By Saranjit Uppal
Poetic legend, cultural icon, and activist spokesperson, Mahmoud Darwish’s work resonates with people across generations for its depiction and perspective on life in the Arab world. Born in Palestine during 1941 in the midst of the Second World War, Darwish grew up in circumstances common for millions across the planet. He watched his village torched before his eyes as a child, forced to flee with his family at age seven, faced multiple counts of political imprisonment and later, exile. Darwish’s poetry performs not just on-page or stage, but through history and space, going beyond the current moment of turmoil and war to highlight the historical legacy that has led up to today.
Darwish fled from his village, al-Birwa, never to live there again. Taken from his indigenous land and forced to watch as the Israeli forces leveled and occupied his homeland into the new Israeli state, children like Darwish were lucky to make it out alive during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Like so many that came before and followed after, Darwish recollects on his homeland where he learned to read from his father’s books and speak in his mother tongue. He remembers Al-Birwa, his bayt, as a place of open spaces, a place of fields and watermelons, olive and almond trees. “I remember the horse that was tied to the mulberry tree in the yard and how I climbed on to it and was thrown off and got a beating from my mother…I remember the butterflies and the clear feeling that everything was open. The village stood on a hill and everything was spread out below.” Darwish remembered the sky and the moon, orchards and basil, thyme and orange groves. All he could do was remember.
Growing up in Israel and forced to join in Israeli celebrations with a school of people who treated him like a second-class citizen, Darwish knew his place. He became familiar with the intense emotions he felt during this precarious time of his youth, with the anger drove his poetry’s message and the outrage filled his pens with ink. He may not still have the poems, but he recollects how his youth was filled with questions of equality and rights. “You can play in the sun as you please, and have your toys, but I can’t. You have a house, and I have none. Why can’t we play together?” Why can’t Darwish and his family return to his village? Why can’t he have the same rights as his classmates? Why?
Over time, Darwish left Israel and traveled to Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, and Paris, writing literary reviews and being politically active. His work gained traction, embodying the struggle of Palestinians displaced from their homes, with Darwish eventually drafting the “Palestinian Declaration of Statehood” in 1988 to define the borders of Palestine. The issues of Partition, mass forced migration, and settler colonialism in the Middle East diffused so thoroughly and majestically into his work, that Darwish became a shining light of poetry and culture in the dark skies settling across Palestine. In his heart-breaking and tragic poem “Mohammed Al Durra,” Darwish narrates the last thoughts of little Mohammed Al Durra, a real, scared, 12-year-old boy trying to escape from state military firing on the Gaza Strip in 2000, during the Second Uprising between Israel and Palestine. The armed conflict culminated in young Mohammed’s death, captured on camera and broadcast across the world as he lay on the ground, slumped on his father’s legs, unmoving. Mohammed, “an infant Jesus,” represents the thousands of children caught in the crossfires of a war plunged between nations.
A letter to his homeland, “A Lover From Palestine” cries furiously over the memory of a lost home. Darwish weaves together a lament about the Palestinian peoples heritage and culture, “her name…her dreams, and sorrow…her words and her silence,” Palestinian, Palestinian, Palestinian.
The cultural world held its breath after Darwish died in August of 2008, following heart surgery complications. A moment of mourning but also a moment of celebration, for the man that provided a voice for so many voiceless. Darwish is a symbol of the reclamation of identity, to fight back against the limits imposed on our heritage. To express ourselves, in any form we can, is the way we take back all that is taken away from us.