Feature Articles

OBLIGATIONS OF LOVE, OBLIGATIONS OF POLITICS by Eóin Murray

(Poetry Ireland News, September / October 2008)

Mahmoud Darwish, the poet laureate of the Palestinian people, died on 9 august, 2008. He is survived by a canon of poetry which expresses the pain and the beauty of the Palestinian condition like no one else before him.

Darwish was born in the village of Bireh during the time of the British Mandate in Palestine. At the age of six the military of the newly formed Israeli state destroyed his village, along with 400 others, in an event known as al nakba (the catastrophe). Darwish  and his family fled as refugees to Lebanon only to sneak back into Israel, illegally. Living as Internally Displaced Persons they endured the discombobulatory experience of being classified as “present? Absent aliens” by the Israeli state.

Such legal categories are the nub of the absurdity of the Palestinian experience, and the nub of Darwish’s best poetry. The Palestinian experience is one of living between binaries, discomfortingly without category: state / non-state, at home / in exile, present / absent, in neither a state of peace / war. Each binary is trumped by the Palestinian experience.

A member of Israeli Communist party and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (until his resignation in protest at the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords), Darwish’s poetry is often caught between the Palestinians desire for normality and the imposition upon the Palestinian people of another way of life.

Poetry is the primary art form of the Arab world and it is often popularised further when sung by established musicians — most notably the love poetry of Nizar Qabbani, sung by Lebanon’s Fairouz and Iraq’s Katehm al Saher. In Darwish’s case an intensely political love poem such as Rita and the Rifle was turned into a popular anthem by Marcel Khalife.

The obligations of love contrast with the obligations of politics. The possibility of a normal love life is confronted by the spectre of the gun

           ‘Rita’s name was a feast in my mouth

           Rita’s body was a wedding in my blood’.

But this desire is confounded by the fact that:

            ‘Between Rita and my eyes
            There is a rifle’.

This is the theme not just of Darwish but of being Palestinian.

Darwish’s poem Those who pass between fleeting words shows the contrast between the normality of dancing and the life of Palestinians:

             'So take your share of our blood — and be gone

Go to a dancing party — and be gone
As for us, we have to water the martyrs’ flowers
As for us, we have to live as we see fit’

Anyone who witnesses the besieged Gaza strip and then visit Tel Aviv will immediately understand the sharp contrast which the poem so neatly expresses: Gaza is one of the world’s broken cities, Tel Aviv is one of the world’s liveliest clubbing towns. The pain of one feeds the party in the other.

This work generated controversy when cited in the Israeli parliament (Knesset) as evidence of Darwish’s anti-Semitic intentions. The poem instructs the occupiers to ‘leave our country / Our land, our sea’. Israeli interpretations of the poem see it as an attack on what they describe as Israel’s ‘right to exist’ rather then an attack on the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip, as Darwish intended.

Like any poet Darwish’s overarching concern was for words, the beauty and elegance of words, the poetry of their combinations and the power of their constellations. Those who pass between fleeting words is an attack not merely on Israel, some of whose spin doctors have used language to turn the conflict’s victim into the victimiser in international eyes. It is a poem in defiance of anyone who dares to use words with ugly intent. To do so is to defile their potential to move us for beauty’s sake:

            ‘...So that you understand
             That which you never will:
             How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky.’

Darwish’s defiant polemics also contain the buoyancy of hope, even as the apparent reality seeks to keep it submerged. In one of his most renowned poems, Under Siege, Darwish reminds us that those in seemingly hopeless situations must overcome the inevitable pessimism of their condition:

'Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope'

For Palestinians this choice is again another binary, it is a non-choice: instead, they must ‘cultivate hope’.

Darwish rooted his poetry in the earth, in the tangible. Soldiers piss, stones build dreams and testicles must be cared for. But he also answered the poetic calling to touch beyond what we can perceive, so stand in Truth.

In Under Siege Darwish writes through the Palestinian condition, unafraid of fear, refusing to be contained as a Palestinian, as a poet, or as a mere matter:

            ‘It is up to the soul to come down from its mount
             And on its silken feet walk
             By my side...

                                                                [...]
                May we walk this road together
                And then our days will take different directions:
                I, beyond nature, which in turn
                Will choose to squat on a high-up rock’

Darwish finds his voice, less as a Palestinian with a poetry problem, than as a poet with a Palestinian problem.
His enormous success outside the Arab world, in so many languages, is a clear indication of this. But this is what opens his brilliance beyond Palestine, beyond the Arab world and into the ethereal, where he now dwells.

Mahmoud Darwish was born on 13 March 1941. He never died.

Wikipedia Article on Mahmoud Darwish.

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