"Absent, I come to the home of the absent," the leading Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, writes. No other poet captures the Palestinian consciousness and collective memory the way he does. At sixty-one, whether he is giving a reading in Paris or Palestine, he draws crowds of thousands, from government officials to schoolteachers, taxi drivers to students.
In his latest collection, Judarieh (Mural), the poet finds himself in between love and death, wondering which of the two will conquer. "After the stranger's night, who am I?" Darwish writes. So, when I speak to him by phone on March 22, I ask him who he is. He rapidly responds, "I still do not know."
On many occasions he has expressed the notion that only poetry can bring harmony to a world devastated by war: "Against barbarity, poetry can resist only by confirming its attachment to human fragility like a blade of grass growing on a wall while armies march by," he has written. I ask him if he still believes that.
"I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe," he responds, "but now I think that poetry changes only the poet."
Darwish has published twenty books of poetry, five books of prose, and his books have been translated into more than twenty-two languages. He has won numerous awards, including the Lotus Prize (1969); the Lenin Peace Prize (1983); France's highest medal, the Knight of Arts and Letters (1993); and this April he will be honored with the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom.
"I am still not a poet, and sometimes I regret I chose this way," he tells me. Still, he is finishing his forthcoming book of poetry, State of Siege.
His work speaks of his internal exile and uprootedness, his meditations on his historical, collective, and personal past. Many of his poems mirror the loss of homeland, the frustrations of being under siege, of being occupied. Here is a couplet from "The Earth Is Closing on Us":
Where should we go after the last frontiers,
where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Other poems allude to myths, draw parallels between the Native American and the Palestinian experiences, speak of his mother, or address a Jewish lover. In "Rita and the Rifle," he writes:
Between Rita and my eyes
There is a rifle. . . .
What before this rifle could have turned my eyes
In "A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies," he writes to his Jewish friends:
I want a good heart
Not the weight of a gun's magazine.
I refuse to die
Turning my gun my love
On women and children.
He describes Palestine as a metaphor--for exile, for the human condition, for the grief of dislocation and dispossession. In "Eleven Planets in the Last Andalusian Sky," he writes:
I'm the Adam of two Edens lost to me twice:
Expel me slowly. Kill me slowly
With Garcia Lorca
Under my olive tree.
Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of Birweh in the upper Galilee of Palestine. The creation of Israel in 1948 meant the wiping of Palestine off the map and the destruction of 417 Palestinian villages. Darwish's village was one of them. The same year, he fled with some members of his family to Lebanon. Months later, he returned "illegally," but too late to be included in Israel's census of the Palestinian Arabs who remained. There was no record of his existence. Thus started his absent-present status. When Darwish eventually left in 1970, his absence made him even more present in the consciousness of Palestinians, and his poems became extremely popular, especially "Identity Card," written in 1964, and excerpted here:
I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged . . .
Early on, he discovered he could write, and that his words were weapons. Darwish tells me that his childhood dream was to be a poet, adding that he published his first poem when he was about twelve years old. "It was not a love poem," he says. "I described our journey from Palestine to Lebanon."
Darwish published his first collection when he was about eighteen or nineteen years old. Some were love poems, he says, and some were political poems. "I was very strongly influenced by Al-Mutanabbi and the Mahjar poets (emigrant poets such a Kahlil Gibran) and modern Arab poets such as Qabbani, Al-Sayyab," he says. When I ask if any Western poets influenced him, he says, "Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Yeats, and today, Derek Walcott is probably my favorite poet. I also like the Polish poets, especially Symborska."
In 1960, Darwish graduated from high school and moved to Haifa, where he became editor and translator for al-Ittihad daily and al-Jadid weekly, published by the Rakah (Communist) Party. In 1970, the poet left for Moscow to study political economy, and from then on his life was one migration after another. In 1971, he arrived in Cairo to work for Al-Ahram daily. It was the first time he went to an Arab country, the first time he saw everything written in Arabic.
In 1973, he went to Beirut, where he edited Palestinian Affairs, published by the Center for Palestinian Studies. He joined the P.L.O. soon after and played a significant role in it. And he became the unofficial poet of Palestine, a description he rejects. "I do not like the label; it is a burden," he says to me.
In 1981, he founded and became editor of the pioneering literary journal Al Karmel. But the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon led the poet on yet another migration, this time to Tunis and Cairo, and he eventually settled in Paris. In 1993, he resigned from the P.L.O. Executive Committee and protested the Oslo accord, saying that he wanted peace but a fair one. Darwish says that real peace means being equal with the Israeli society, and that the Palestinian people should have the right to return, that the question of the refugees, of Jerusalem, of the settlements should be resolved, and of course, Palestinians must have the right to self-determination.
After thirteen years in Paris, Darwish immigrated to Jordan in 1995, and in 1996 started living between Amman and Ramallah, where he continues to edit Al Karmel. During a brief visit in 1995 to Galilee and Jerusalem (Israel granted him permission to return for the funeral of his friend the writer Emile Habibi, and an unlimited stay in Palestinian self-rule areas of the West Bank), he said that he "felt like a child." Thousands waited for him, welcomed him, told him he was loved, and asked him to stay. He was deeply moved, cried, and said he would never leave. But he was not given permission to stay in his hometown for more than a few days. He still longs to go home, "although I might realize that the harshest exile is in my homeland," he says. Thus, Darwish remains a stranger passing through.
When he lived in Israel, the government harassed him and several times put him in prison or placed him under house arrest for reading his poetry.
In 1988, one of his poems, "Passing Between the Passing Words," was even discussed in the Knesset. He wrote:
So leave our land
Our shore, our sea
Our wheat, our salt, our wound.
Israelis claimed he was demanding that the Jews leave Israel. Darwish disputed that, saying he meant they should leave the West Bank and Gaza.
Yossi Sarid, who was Israel's education minister, suggested in March 2000 that some of Darwish's poems should be included in the Israeli high school curriculum. But Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared, "Israel is not ready."
Darwish insists that terror is not a means to justice. "Nothing, nothing justifies terrorism," he wrote, condemning the September 11 attack on the United States in the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam.
Concerning the current situation, he tells me: "We should not justify suicide bombers. We are against the suicide bombers, but we must understand what drives these young people to such actions. They want to liberate themselves from such a dark life. It is not ideological, it is despair."
I ask him how he sees the future. The Israelis cannot "give us back our house but live in our garden, in our living room," he says, his voice rising. I ask whether a Palestinian state will exist. In a firm voice he tells me, "A Palestinian state already exists." He adds, "The Palestinian people feel that they are living the hours before dawn. Their national will is stronger in reaction to the challenge. They do not have another option but to continue to carry the hope that they are going to have a normal life."
He says there is a simple solution that only seems complicated and that the two sides can resolve the questions of the borders and all the other issues under negotiation. He repeats a number of times, "There is hope."
After a lifetime of longing, perhaps Darwish is too optimistic, too wishful. A few days after our conversation, Israel sends tanks into Ramallah. I call Darwish back, finding him this time in Amman, Jordan. His voice, far and fading, tells me that it is all "so barbaric, so cynical."
But I get the impression that he still feels there is a place to go "after the last frontiers . . . after the last sky."
Nathalie Handal is a poet and writer living in New York and London. She is the author of a poetry book, "The Neverfield" (Post Apollo Press, 1999), and is the editor of an anthology called "The Poetry of Arab Women" (Interlink 2001).