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Remembering Mahmoud Darwish – How the revolution was written

Two years ago today Palestine’s National Poet, Mahmoud Darwish passed away after a 6-month battle with cancer. He was 67. The ensuing reverberations, of loss and mourning and a sense of things left unsaid continue to resonate to this day. On this second anniversary, Ahmed Masoud, Palestinian academic, writer and theatre director, revisits the astonishing achievements of a literary giant. In particular, he guides us through a crucial period in Darwish’s intellectual journey, namely the years 1950-1971 when he was still living in Israel. It's a fitting homage, celebrating the life of a true humanist and the fighting conscience of a nation.

Features, Politics, Profiles - Posted on Monday, August 9, 2010 17:46 - 4 Comments

By Ahmed Masoud

On 09 August 2008, Palestinians were distraught and shocked at the news of the departure of their beloved national poet Mahmoud Darwish. Although his health had been deteriorating for over six months, Darwish’s death was received with grief across the Palestinian nation and the Arab world. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) declared three days of national mourning across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This article aims to explore Darwish’s contribution in building modern Palestinian literature which is considered to be at the core of post 1950 modern Arab literary movement. The focus here will be on his life in Israel between 1950 and 1971.

Born in 1942, in the village of Barwa near Acre, Darwish was one of the 800,000 Palestinians deported during the Palestinian Nakba# of 1948. He lived in Lebanon for eight years until he went back to look for the rest of his family. He discovered that his village was one of the 450 villages razed to the ground by Israelis in 1948. Darwish left Palestine in 1971 to study in the USSR for a year and decided to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1973, when he was banned from re-entering Israel. He lived in Cairo between 1975 and 1981where he worked for Al-Ahram newspaper. Darwish moved to Beirut in 1980 where he became the editor of the journal “Palestinian Issues” and was the director of the Palestinian Research Centre. He returned to Palestine in 1996 after the PNA was born as a result of the Oslo agreement which gave Palestinians self-rule over parts of Gaza and small parts of the West Bank.

Darwish is considered to be the founder of the literature of resistance which was born as a reaction to the loss of the Palestinian homeland and identity. The literature of resistance was developed by Palestinians who remained in Palestine after 1948. Their writing came to express their rejection of the new political climate which branded their national aspirations a form of anti-state terrorism. The enthusiasm and anger of some young poets, like Mahmoud Darwish, developed into a unified and structured literary movement which aimed to encourage resistance of the occupation. No one has described the literature of resistance clearer than Moshe Dayan (1915-1981, Israeli defense minister during the Six Day War in 1967) who said in an interview with Ma’areef newspaper (Israeli daily paper) that “only one poem of Fadwa Tuqan# is enough to create ten Palestinian terrorists” (Quoted from Al-Ayyam, 1997).

This statement was a reflection of the fact that, in the mid-twentieth century, Palestinian poets focused their anger on the Israeli government and the West, describing their countrymen as victims of history and heroes fighting to redeem their people. The main themes in the literary writings of that period, therefore, had been resistance as well as the continuous faith in victory and the right of return. Literature, particularly poetry, took a leadership position in inviting people to start a resistance movement after 1948. The nationalist movement was almost destroyed after the Nakba, Also, there was no national media to discuss national issues. All the small newspapers which operated before the establishment of the state of Israel were destroyed. This left the remaining Palestinian community, almost 200,000 people, unorganized and not represented in the new society. In this context, poetry and the spoken word started taking the lead in representing Palestinian issues.

Mahmoud Darwish is always introduced in his poetry readings as Al-Munadil (the freedom fighter). He was seen not only as a man of letters but also as a leader who was able to eloquently express what his people needed, against any attempts of cultural appropriation.

I will say myself that Palestinians are not merciful to their men of letters. This is because of their faith in the effectiveness of literature which has been to them a compensation for all the humiliations when they lost everything (referring to 1948) except words. Literature then took strength from the people to create a relationship between them and the lost home. A Palestinian writer is often asked: Are you a writer or a freedom fighter? (Kanafani, 1998)

Post 1948 Palestinians were treated as second class citizens in Israel. There were not, for example, any unions for Palestinian workers and Palestinians were not allowed to work in any other job than handy work, mainly building and construction. It is indeed his ability to draw attention to national themes while talking about ordinary human matters like love which brought fame to Mahmoud Darwish. In his first anthology Lover From Palestine (1967), he clearly talks about emotional matters which concerned any young man of his age (25), but his ability to incorporate the young man’s emotional concerns within his national outlook is what makes the anthology unique. At the time of its publication, the Israeli government imposed onerous rules on Arabic-language literary production. Publishing was limited and went through Israeli censorship channels; those who did manage to publish sometimes received funding from Zionist organizations which imposed their own ideological imperatives on the context of the writing. In fact, most publications were not allowed to talk about Palestine and the theme of homeland.

Zionist organizations also encouraged Palestinian writers who were desperate to publish their works in Arabic to promote Zionism as an acceptable social phenomenon. In this political environment, poetry was the medium to express the feelings of resentment because it could spread easier than any other printed literature.

Love poetry was a key element in creating the literature of resistance. Post 1948 Palestinians were disconnected from their own community; the majority left Palestine and the remaining minority felt fragmented because a lot of their family members were either killed or deported. Love poetry became a key element in bridging the gaps between those fragmented communities and created a feeling of security amongst those who remained in Palestine. This form of poetry came to compensate for the inability to express the feelings of oppression which were not allowed to be published. Ten years after the Nakba, love poetry was transformed into a new genre which had the aim of connecting social and national issues in one form. While writers talked about love in order to bring communities together, the sense of homeland was re-established in images, memories and most importantly, hopes of civil and national rights. Poets, then, adopted a resistance mentality whereby the enemy was challenged.

To the rest of the world, however, it still seemed that the Palestinian people did not exist, except as remote statistics. Mahmoud Darwish became the main exponent of the literature of resistance in the sixties, and was, like many fellow poets, often imprisoned by Israeli authorities. He earned international acclaim for his poetry on the Palestine experience, etching with the details of human moments rather than ideology, but constantly imbued with a drive for his people’s dignity.When his poem “A Lover from Palestine” was going to be published, he presented it to the Israeli censor, who crossed out the word `Palestine’ and replaced it with `Eretz Israel (Gabriel, 1998)

Like grass growing among the joints of a rock
We existed as strangers one day
The Spring Sky was composing a star…and a star
And I was composing a love verse
To your eyes I will sing.
Do your eyes know that I have waited very long
Like summer waiting for a bird
And I slept like an immigrant
With one eye awake and the other crying
We are two lovers until the moon falls asleep
And know that hugging and kissing
Are the food of love nights
And that morning is calling for my footsteps to continue
On the path!
We are friends, so walk next to me hand in hand
Together we make bread and songs
Why do we ask this path which fate we are facing?
Let’s just walk for ever
Why do we look for songs of crying
In an old poetry anthology?
And we ask: our love, are you going to be for ever?
I love you like Bedouin tribes love the oasis of grass and water
Like a hungry man’s love to a loaf of bread
Like grass growing among the joints of a rock
We existed as strangers one day (Darwish, 1996)

In this poem, entitled “The Most Beautiful Love”, Mahmoud Darwish is clearly writing to his beloved about his love to her and their future together. He expresses his anxiety about her concern regarding the future, claiming that lovers should not worry about what is to come. However, the political references are hidden among the lines and metaphors of this poem. The first line of the poem expresses how Palestinians have become strangers in their own land. The metaphor of the grass and rock suggests the abnormal situation Palestinians in Israel live in where one, the rock, is more aggressive and hostile and the other, the grass, is more passive and powerless. The writer shows how the birth of the state of Israel destroyed the Palestinian nation and prevented it from growing. “I slept like an immigrant” (Darwish, 1996) is another simile of the situation in Palestine at the time. Post-1948 Palestinians have not enjoyed full civil rights and lived like immigrants in their own country. After the mass deportation/exodus of Palestinians, Israeli government worked on ethnically cleansing those who remained in their homes. They delayed registering them as citizens of the new state and did not grant them residency permits which eventually led to their deportation. The majority of Palestinians after 1948 did not have such a permit and therefore had to move around their own country like immigrants. In response to this idea of the immigrant, the poet continues his poem with reference to Palestinian and Arabic culture which is deeply rooted in the land, he talks of the “old poetry anthologies” and how the Arabs used to cherish poetry and the craft of language from the pre-Islamic era. He also refers to Bedouin tribes travelling in the desert. Darwish connects love with the suffering and hunger of Palestinians when he refers to his love as a “hungry man’s love to a loaf of bread”.

Adopting resistance was not an easy choice for Mahmoud Darwish given there was a political crisis at the time in Israel which was centred on Arabs and their involvement in Israeli political life. Many Israeli parties considered Palestinians to be a dangerous enemy accusing them of not abiding by Israeli civil laws and trying to avenge what happened in 1948. This political crisis led to the creation of a new Arab party, Jabhat Al Ard (The Land Front), which evolved from the Israeli Communist Party. Al-Ard was born out of the need to defend Palestinian identity. Many Palestinians had joined the ICP after the establishment of the state of Israel due to the party’s non sectarian ideology which Palestinians thought might be key to counter the Jewish Zionist ideology. In 1959 Jabhat Al Ard published its first journal, benefiting from an Israeli law which allowed individuals to publish one journal a year. In the same year, Al-Ard published twelve more journals using different names. The last of which was after Nasser’s victory in the Suez crisis (1956). Al-Ard published details of the Israeli defeat and pictures of the Egyptian leader. This journal shocked Israeli officials who did not expect Al-Ard to find such a loophole in the Israeli law. But Israeli officials arrested Al-Ard’s writers and deported its editors.

During that time, love poetry developed to express Palestinian nationalism in a more metaphorical way. One of the important themes which developed out of the love theme was the motherhood topic and its symbolic reference to home. This celebration of land and referring to it as a mother was a necessity in Palestine in the twenty years following the Nakba; it provided an easier connection between social and national themes. This is demonstrated in one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem Ila Ommi “To Mother”. This poem, published in the same anthology A Lover from Palestine, is considered to be a core pamphlet in the building of the literature of resistance. This is because of the writer’s ability to connect both the theme of motherhood and nationhood at times when writing about the latter could lead to imprisonment.

I yearn for my mother’s bread
My mother’s coffee,
My mother’s touch
And childhood grows inside me
Day upon breast of day
And I love my life because
If I died
I’d feel ashamed because of my mother’s tears
Take me (mother), if one day I return,
As a veil for your lashes
And cover my bones with grass
Baptised by the purity of your heel
And fasten my bonds
With a lock made of your hair
With a piece of thread that trails in the train of your dress
Maybe I’d become a god
A god I’d become
If I touched the depths of your heart
Put me, if I return,
As fuel in your cooking stove,
As a clothes line on your rooftop
For I have lost resolve
Without your daily prayer
I have grown decrepit: Give me back the stars of childhood
That I may join
The young birds
On the return route
To the nest of your waiting (Darwish, 1996)

Referring to the bread and coffee being emblematic of Palestinian daily culture, it gives a picture of a peasant woman waking up early to prepare bread for her children. Bread is eaten in almost every meal or at least for breakfast and dinner. Therefore, to start a poem talking about mothers with a reference to bread making is to highlight the existence of different people who cherish their own cultural norms, which are different from the new majority in the new Israeli state. Even coffee is more of an Arabic drink than a European one (indeed, the English word ‘coffee’ comes from the Arabic ‘Qahwa’.)

By connecting Palestinians and motherhood, Darwish was able to present Palestinian cultural identity in a way which Israelis would not be able to punish him for. The poem continues into stronger images of both motherhood and “Palestinianism” or “Arabism” when the poet talks about the beauty of the Arabic woman while veiling her face. The image of a woman veiling her face has recently been connected with extremism, however, in the Arabic culture veiling the face is a way of flirting between men and women. When a woman wants to flirt with a man in the Arab world, she often veils her face to show the beauty of her eyes. It is these images of Arabic culture that the poet is focusing on to bypass Israeli rules. “Put me as a cloth line on your roof top” is a powerful image of how children should be obedient to their mothers and tolerate their mistakes. This image brings to Palestinians their Muslim culture when highlighting the same orders of the Quran which stress the importance of obedience to one’s parents.

The more Darwish renewed the call for resistance, the wider his readership grew and spread across the Arab world. His efforts brought the attention to Palestinian suffering which started to become less important and restricted to refugees and the political divisions between Arab countries. It was in these circumstances that the Al-Hadatha# literary school was born in Palestine. Darwish along with other writers such as Emile Habebi (1992-1996) looked for a form of literature that would communicate the national struggle to a wide audience. He found that writing in traditional poetry was too vague and did not deal with the details of the Palestinian catastrophe. Traditional poetry, in the school’s opinion, focused more on the aesthetics of language and the craft of writing poetry, and did not give writers the freedom to express the changes in their new environment.

Al-Hadatha developed more in Palestine as the struggle for civil rights continued after 1948. Its development came as a result of the Israeli government imposing censorship on Arabic publications particularly on those discussing Palestine and the theme of homeland. This was not only done through close watching of publications but also through creating an uneducated Palestinian population by preventing the establishment of any Arabic school. Even in Jewish/Israeli schools the number of Arab students was restricted. Between 1955 and 1965 the number of Arab students in secondary schools was three per cent . There was only one hundred Palestinian students in higher education institutions. In this period, the Israeli government opened a few elementary schools for Palestinian students but the school curriculum was censored and restricted. The Israeli government banned anything that mentioned Palestine or its history. It also banned Islamic studies which present Jerusalem as an important part of Muslim identity – a subject highly relevant to the Zionist case for creating the state of Israel. In order to bring more Jewish immigrants from across the world, “an imagined community” idea was formulated. The Zionist narrative insisted that Jews were the legal heirs to Palestine and that they had were deported from it two thousand years ago by the Romans. It also claimed that Muslims, seen as subsequent invaders of the land, should therefore be thrown out.

In secondary schools, Palestinian students were treated with negligence. Teachers did not check whether they did their homework and reviews on the development of Arab students were not conducted. This is in addition to the fact that Palestinian students were learning in a new foreign language. About ninety per cent# of Palestinian students at the time left their studies before reaching secondary school in order to support their families and because teaching standards were low. Only the remaining ten per cent succeeded in their studies and not all of them could afford to go to University. Those who managed to reach universities were faced with serious harassment by their colleagues and teachers. Even after this very small minority graduated from university, they faced the challenges of finding a job of their interest within a government which considered them as second class citizens. This situation led to a dearth of education in Palestine and therefore a lack of literary production amongst both the intelligentsia and the public: both were more concerned about living than writing.

Darwish and other writers had to devise a form of literature which would be free of the restriction of the traditional way of writing poetry. This new form had to be easy but sophisticated enough to address the issues that the Nakba created. These issues were mainly represented in the loss of identity as Palestinians were no longer recognized as citizens of any country (to this day, most Palestinians are regarded as stateless). Therefore, Palestinian writers used Al-Hadatha to help them revive the literary movement in Palestine which allowed writers to express their views freely without following any particular method. While the literature of resistance laid down the basis of the new school, other themes became influenced by the new writing style allowing Al-Hadatha to be the dominant literary movement in the region.

In 1969 Mahmoud Darwish was the first to announce his joining of the new resistance ideology, rebelling against all Israeli censorship, when he wrote his famous poem “Write Down, I am an Arab”. This poem became a manifesto for the resistance movement for years to follow and has been read widely and sung by many generations in Palestine and the Diaspora. The strength of the poem comes from both celebrating Arabism and showing the pain involved in being an Arab.

Identity Card
Register me
I am an Arab
Card No. fifty thousand
Children, eight
The ninth will be born next summer
Are you upset?
Register me
I am an Arab
Vocation: cutting stone with comrades
Must cut bread, clothes and books
For the children, you know
I will never stand at your door a beggar
I am an Arab.
Are you angry?
I am nameless
Patient where everything boils with anger
I struck roots here
Before the olive trees and the poplars
A descendent of the plow-pushers
My ancestors, a mere peasant
No family tree
My home, a cottage of reeds
How is that for a man?
Register me
I am an Arab
Colour of hair, jet black
Eyes, brown
Distinguishing features:
A kuffia and Iqal on my head
Hands rock hard and scratchy
Favourite food: olive oil and thime
Address: a forgotten harmless village
Where streets have no names
And all men are in the fields and quarries
Is that good enough?
You have stolen my vineyard
And the land I used to till
You haven’t left anything for my children
Except the rocks
And I hear it said
That your government will expropriate
Event the rocks
Well then
Register first;
I hate nobody
Neither do I steal
But when I am made hungry
Then I will eat the flesh of my oppressor
Beware of my hunger and my anger

This poem comes as a turning point in the development of the Palestinian literature of resistance. It was the first poem to announce a challenge to and a refusal of the political environment that Palestinians had been living under since 1948. The poem talked not only about Arabism as a subject to be proud of, but also ended with a strong political message that encouraged people to resist. “But when I am made hungry, then I will eat the flesh of my oppressor, beware of hunger and anger” is a line which announces that Palestinian patience had run out. The poem was celebrated in Palestine but also across the entire Arab world, mainly for its celebration of Arabism before Palestinianism – a concept cherished by Arab nationalists who stressed on the primacy of pan-Arabism over regional nationalisms. The poem celebrates Arabic culture and puts it forward as being ideal regardless of the hardships Arabs face.

While the poem celebrates Arabic traditions and love of children, it highlights the poor economic situation created by imperialism, mainly Israeli. The poem also comes to assert Arab and Palestinian identity in a state where denial of such identity was dominant. The poet does this by highlighting even the physical characteristics of Arabs/Palestinians, different from those of the European newcomers. He talks about the colour of hair and the colour of eyes, and how identity is imperishable.

You have stolen my vineyard
And the land I used to till
“You haven’t left anything for my children
Except the rocks
And I hear it said
That your government will expropriate
Even the rocks”

This stanza also brings to the surface the main reason behind Palestinian suffering, and thus an explanation of the anger. He is telling the Israeli government that they are making it difficult for Palestinians to live anymore, and that death is their only choice. Therefore, Palestinians have to choose between resisting and trying to change this situation or waiting for their death. This is why the poem ends with a warning: be careful from pushing Palestinians towards death.

The literature of resistance has been the drive of many revolutions in Palestine, the latest of which is the second intifada which broke out in 2000. As well as poetry, the literature of resistance continued to grow in other genres such as novels. With more Diaspora writers, like Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), the literature of resistance grew and spread across to become a school attended by those have suffered the Nakba and its consequences, and who believe in the right of Palestinians for national independence.

Darwish continued to develop this literature of resistance even when he moved outside of Palestine. His ability to reach all sectors of Palestinian society made him Palestine’s national poet. His poems brought more sympathy towards the Palestinian cause and people through the imagery he provided of the suffering of Palestinians. His works have been translated into several languages including English, French, Spanish and Dutch and he won many international awards. In 2001, he won the Lannan prize for cultural freedom. This prize recognizes people “whose extraordinary and courageous work celebrates the human right to freedom of imagination, inquiry, and expression“. As defined by the foundation, cultural freedom is “the right of individuals and communities to define and protect valued and diverse ways of life currently threatened by globalisation”. And so, two years after his death, Mahmoud Darwish continues to be a byword for freedom, and an undying symbol of resistance, courage and sacrifice.

Ahmed Masoud is a Palestinian academic and writer. He grew up in Gaza before moving to the U.K to study for an MA and PhD in comparative literature. He is now working as an educational consultant as well as a freelance theatre director. Ahmed has published a number of articles, book chapters and journals in various academic and mainstream publications. He also directed a number of sell-out theatre productions, including the acclaimed Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea which premièred both in London and Edinburgh, and more recently Between the Fleeting Words, a tribute to Mahmoud Darwish. Masoud has also recently been commissioned to write a play for BBC Radio 4 to be broadcast in January 2011.


1  The term Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic and it refers to the events of 1948 when 800,000 Palestinian were deported and the state of Israel was declared.

2  Palestinian poetess born in 1917, Tuqan is considered to be the founder of the Palestinian feminist nationalist movement which will be discussed in later chapters.

3  Nearest translation is modernism

4  Statistical Databases http://millenniumindicators.un.org/unsd/databases.htm


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Aug 12, 2010 0:25

very interesting article, thank you. I had never heard of this man before so for me this was very enlightening. ‘write down, I am an Arab’ is inspiring. do you know of anywhere (in collections or online) I can read more of his poems which are directly political?

gazi saiful islam
Feb 29, 2012 2:35

I am just going writing a book book on M Darwish. This article will help me to condensed more information on Darwish. Thanks all

Ahmed Masoud
Feb 29, 2012 16:24

Thanks guys, much appreciated. Here is a link to the official website of the late poet, hope you find it useful http://www.mahmouddarwish.com/ui/english/ShowContent.aspx?ContentId=1

Sep 6, 2014 19:12

What a magnificent interpretation and account of such abundant humane poet. Thank you for the enlightening and inspiring analysis Mr.Masoud.

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