The renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was the first writer that the Palestine Festival of Literature approached with a request to be a Founding Patron. He accepted. He was due to speak at PalFest’s inaugural event in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah in May 2008 but medical reasons prevented him from attending. He sent a letter instead. Darwish passed away three months later in August.
The English translation of his 2008 letter features as the opening piece of This Is Not a Border, a newly published collection of essays, diaries and poems marking a decade of PalFest. Darwish’s letter appears online here for the first time.
I regret that I cannot be here today, to receive you personally.
Welcome to this sorrowing land, whose literary image is so much more beautiful than its present reality. Your courageous visit of solidarity is more than just a passing greeting to a people deprived of freedom and of a normal life; it is an expression of what Palestine has come to mean to the living human conscience that you represent. It is an expression of the writer’s awareness of his role: a role directly engaged with issues of justice and freedom. The search for truth, which is one of a writer’s duties, takes on – in this land – the form of a confrontation with the lies and the usurpation that besiege Palestine’s contemporary history; with the attempts to erase our people from the memory of history and from the map of this place.
We are now in the 60th year of the Nakba. There are now those who are dancing on the graves of our dead, and who consider our Nakba their festival. But the Nakba is not a memory; it is an ongoing uprooting, filling Palestinians with dread for their very existence. The Nakba continues because the occupation continues. And the continued occupation means a continued war. This war that Israel wages against us is not a war to defend its existence, but a war to obliterate ours.
The conflict is not between two “existences,” as the Israeli discourse claims. The Arabs have unanimously offered Israel a collective peace proposal in return for Israel’s recognition of the Palestinians’ right to an independent state. But Israel refuses.
Dear friends, in your visit here you will see the naked truth. Yesterday, we celebrated the end of apartheid in South Africa. Today, you see apartheid blossoming here most efficiently. Yesterday, we celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, you see the wall rising again, coiling itself like a giant snake around our necks. A wall – not to separate Palestinians from Israelis, but to separate Palestinians from themselves, and from any view of the horizon. Not to separate history from myth, but to weld together history and myth with a racist ingenuity.
Life here, as you see, is not a given, it’s a daily miracle. Military barriers separate everything from everything. And everything – even the landscape – is temporary and vulnerable. Life here is less than life, it is an approaching death. And how ironic that the stepping up of oppression, of closures, of settlement expansion, of daily killings that have become routine – that all this takes place in the context of what is called the “peace process;” a process revolving in an empty circle, threatening to kill the very idea of peace in our suffering hearts.
Peace has two parents: Freedom and Justice. And occupation is the natural begetter of violence. Here, on this slice of historic Palestine, two generations of Palestinians have been born and raised under occupation. They have never known another – normal – life. Their memories are filled with images of hell. They see their tomorrows slipping out of their reach. And though it seems to them that everything outside this reality is heaven, yet they do not want to go to that heaven. They stay, because they are afflicted with hope.
In this difficult condition of history, Palestinian writers live. Nothing distinguishes them from their countrymen – nothing except one thing: that writers try to gather the fragments of this life and of this place in a literary text; a text they try to make whole.
I have spoken before of how difficult it is to be Palestinian, and how difficult it is for a Palestinian to be a writer or a poet. On the one hand you have to be true to your reality, and on the other you have to be faithful to your literary profession. In this zone of tension between the long “State of Emergency” and between his literary imagination, the language of the poet moves. He has to use the word to resist the military occupation. And he has to resist – on behalf of the word – the danger of the banal and the repetitive. How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times?
The questions are difficult. But each poet or writer has their own way of writing themselves and their reality. The one historic condition does not produce the one text – or even similar texts, for the writing selves are many and different. Palestinian literature does not fit into ready-made molds.
Being Palestinian is not a slogan, it is not a profession. The Palestinian is a human being, a tormented human being who has daily questions, national and existential, who has a love story, who contemplates a flower and a window open to the unknown. Who has a metaphysical fear, and an inner world utterly resistant to occupation.
A literature born of a defined reality is able to create a reality that transcends reality – an alternative, imagined reality. Not a search for a myth of happiness to flee from a brutal history, but an attempt to make history less mythological, to place the myth in its proper, metaphorical place, and to transform us from victims of history, into partners in humanizing history.
My friends and colleagues, thank you for your noble act of solidarity. Thank you for your brave initiative to break the psychological siege inflicted upon us. Thank you for resisting the invitation to dance on our graves. Know that we are still here; that we still live.
8 May 2008