"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
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);
"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
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.
I'm the Adam of two
Expel me slowly. Kill me slowly
With Garcia Lorca
Under my olive tree.
Darwish was born in 1941 in the
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
After thirteen years in
When he lived in
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
Yossi Sarid, who was
Darwish insists that terror is not a means to justice. "Nothing, nothing justifies terrorism," he wrote, condemning the September 11 attack on the
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,
But I get the impression that he still feels there is a place to go "after the last frontiers . . . after the last sky."