Mahmoud Darwish, Leading Palestinian Poet, Is Dead at 67
New York Times: August 10, 2008
JERUSALEM — Mahmoud Darwish, whose searing lyrics on Palestinian exile and tender verse on the human condition led him to be widely viewed as the pre-eminent man of Palestinian letters as well as one of the greatest contemporary Arab poets, died Saturday night in Houston after complications from heart surgery. He was 67.
Mr. Darwish, a heavy smoker, was known to suffer from health problems. Still, his death was received among Palestinians with shock and despair.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, declared three days of mourning on Sunday, saying that Mr. Darwish was “the pioneer of the modern Palestinian cultural project,” adding, “Words cannot describe the depth of sadness in our hearts.”
Yasir Abed Rabbo, secretary of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberaion Organization, said, “No one could have imagined that Mahmoud’s voice could disappear.”
The Palestinian Authority will give Mr. Darwish a state funeral in the West Bank on Tuesday, the first since Yasir Arafat died in 2004.
Twice divorced with no children, Mr. Darwish had the straight hair, wire-rim glasses and blue blazer of a European intellectual and was, paradoxically for someone seen as the voice of his people, a loner with a narrow circle of friends. He was uncomfortable in public, where he was widely recognized, but he cared deeply about young Arab writers and published their work in the Ramallah-based journal that he edited, Al Karmel.
And while he wrote in classical Arabic rather than in the language of the street, his poetry was anything but florid or baroque, employing a directness and heat that many saw as one of the salvations of modern literary Arabic.
“He used high language to talk about daily life in a truly exceptional way,” said Ghassan Zaqtan, a Palestinian poet and a close friend. “This is someone who remained at the top of Arabic poetry for 40 years. It was not simply about politics.”
Nonetheless, politics played a major role in Mr. Darwish’s life and work. Born to a middle-class Muslim farming family in a village near Haifa in what is today Israel, Mr. Darwish identified strongly with the secular Palestinian national movement long led by Mr. Arafat.
Mr. Zaqtan and Mr. Abed Rabbo said he was the author of Mr. Arafat’s famous words at the United Nations General Assembly in 1974: “I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
He also wrote the Palestinian declaration of independent statehood in 1988 and served on the executive committee of the P.L.O. But he quit in the early 1990s over differences with the leadership and moved firmly out of the political sphere, lamenting the rise of the Islamist group Hamas and what he viewed as the bankruptcy of Palestinian public life.
Mr. Darwish first gained a following in the 1960s for his frank political poems, and to some extent they remain the source of his fame. Among his best known was “Identity Card” from 1964, in which he attacked Israel’s desire to overlook the presence of Arabs on its land:
“Write down!/I am an Arab/ and my identity card number is 50,000/I have eight children/And the ninth will come after a summer.”
It ends: “Therefore!/Write down on the top of the first page:/I do not hate people/Nor do I encroach/But if I become hungry/The usurper’s flesh will be my food/Beware .../Beware ... /Of my hunger/And my anger.”
There were other harsh political works in the following two decades, but those who knew Mr. Darwish said he had often expressed little pride in them, preferring his more personal and universal poems. He told The New York Times in a 2001 interview in Paris: “Sometimes I feel as if I am read before I write. When I write a poem about my mother, Palestinians think my mother is a symbol for Palestine. But I write as a poet, and my mother is my mother. She’s not a symbol.”
During the war that led to Israel’s independence, Mr. Darwish and his family, from the Palestinian village of Al Barweh, left for Lebanon. The village was razed but the family sneaked back across the border into Israel, where Mr. Darwish spent his youth.
Politically active fairly early, he was arrested several times and was a member of the Israeli Communist Party. He left in 1971 and lived in the Soviet Union, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and France.
After Mr. Arafat set up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza in the mid-1990s, Mr. Darwish came to live in Ramallah, where he rented a house. He said he never really felt at home there — he made clear that exile for him was increasingly an emotional rather than a purely political dilemma — and wrote more comfortably when in Europe.
He maintained a wide circle of literary acquaintances, including Israelis, and he said he fully supported a two-state solution.
His work earned him a number of international literary awards and was translated into more than 20 languages, more than any other contemporary Arab poet, according to Mahmoud al-Atshan, a professor of Arabic literature at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
There was at first some question of where he would be buried, as some close to him sought to persuade Israel to let him be buried in the area of his home village. But the mayor of Ramallah said Mr. Darwish would be buried in Ramallah, the effective Palestinian capital of the West Bank.