The poetics of Palestinian resistance

Posters of Mahmoud Darwish are hung on a cactus in his home village of al-Birweh, August 2008. (Isabelle Humphries)

In many ways, Mahmoud Darwish’s life summarizes the Palestinian journey of suffering. He was born in Palestine (in what is today “Israel”), and was forced out of his home by Israeli occupation troops. When he returned (or when he snuck back in as the Israeli occupiers killed thousands of other Palestinians who attempted to return), his village was among the hundreds razed to the ground and erased from the map by Israel — or so thought the Zionists. He did not grow up a radical: as with many Palestinians, Zionism pushed him towards radical politics. He joined the Israeli Communist Party when many Arabs continued to harbor hostility to a party that called for recognition of Israel. He was comfortable in Hebrew and had relations in Israeli society. But as an Arab Palestinian in a state based on religious supremacy and privileges, he could only stand at a distance: he could only stay in the inferior status still reserved for Arab citizens of the state. Darwish was a communist but he also was a free poet. Free and creative poets can’t last long inside the confines of any ideology, and Darwish became a committed poet early on.

His next stage in life was a reflection of the true nature and cruelty of Zionism. The state of Israel, with its military superiority against Arab states, was threatened by the poems of Darwish, just as it is still threatened by the pebbles and stones of Palestinian youngsters. At a time when the entire Arab population of Israel — the original inhabitants of the lands, or those who were not kicked out from their homes — was put under military rule, the state of Israel put this young Palestinian poet under house arrest. His poetry was banned and references to Palestinian attachment to the land were illegal in the settler-colonial state that is Israel. But Darwish would not be muzzled. His standing among the category of what was called “the poets of the occupied territories” (the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani may have been the first one to coin that term and to study that literary phenomenon) only grew and his poetry traveled across the borders. People began circulating his poems and Arabic newspapers avidly published them and people felt that a new energy was sweeping the Arab population in Israel. Imagine a state that puts a young poet under house arrest, and orders him to show up at the police station to report on his … poetry. This is indeed the true nature of Zionism that remains hidden from American media coverage of the Middle East.

Fed up with these constraints, Darwish chose to study in the Soviet Union. Upon re-arriving in the Arab world, he was met with suspicion and hostility in some quarters. How dare he leave Palestine behind? He was hectored everywhere he went, but to his credit he stood his ground. He would explain that his relocation did not mean an abandonment of the cause, and his cause was political — literary. He also was very suspicions of public adulation and once rebuked an audience in Beirut: spare me that public love, he said. He succeeded in staying apart from the masses because he did not want to be a poet-on-demand, or a poet who produces what the masses require for their dosage of venting. You compare the history of Darwish’s poetry with that of his contemporary (a fellow Palestinian communist), Samih al-Qasim. Al-Qasim’s poetry stagnated and he could not grow or develop poetically. Darwish often went against public expectation and developed his own style and his poetry showed remarkable transformation.

Here was the most widely read Arab poet or writer, and yet he was able to insulate himself from Arab public expectations. This should count as a commendable act of courage by an intellectual. His readers wanted him to continue to write and read his poem “Write down, I am an Arab,” and other poems like it, but he refused. He did not want to succumb. Darwish took his poetry, but not himself, extremely seriously, and would express frustrations that his admirers did not understand that. In public reading events, he always preferred reading his latest production, and would get upset when people only wanted to hear his early political (and direct) poetry. Palestine was always woven into his poetry, but the act of reading required more work on the part of the reader.

He settled in Cairo for a while, and he was given an office at the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, which he shared with none other than the late author Naguib Mahfouz. The latter’s obsessive and his meticulous dedication to a daily routine was enough to drive Darwish crazy. Darwish then relocated to Beirut and was given a job at research center affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In Beirut, Darwish thrived because he was able to live a private life. He would travel all around the Arab world, including to Mauritania where he was widely admired, but would not set foot in Saudi Arabia. He once was invited to the androcentric Janadriyyah Festival (a dedication to macho tribal values). Upon learning that it was run by the Saudi National Guard of then Prince Abdullah, Darwish turned it down. He lived through the years of Lebanon’s civil war, and wrote that exceptional poem “Ahmad al-Za’tar” about the fall of Tal al-Za’tar refugee camp. No other poem captures the spectrum of the Palestinian journey of exile and resistance better (it was such a powerful poem that it was put to music twice, by Marcel Khalifeh and Ziyad Rahbani).

The literary project of Mahmoud Darwish was most impressive. He was able to constantly transform himself and resist public pressures. He wrote freely, and his prose was also magnificent. He used language in a way that was unique to him. But his courageous literary stances and creativity were not always matched by political courage. In fact, he was a prisoner of his relationship with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the years. He wrote speeches for him (including that speech by Arafat at the UN in 1974 although it did not read well in the English translation because it was drafted by Darwish poetically) and the empty Palestinian “declaration of independence” in 1988. Darwish denied that he wrote “In Praise of the High Shadow” for Arafat, although he did not hide his admiration for Arafat. He did break with Arafat after Oslo, when he resigned from the Executive Committee of the PLO. Arafat, always the vindictive man, punished him mercilessly and cut off all funding to him. This later served to soften Darwish’s criticism of Oslo.

Darwish grew more radical when he relocated to Ramallah after Oslo at the invitation of Arafat. He lived under yet another Israeli siege, and wrote another brilliant poem, called “State of Siege.” He became more distrustful of Israel which he accused of only wanting to deal with Arabs through fighter jets and tanks. He wondered in an an interview on a Lebanese TV station in 2002 whether it is possible to have peace with a state that failed after 60 years to make peace with its “Arab” citizens. But he urged hope among the Palestinians: he talked about “raising hope.” He harbored no illusions about Arab governments — all Arab governments. He wrote in that famous poem “In Praise of the High Shdadow” that Arab rulers only know speech-making and … fleeing.

Darwish gained international stature and unlike other Arab poets did not seek the Nobel Prize in literature nor tailor his positions or his poetry to suit the sensibilities of the Nobel committee. In that, Darwish was free. He lived a life of solitude in Amman, Jordan and did not mingle much, especially in Amman. It was said that Darwish was most fond of Syrian audiences — the Syrian people are known for their appreciation of the Arabic language and the Syrian educational system pays attention to the teaching of proper Arabic grammar. It is said that he favored reading his poetry in Damascus to any other place. But Darwish did not only change his own style of poetry, he was capable of changing the taste of the masses. People may not understand this, but this is a man who used to read his poetry in filled-to-capacity sports stadiums. Amid the Western media obsessions with Middle East violence and terrorism, media coverage often miss important aspects of Arab lives. In the US, the media constantly reinforce the racist caricature that Arabs pray and toss grenades and do nothing else. Believe it or not, they love, they eat and drink, and they read poetry — which is as central in contemporary Arab culture as it is marginal in American culture.

After 1982, Darwish relocated to Paris where he wrote for a new magazine, Al-Yawm al-Sabi’ (which was edited by Bilal al-Hasan and Joseph Samahah). The magazine did not waver in its loyalty to Arafat, but it contained new styles and methods. Darwish became more known in the West and the international recognition pleased him, but he did not seek it. In the Arab world, he was one of the few best sellers. His books were the only ones that made money for their publishers even though pirated copies circulated widely. His new poems would be instantly published in newspapers and they were eagerly awaited in book form.

One reads Mahmoud Darwish and one reads a history of Palestine. American obituaries of the man missed the entire picture. As if they were talking about another person, The New York Times implied that his village was razed by unknown assailants, and glossed over the fact that the Israeli government arrested him for his poetry. But Darwish’s poetry did not only express romantic celebration of Palestine. It also celebrated the resistance, and this resistance began before Darwish was born, and it will continue long after his death until full return and full liberation.

As’ad AbuKhalil is professor of political science at California State University and founder of the Angry Arab News Service (

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