For example, his 1960s piece, "Concerning Hopes," serves as an inspirational piece for those who feel that there is no hope for Palestine while "State of Siege" gave voice to those of us left speechless by the brutality of Israel's siege of Palestine. His 2007 piece "From Now On, You are Not Yourself" similarly gave voice to those of us left speechless by Palestinian in-fighting as he criticized and ridiculed the reasons for such fighting. But his words were not just poetry. For example, Arafat's 1974 speech before the UN, written by Darwish, still rings true to this day: "Don't let the olive branch fall from my hand."

3. Do you think that Darwish's work can be characterized as resistance poetry?

Ibtisam Barakat - Yes. When one is being choked and choked by practices that aim to destroy one's humanness, home, culture, one simply resists. It's not a choice if one wants to live. But the question is how to resist violence without becoming the violence one resists!

Many people from Arab countries, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the US know the word of Darwish and relate to it. He was local and universal. Who in the world would not be able to relate to missing their mother! Words that symbolized the state of exile for the Palestinians in the most universal of words...but also could reach the farthest points of the human heart...

Darwish's work spans more than four decades, and it changed greatly, especially after 1982. He changed as a living and growing poet... Darwish's work is resistance poetry, but the kinds and styles of resistance vary. In the initial books he was direct, political, resisting the occupation and the take-over of Palestine. Later he matured into a humanistic viewpoint which I love... He transcended limitations of culture...

Oraib Khalifeh - This is a difficult question. As I said before, he puts ordinary people's words into poetry... Ordinary people are in a resistance mode the whole time yes, his poetry is resistance poetry.

Andy Barker - Absolutely. Like Pablo Neruda, Darwish embraces the breadth of human experience, but also gives voice to the specific experiences of oppression. I sense a strong commitment in his poetry to his people and their cause.

Diana Buttu - Yes. Resistance takes many forms and in the case of Palestine, I believe that the most important - and effective - form of resistance for Palestinians is to continue to hold firm to a Palestinian identity. Without this, the demands for freedom will fall. In fact, in 1948, Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion was reported as saying, "We should do whatever it takes to prevent the Palestinians from coming back to their homes. The old will die and the young will forget." Ben-Gurion didn't anticipate that a young poet, dispossessed by Israel's actions, would ensure that the young would never forget.

4. What do you think of as the most significant contribution Darwish made to his readers?

Ibtisam Barakat - That he wrote. That he gave us a voice in areas where we ourselves were silent because of our pain... and silence brings with it the threat of death without anyone knowing. He never left us silent in our suffering... and spoke for us while we put our energies into surviving. If one can sing, hope is not too far off, and he gave us many songs to last lifetimes.

From collection to collection of poetry, Darwish's language and poetry grew and matured before the reader like a moon, filling with beauty and light.

Oraib Khalifeh - I enjoyed his earlier poetry just because it was SIMPLE, in my opinion that was his best contribution, putting overwhelming emotions into simple words.

Andy Barker - That is hard for me to say, because the only readers I know are my students who live in a small suburban community in the northwest corner of America. For them, Darwish's contribution is to render the lives of Palestinians as beautiful, compelling, and human. This is so critical, because the only image of Palestinians they get otherwise, is the characterization overwhelmingly portrayed in mainstream US media of Palestinians as deranged suicidal terrorists.

Diana Buttu - Darwish's contribution - other than his words - is the feeling that no matter how bad things are, no matter how desperate things become, that Palestinians are truly amazing people who, despite the oppression, exile, and alienation, will always remember Palestine and work for its liberation.

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