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Mahmoud Darwish, Zionist Poet

August 13th, 2008by Haim Watzman · 7 Comments · Culture and Ideas

Haim Watzman

What’s a Zionist to make of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet whose funeral today in Ramallah will be a celebration of both Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian culture?

Darwish was a refugee. His family came from the village of Birwa, near Acre, and fled to Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence. They were, however, among the lucky refugees who managed to return to their homeland, if not to their homes, so Darwish grew up as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, where he published his first book of poetry. He later left the country, living as an expatriate until 1995 when, in the wake of the Oslo accords, he settled in Ramallah. He spoke fluent Hebrew and maintained contacts with Israeli writers, among them the poet Yehuda Amichai.

He was a Palestinian patriot and activist, first as a member of Israel’s Communist Party and then as a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee. His criticism of Israel was unstinting, but he also advocated a negotiated peace with the Jewish state.

Eight years ago, the ministry of education included a couple of Darwish’s poems on its list of texts that Israeli high school teachers of literature could teach in class, setting off storms of protest. Was it not a sign of the Jewish state’s bankruptcy, the critics argued, that it was proposing to teach works of an anti-Zionist, an enemy hero, to Israeli children?

While Darwish’s poems were removed from the curriculum, the fact is that Darwish has been a presence in Israeli literature nearly from the time he began writing poetry. Hebrew translations of his writing appear frequently in Israeli newspapers and magazines. Five of them kick off the current issue of Iton 77, Israel’s most senior literary journal.

Some of Darwish’s poetry is overtly political, but much of it is lyrical. (You can read some of his poems in English here and here, and hear him reading some of them in the original Arabic on his official website.) But the lyrical ones also evoke, if only indirectly, the refugee experience—in many of them the speaker is wistful, lonely, unable to connect. One of the poems in Iton 77 is a beautiful example; it’s called “She Forgot a Dark Cloud in My Bed” and its speaker, lying alone in bed, tells of the misty presence of the woman who has left him: “She forgot a dark cloud in my bed. She left me/In a rush and said: I will forget you./But she forgot a dark cloud in my bed.”

This longing for departed intimacy, whether of a lover or a land, is particularly Palestinian—but it’s also peculiarly Jewish. Jews aware of their heritage, and especially those aware of its poetic tradition, from HaLevi to Bialik, will hear familiar resonances in Darwish’s lines.

One need not agree with Darwish’s politics to find beauty and meaning in his poetry. Political correctness is not a good literary standard—I am fascinated by the Hebrew poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg even though I’m appalled by the hyper-nationalistic political views he espoused. And Darwish, who knew and valued Israeli culture, was a moderate compared to Greenberg, and no Jew-hater.

If we’re ever to have peace with the Palestinians, we must appreciate their culture, and in particular how their culture expresses the tragedy of their history. To do so is in no way to compromise our own position or our claims to our own history, political rights, and our own tragedies. They, in turn, must know and comprehend our literature and society.

Like all great poets, Darwish was a product of, but not limited by, his biography and his nationality. He speaks to his own people, but he also speaks to us. As a poet who spent his formative years in our country, and who wrote in classic Jewish modes, we might well surprise our enemies by embracing him.

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