Mahmud Darwish, The Voice of Palestine Passes Away
by Omid Safi
Mahmud Darwish, the incomparable Palestinian poet and visionary, and the foremost representative of the hopes and dreams of Palestinians since Edward Said, has passed away on August 9th.
When the news of Darwish’s passing came out, it was front-page news on Al-jazeera. The Telegraph covered his passing, as did admirers from Malaysia to Ramallah in Palestine. Meanwhile, American sites like CNN featured crucial news like the passing away of Bernie Mac and John Edwards’ infidelity. Today, while Al-Jazeera continues to honor Mahmud Darwish with an extensive video tribute, CNN features on their front page: Family dog chases 200-lb bear up a tree. It is not just that the Palestinians’ humanity takes a backseat to that of Israelis, it is also buried underneath “America’s Funniest Videos” masquerading as news. No wonder so many around the world despair of America ever being an honest peace-broker in this conflict that for many is not only a political conflict, it is a moral cause. We can’t even sea or hear the anguish of Palestinians, so busy we are being entertained.
Darwish, like all great postcolonials, spoke out against multiple injustices, both the injustice of one’s own community and the oppression forced on one. He spoke against the infighting between Hamas and Fatah, calling it a “a public attempt at suicide in the streets” and again spoke against Hamas’ takeover of Gaza. Initially part of PLO, Darwish resigned after profound disagreements with Yasser Arafat. When Arafat complained that Palestinians had been ungrateful towards him, Darwish shot back: “Find yourself another people then.” Like that other beacon of light from Palestine, Edward Said, Darwish was a thorn in the sight of both Israeli oppression and Palestinian corruption.
And yet, not all injustices are equal. Darwish always remembered the greater injustice, the larger context: the 60 year occupation of Palestine by Israel, referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba, “the Catastrophe.” The world this year celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the modern nation-state of Israel, and how rarely did we stop to remember that the joyous founding of Israel for some was made possible through the violent exile of some 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homelands.
This loss was personal for Darwish: he was born in the village of Barweh, one of the 531 Palestinian villages razed to the ground and depopulated as part of the violent Zionist campaign to purge Palestine of its original inhabitants and replace them with Jewish settlers.
It was Darwish who in 1988 wrote the Palestinians’ Declaration of Independence. Darwish’s writings were one of the best ways of giving voice to this dispossession, this loss of land, life, identity, yet refused to give in to hopelessness and despair:
But we have an incurable malady: hope.
Hope in liberation and independence.
Hope in a normal life where we are neither heroes nor victims.
Hope that our children will go safely to their schools.
Hope that a pregnant woman will give birth to a living baby,
at the hospital, and not a dead child in front of a military checkpoint;
hope that our poets will see the beauty of the color red in roses
rather than in blood;
hope that this land will take up its original name:
the land of love and peace.
Thank you for carrying with us the burden of this hope.
Perhaps the greatest way of honoring this poet, this visionary, is to carry on this hope. For many progressives worldwide, the Palestinian/Israeli tragedy remains an open wound, a symbol of the ongoing injustice that entails not only Palestinian suffering but also the very sullying of the Jewish hope for sovereignty, coming at the expense of another people.
Moral outrage and righteous anger are easy, and not lacking in our age. The question is: can they be wed to a love for all, where love and justice go hand in hand, and we continue the “incurable malady of hope” that Darwish so tenderly wrote about. In looking at the malady of the Palestinians, going on for three generations now, it would be easy to give into hate and despair. Yet Darwish said to the Israeli paper Haaretz: “I do not despair. I am patient and am waiting for a profound revolution in the consciousness of the Israelis. The Arabs are ready to accept a strong Israel with nuclear arms - all it has to do is open the gates of its fortress and make peace.”
One of the most tender poems of Darwish wove together his memories of childhood and his mother, in that lovely way in which the political and the personal illuminate each other:
I long for my mother’s bread,
And my mother’s coffee,
And her touch.
Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day.
I must be worthy of my life
At the hour of my death
Worthy of the tears of my mother.
Whether this mother was his own mother, or the motherland of Palestine, Darwish lived such a worthy life.
Darwish’s words have often been censored. In 2000, the Israeli government shot down a plan to include some poetry from this national poet of Palestine in their curriculum. Darwish astutely observed: “The Israelis do not want to teach students that there is a love story between an Arab poet and this land…I just wish they’d read me to enjoy my poetry, not as a representative of the enemy.”
As I write these words, there is an ongoing debate about whether the Israelis will allow the body of Darwish to be buried in his beloved homeland. For a people who have lived in exile and dispossession for 60 years, it is a bitter reminder that exile and dispossession continue even after death. Yet here is a final reminder: Jews, Muslims, and Christians, are all part of a shared legacy where God speaks to humanity in words, through words. Words carry the message of God, words to rebuke, words to remind, and words to remind. The age of revelation may have come to an end, but the age of inspired words carry on. The forces of injustice may exile people in their life and death, but here is hoping that inspired words, like those of Darwish, continue to bring humanity together, and come up with a just solution to this acute moral and political crisis of our times.