It is hard to talk about modern Palestinian culture without mentioning Mahmoud Darwish. The late Palestinian “poet laureate,” one of the greatest poets writing in Arabic in the twentieth century, Darwish’s brilliance looms large, six years after his death.
It is surprising, then, that until now there has been no accessible account of his life and work. Volumes of academic analysis exist, but with Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and his Nation, Libyan poet and critic Khaled Mattawa offers lay readers the first overview of the man, his writing and their place in the cultural landscape.
This isn’t a biography. Although one would be fascinating, Darwish always insisted that his poetry should represent his life story. So this book doesn’t feature salacious speculations into the identity of his Israeli lover, “Rita,” or probing into his marriages. Rather, The Poet’s Art takes the events of Darwish’s life as a framework within which to fit discussions of his writing and its political and cultural context.
Aside from some introductory framing, the book is laid out chronologically, beginning with the well-known story of Darwish’s family fleeing to Lebanon during the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, returning later to find their village destroyed.
Mattawa traces the influences of life under the early State of Israel on Darwish’s poetry, including his experiences of imprisonment and house arrest for writing and traveling “without a permit” to deliver his poems to audiences across the Galilee.
Mattawa describes the tensions within Darwish’s feelings about literature during this period. On the one hand was his belief in adab al-itizam, the “committed literature” of the 1960s which was firmly rooted in political practice, emphasizing the need for art to be accessible to “the people.” On the other was the desire to write poetry that came from within.
One result of this was the way in which much of Darwish’s work in this period eroticizes and feminizes Palestine: she is a beautiful, desirable woman, lost or stolen away. To a detached reader, these could be the poems of a lusty young man, but once placed in the context of Darwish’s daily life, their subtext becomes clear. The ambiguity was also a means to smuggle nationalist sentiments past the Israeli censor.
They were largely cut off from new trends in Arabic literature, with occasional books and magazines smuggled into Israel. So, despite their political differences, Darwish came to admire and love the work of Haim Bialik, the Zionist poet who preached Jewish self-defense after witnessing the aftermath of pogroms in the Ukraine. According to Mattawa, Darwish read the revolutionary Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca in Hebrew translation for the rest of his life.
This mirrored the complexities of Darwish’s relationships with Israeli artists. He worked to bring Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli writers together and was criticized by some Arab commentators for his sympathetic portrayal of Israeli figures. As Mattawa puts it, “Darwish instinctively knew that in order to assert the humanity of his people, he needed likewise to assert the humanity of his adversaries.” But Darwish also believed in the political necessity of “penetrating Israeli intellectual circles,” and supported the armed Palestinian resistance.
Palestine’s cultural representatives
Although Mattawa is fundamentally an admirer of Darwish, celebrating his blend of technical mastery and vivid images, his book is not a hagiography on the personal or aesthetic levels. He admits — as Darwish himself did — that his poetry of the 1970s erred too far on the side of politics over aesthetic excellence, and that like the Palestinian resistance itself, Palestine’s cultural representatives found themselves needing to spend the 1980s seeking routes for renewal and revivification.
One of the ways in which Darwish achieved this was through his work alongside the great Palestinian writer and critic Edward Said. As Mattawa puts it, Darwish and Said produced two “masterpieces” of Palestinian culture almost contemporaneously — Darwish’s Lesser Roses and Said’s After the Last Sky. The two men certainly influenced one another, and worked closely to create the declaration of Palestinian independence in 1988, crafting the Arabic and English versions together.
This makes it all the more striking that both Said and Darwish were amongst the most prominent critics of the Oslo accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in the mid-1990s. Although Darwish lived the rest of his life based in Palestinian Authority-ruled Ramallah, artistically he spent that time exploring new limits, fighting creative rather than political battles.
As Mattawa points out, this included “undermin[ing] a paradigm he had championed for years,” moving away from the idea of Palestine as romantic beloved as “an unsatisfactory solution to collective trauma.” In the reverse of Darwish’s early works, in The Stranger’s Bed, Penelope, wife of Ulysses, says “I am not a land/ or a journey/ I am a woman, no less and no more.”
And although Darwish’s more “difficult” later poetry may never have been as popular as his earlier work, Mattawa sees him as having “offered … his credibility as a cultural figure to bridge a public reared on traditional poetics to the new poets” of Palestine. This highlights one of this book’s most important acts: deconstructing the idea of a monolithic body of work labeled “Mahmoud Darwish,” and allowing the changing circumstances, ideas, politics and artistic practices of the poet’s life to show through in all their complexities.
This isn’t a lengthy book — the text comes in at 174 pages — but it acts as a useful bridge between the academic scholarship on Darwish and the general reader. It is particularly useful in that as well as applying literary theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Gayatri Spivak to Darwish’s work, Mattawa engages with Arabic literary criticism from figures such as Raja al-Naqqash, Ahlam Yahya and Adel Usta — important, insightful writers whose work is largely inaccessible to Western audiences.
For the reader seeking a clear-eyed, unsentimental, yet admiring and in-depth look at Darwish’s work and the historic events in which he wrote, this is an excellent book. For an academic publisher, the price tag isn’t outrageous, but it is to be hoped that Syracuse University Press make a paperback edition available in the near future.
Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.