The poetry of absence: remembering Mahmoud Darwish five years on

Portrait of Mahmoud Darwish illuminated by candles

Mahmoud Darwish wove the poetry of politics and protest with the wonder of life and love.

Jamal Nasrallah EPA

Exiled. Stateless. Displaced. Dispossessed. Uprooted. Refugee.

Each word shatters the myth of human progress and our essential humanity. Mahmoud Darwish’s anguished, poetic narrative of his and his people’s exile is the defining expression of that continuing human tragedy that callously, violently turned Palestine into Israel with no place — then or now — for those who belong.

Darwish (1941-2008) described exile thus: “Absent, I come to the home of the absent,” and when he was asked who he is, he responded, “I still do not know.”

His answer can best be understood in his words “Perhaps like me you have no address” while more questions follow and linger heavy with pathos over the human condition:

What’s the worth of a man
Without a homeland,
Without a flag,
Without an address?
What is the worth of such a man?

As an internal refugee in Israel, Mahmoud Darwish’s status was bizarrely given legal recognition as a “present-absent alien.” And then, after 25 years in exile, moving from one foreign city to another — Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis and Paris — he came to see his journey as an epic voyage of the damned: neither here nor there.


To him it was all about dignity. With his poetry, Darwish created a space of belonging that had been lost to him in the reality of his life — an existential reality in which he said “I cannot enter and I cannot go out.”

It was in that space that he wrote his famous early poem “Identity Card”:

Write down I am an Arab
You stole the groves of my forefathers,
And the land I used to till.
You left me nothing but these rocks.
And from them, I must wrest a loaf of bread,
For my eight children.

In that very space of belonging, his fellow exiles flooded in, embracing their Palestinian identity and heritage with the honor that had been returned to them. Mahmoud Darwish had encouraged them to “be present in absence.”

In an interview with Newsweek in 2000 he said poems “can establish a metaphorical homeland in the minds of people. I think my poems have built some houses in this landscape.”

Yet, even as Darwish’s poetry was fueled by his exile, earning him the title of the poet of Palestinian resistance, the genius of the man is in the way he was able to weave the poetry of politics and protest with the wonder of life and love and hope and bring the people with him on the journey of his own aesthetic development that was so important to him the poet.

Fragile dream

In his poem “I Waited for No One” he told those who might feel that hope is but a fragile elusive dream to:

… look behind you to find the dream, go
to any east or west that exiles you more,
and keeps me one step farther from my bed
and from one of my sad skies. The end
is beginning’s sister, go and you’ll find what you left
here, waiting for you.

Perhaps it was his quest for the humanity in all of us that brought him to the attention of literary circles around the world. Here was a Palestinian who, despite the human rights cruelly denied him and his people, was able to see the same ebb and flow of life in the victim and oppressor alike — where love and hate, reason and fear, compassion and tyranny, life and death are no different.

His poetry stroked the human ego even as he admonished it. His words often sung of love and helped the burdened souls soar to places that only his imagination could take them. He challenged people to look inside themselves, to see themselves as they would have others see them.

It is through him that the world is able to peer through a window of Palestine and be drawn not only into the human catastrophe it helped create, but to see the Palestinians as no less human than themselves.

Non-Arab audiences saw in his poetry that forgiveness, reconciliation and a moving forward are all possible when the Palestinians are treated with respect and dignity that is their due, neither more nor less than is due to others.

Darwish’s art was born and nourished out of his exile. Darwish said: “The man who is in harmony with his society, his culture, with himself, cannot be a creator. And that would be true even if our country were Eden itself” (“A poet’s Palestine as metaphor,” The New York Times, 22 December 2001).

Nevertheless he lamented, “How difficult it is to be Palestinian, and how difficult it is for a Palestinian to be a writer or a poet … How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times?” (“The laureate of all Arabs,” The Guardian, 12 August 2008).


Despite these misgivings, Mahmoud Darwish did build on his literary accomplishments.

He was not just a poet revered by the Arab world. His books and poetry have been translated into more than 22 languages.

He won numerous awards, including the 1969 Lotus Prize from the Union of Afro-Asian Writers; in 1983, the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize; in 1993, France’s highest medal, the Knight of Arts and Letters; the Netherlands’ 2004 Principal Prince Claus Award in recognition of his “impressive body of work.”

Even Israel considered introducing his work into the high school curriculum in 2001, until then Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared that “Israel is not ready” for Darwish’s work (“Mahmoud Darwish: Palestine’s poet of exile,” The Progressive, May 2002).

But, it was the 2001 Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom carrying a $350,000 award that brought Darwish’s extraordinary talent into the United States, where he had been virtually unknown. On accepting the award, he said, “I also read the prize at a political level, as perhaps representing a better understanding of the role I have played in my country.”

Poetry has been and is a living, breathing form of expression in the whole Arab world, something that has been lost in the West, if indeed it ever existed in the daily life of Western culture.

It is recited in the form of greetings, advice, warnings, accolades, compliments and for just the sheer pleasure of hearing and saying the words, of being able to finish the lines forgotten, of delighting in remembering a line or two or being praised for being able to recite an hour’s worth of poetry.

Darwish will live on this way among his people. Mahmoud Darwish died on 9 August 2008, yet his spirit remains present even in the absence of his being.

Sonja Karkar is the founder of Women for Palestine, a Melbourne-based human rights group and co-founder of Australians for Palestine, an advocacy group that provides a voice for Palestine at all levels of Australian society. She is the editor of the website and her email address is




Thank you so much for this beautiful tribute to Mahmoud Darwish that we cherish and miss so much.
Darwish not only got the Légion d'Honneur in France, he also got a square in the Latin Quarter close to the Seine named after him in 2010, and is the best selling foreign poet in this country, marvellously translated by his close friend, Elias Sanbar, historian and actually the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, seen here on the left, next to Abu Mazen, the mayor of Paris and the Trio Jubran:
May his memory forever be blessed.


Line by Line I was replacing Israel with India and evoking memories of my homeland in Kashmir which remains occupied and is world's largest militarized zone. Unfortunately we don't have Mahmud Dervish to tell our stories and write about our pain.
Thanks for posting this.