By Ahdaf Soueif, the author of The Map of Love (THE GUARDIAN, 12/08/08):
None of us really thought he’d die. Our loss is great, we tell each other. In our minds we think of Edward Said, of Haider Abdel-Shafi, of Faisal Husseini, and even – yes – of Yasser Arafat. The “big men” of Palestine. And now, Mahmoud Darwish.
He was seven when – in the Nakba of 1948 – he fled from Birweh, his village in the Galilee. At the age of 12, living in Deir el-Asad, in what had become Israel, with a reputation as a precocious child poet, he was asked to compose a poem for a public reading. The occasion was the celebration of Israel’s “Independence Day” and the poem he read described the feelings of a child who returns to his town to find other people sleeping in his bed, tilling his father’s lands. He was summoned to the military governor who told him that if he continued to write subversive material his father’s work permit would be revoked. That incident set the tone, I think, for Darwish’s life.
It was impossible for a man of Darwish’s sensibility and context not to join the resistance. He did. He wrote. And between 1961 and 1967 he was jailed five times by the Israelis. He lived where the resistance lived: in Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, Paris and Amman – as well as Ramallah and Haifa. He produced journalism and founded al-Karmel – for a while the top literary magazine of the Arab world. And he wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry.
For the last three decades no one could have been more celebrated or beloved. His poetic concerns, struggles, experiments and blazing successes have been noted, documented and analysed across the world. His poems early on became embedded in a nation’s consciousness in a way that is rare for a living writer. Poets followed, responded and debated with him in their works; novelists prefaced chapters with his verses; performers sang his lyrics.
Darwish gave a voice and an identity to the Palestinian revolution and to the resistance. But his 1964 anthem ID Card (“Record: I am Arab!”) made him, particularly after 1967, the laureate of all the Arabs. That responsibility sometimes lay heavy on him. He acknowledged a duty to his people, yes, but he also felt a duty to poetry itself.
In the letter to the writers who took part in the Palestine Festival of Literature last May, he spoke of “how difficult it is to be Palestinian, and how difficult it is for a Palestinian to be a writer or a poet … How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times?” There was the core problem of the “engaged” artist. A strategy that came naturally to Darwish was to raise the issues above the specific and the parochial, to see the specific with great clarity, but to see also the universal in the specific.
In State of Siege, the poems he wrote from besieged Ramallah in January 2002, he addressed his Israeli enemy: “A land on the brink of dawn / Let us not quarrel / About the number of those who’ve died: / Here they lie together, / Furnishing the grass for us, / That we should be reconciled.”
But reconciliation needed to be founded on justice. His great poem for Muhammad al-Durrah, the Palestinian boy shot by the Israeli army as he sheltered behind his father, struck a chord across the world. Yet, he declared: “We love life – if we can have it.”
Darwish ended his address to the Palestine Festival with the words: “Know that we are still here; that we live.” Obituaries in the Arab newspapers are mourning the last poet who could fill a football stadium. But Darwish lives in us and in his poetry. He lives also in the work of younger Arab poets who will soon be filling football stadiums. They are his disciples. And they are still here.