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Poet of memories

12 August, 2008

Mahmoud Darwish
March 15, 1941 – August 9, 2008
Portrait by Ismail Shammout

These last few months have seen several of this generation’s greatest figures of the arts pass away, and it is in the face of these losses that it has also come to be a time of reflection for the cultural collective psyche. In contemplating the lives of such artists, writers and historians, one slowly begins to grasp the tremendous impact they have had on our Modern Age — for it is in such legacies that we see irrefutably invaluable knowledge and experience passed down from ancestors preceding in the history of lands past, present and preserved. No better an example of such a legacy than that belonging to Palestinian writer and Struga Poetry Evenings laureate Mahmoud Darwish, and it is most unfortunate news that he passed away last Saturday. My first reading of Darwish was some years ago, with the unforgettable Memory for Forgetfullness sparking my further discovery of his work, for which I have held a tremendous fondness ever since. With an exceptional power to balance poetry and prose in his crafting of narrative, Darwish’s work has been able to serve a greater purpose than that of art (for itself) or that of culture (for the masses).

Instead (though of course brilliant both in terms of artistry and cultural exemplum), his work has served as a profound record of history, creating a medium for the voices so easily drowned out in the destructive and turbulent conflict and politics of the Middle East today. It is for this reason as well as the everlasting enjoyment of his words that I sincerely hope that his work continues to be read and remembered (not least by starting to read Memory for Forgetfullness, which is available online in its entirety) by the generations to come. And equally so (though perhaps a little idealistic on my part), I hope that others are inspired by him to carry on his legacy, continuing to record history and relay the knowledge and experience passed down from ancestors via the various outlets that the world of art makes available. (Obituary and poem to follow below.)

Palestinian poet Darwish dies
August 10, 2008
Al Jazeera

Mahmoud Darwish, the renowned Palestinian poet, has died after open heart surgery at the Memorial Hermann medical centre in Texas. Ann Brimberry, Memorial Hermann’s spokeswoman, confirmed to Al Jazeera that Darwish died at 1.35pm (18:35 GMT). Siham Daoud, a fellow poet and friend of the 67-year-old, said he had asked not to be resuscitated if the surgery did not succeed. She said Darwish departed for the US ten days ago for the surgery, and he had undergone two operations for heart problems before Saturday’s surgery.

Best known for his work describing the Palestinian struggle for independence, the experience of exile and factional infighting, Darwish was a vocal critic of Israeli policy and the occupation of Palestinian lands. Many of his poems have also been put into music – most notably Rita, Birds of Galilee and I yearn for my mother’s bread, becoming anthems for at least two generations of Arabs. “He felt the pulse of Palestinians in beautiful poetry. He was a mirror of the Palestinian society,” Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist and lecturer in cultural studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem said. Last year, Darwish recited a poem damning the deadly infighting between rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, describing it as “a public attempt at suicide in the streets”.

Early life

He was born in the village of Barweh in Galilee, a village that was razed during the establishment of Israel in 1948. He joined the Israeli Communist Party after high school and began writing poems for leftist newspapers. He was put under house arrest and imprisoned for his political activities, after which he worked as editor of Ittihad newspaper before leaving to study in the USSR in 1971. Originally a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Darwish resigned in 1993 in protest over the interim peace accords that Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, signed with Israel.

As a journalist, he worked for al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo and later became director of the Palestinian Research Centre. In 2000, Yossi Sarid, Israel’s education minister, suggested including some of Darwish’s poems in the Israeli high school curriculum. But Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister overruled him, saying Israel was not ready yet for his ideas in the school system. In 2001, he won the Lannan prize for cultural freedom.

Leaves of Olives was published in 1964 when Darwish was 22-years old. Since then more than 20 volumes of his works of poetry have been published.

I Come From There
Mahmoud Darwish

I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.

I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother,
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood,
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up,
To make a single word: Homeland….

See also: Mahmoud Darwish (Official Site)

A prayer and a poem (pieces at random)

History in prose (pieces at random)

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