Mahmoud Darwish: The death of the last metaphor


The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish passed away on the 9th of August
2008 while undergoing heart surgery. Politically very debatable, as a
poet though, he was one of the most senior, modern Arab poets. With his
death also died a symbol character of the Arab world, but most of all
died the Palestinian cultural movement.

Born in the year 1941 in Barwe, in northern Palestine, Darwish experienced the Nakba of 1948 as a child, during the creation of the Zioninst state, in which a million people were forced out of their land. His family fled to Lebanon, but came right back to Palestine using secret paths. The destructed village Barwe was not allowed to be rebuilt thus Darwish had to grow up as a "refugee in his own land".

As a second class Arab citizen in Israel, he joined the Israeli Communist Party and wrote in Haifa for their newspaper "Al-Ittihad" (the Union). He was repeatedly arrested and tortured (1961, 62, 67) for his first poems and his political activities, and his work was often censored by the Israeli military authorities. (The military law was valid for the Arabs in Israel until 1967.)

At that time, completely isolated and separated from the rest of the Arab world, Darwish, along with other young poets like Samih Qassem and Tawfiq Zayad from the 1948 region, created a new trend of Arabic lyric poetry, which influenced the image of the Arab poetry for decades.

A new generation of poets was born, through rhythmic poetry and based on metaphors, while setting free from the classical poetry and moving away from the traditional image.
These young poets were discovered by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (murdered by the Israeli secret service in 1972 in Beirut) who dedicated to them his first study "poets of the occupied land." The modern texts spread und were used in the entire Arab region as texts for song compositions. They became cultural symbolic characters of the Palestinian movement and were a motivation for modernizing Arab songs.

Darwish left Haifa in 1970 and spent a year in Moscow, before moving to Cairo and being highly welcomed by the Arab cultural milieu.

In 1972 Darwish joined the PLO and moved with it to Lebanon. He worked in the Palestinian study center and was leading it from 1976 till 1980. He was the chief editor of the newspaper "Palestinian Issues."

After the Israeli invasion in 1982 in Lebanon, Darwish left Beirut and accompanied Arafat on his boat to a new exile. He lived in Tunis, where he was appointed to a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO by the Palestinian National Congress.

The phase after 1982 was the most significant literary phase for Darwish. He created his most important work at that time. He went over the top, from one piece of work to another, and revolutionized the Arabic lyric poetry repeatedly.

His poem about the war in Lebanon "Praise to the high shadow" became highly popular in the Arab world. Many pieces of the poem were composed by various singers and became famous songs.


However several pieces of his work were seen as blasphemous:

Beirut is the test of God,
We tried you out, oh God, we tried you out
Who gave you this mystery, who gave you this name?
Who uplifted you over our wounds in order to see you?
So do appear! The way Sphinx appeared out of the ashes… (Own translation)

That is how he destroyed his relationship to the growing Islamic movement. This describes the cold reaction of, for instance Hamas, to his death.

Darwish knew how to create a beautiful esthetical world through intelligent use of words and scenes out of Palestinian misery, brutal reality and bloody daily life, melted with elements of history, culture and common human values. He is one of the few Arab poets who are internationally known and respected. His poems were translated in almost all languages because of their universal meanings.

Highly praised and outstanding, he stood above any kind of criticism. His power as a symbolic character overruled the criteria of criticism. Known from many songs, his poems crossed the borders of intellectual milieu and enjoyed a popularity which was unprecedented for modern Arab poetry.

Capitulation of the PLO

Darwish was for many known politically as the supporter of Arafat in the cultural field. He was also criticized for being silent about the oppression of Palestinian intellectuals by Arafat, who used to stop at nothing, including murder, like in the case of the caricaturist Naji Ali. This made Darwish often the "Poet Laureate" of the PLO.

After the Oslo agreement half of the PLO Executive Committee withdrew. Among them Mahmoud Darwish, who, for the first time, delivered Arafat a poetic critique: "Who will remove our flags from our walls, you or them?" However, he returned to Ramallah with the PLO and stayed loyal to its establishment. Highly stylized as a cultural symbol of the PNA, he presided over several literary institutes. Being situated above the political events he visited the Arab region, where he received outstanding medals and awards from almost the all Arab regent for his prominent performances.

After the death of Arafat and during the PNA conflict with the resistance movement, Darwish backed off and hid behind his metaphors. He became less metaphoric when Hamas took over in Gaza, where he was pretty in his partisanship for the corrupt PNA in Ramallah.

Even if Darwish's poetical credit is too big and remains one of the few undisputed things among Palestinians, he does appear as a fading remnant of the PLO era, whose symbolic characters are successively going under. For many of his readers his death was seen as a political rescue of his poetry.

Mohamed Aburous