The agonizing afterlife of Mahmoud Darwish

Israel/Palestine

The broadcast of Mahmoud Darwish’s famous poem, ‘ID Card’, by the Israel Army Radio made the country’s far-right defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman equate the poem to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. To begin with, it reveals the abysmally poor literary judgement and taste of the minister. No poem that has been accorded a place in history by readers and scholars alike can be a poem that argues hate. Everything, from the poet’s intentionality to the poem’s language, can be challenging and provocative, but it cannot dismiss hope and the promise of fraternity. Yet, as Darwish shows in ‘ID Card’, a poem can be harsh and corrosive, for it is desperate to tell an unpleasant story of history. “You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors / And the land which I cultivated / Along with my children / And you left nothing for us / Except for these rocks,” writes Darwish in ‘ID Card’.

How else, in what pleasanter language, can a poet register the forced dispossession of his people? In the last two lines, sarcasm jostles with despair, and one is left speechless. Is it the poem’s speechlessness, its harsh truth that bothered Lieberman? It is to Darwish’s credit if his poem leaps across time to disturb a reactionary apologist of the Occupation.

It has been reported, Lieberman was most offended by the last lines where Darwish writes, “I do not hate people / And I do not steal from anyone / But if I starve / I will eat my oppressor’s flesh / Beware, beware of my starving / And my rage.” It is rather hilarious that the minister read it as a cannibalistic threat issued by the poet. He needs to attend, if he cares, some elementary classes where the distinction between literal and literary language is taught. Unless it is a bizarre attempt by the minister to make a believable denunciation, or perhaps he is simply trying to say, Darwish is a bad poet who needs to be read like all Palestinians – without nuance, wisdom or empathy.

The reading of a poem becomes an excellent occasion to read the attitude of the Occupation. This banality of the minister’s interpretation (if it can be called an interpretation in the first place) of Darwish’s lines, goes a long way to show the crudely dismissive mindset of people belonging to the far right in Israel. The last lines of the poem, making a self-declaration against hate and issuing a warning against his enforced state of depravity, echo an ancient language of appeal. It is an appeal to fraternity and not war. The Jewish ethical thinkers, from Martin Buber to Emanuel Levinas, would have understood that language. It is the language of the Other seeking (and demanding) redemption from a violent, oppressive and exploitative relationship.

In the backdrop of rightwing pressure in 2000 that led to dropping the idea of Darwish’s poems being part of the Israeli school curriculum, and now the far-right minister’s reaction to Darwish, one is reminded of Buber’s statement that the “real struggle” in the world is “between education and propaganda.” Darwish’s poems would have offered the children of Israel the most humane and anguished language of their presumed adversary. In Darwish’s poems, these students would have learnt to recognize what Octavio Paz called “the other voice”, the voice of poetry that introduces another possibility of being oneself, another version of reality. In The State of Siege, when Darwish writes, “If you were not you and I were not I / we might be friends” he speaks in a language of alterity that a child can intuitively perceive as easily as an adult. Poetry is perhaps the best vehicle to transform the politics of enmity to a politics of friendship.

In his 1988 poem, Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words, considered the most controversial in Israel, Darwish displays his rudest feelings towards the Israeli people: “Live wherever you like, but do not live among us / It is time for you to be gone / Die wherever you like, but do not die among us.” In the most acerbic tone, he asks them to “leave our country / Our land, our sea / Our wheat, our salt, our wounds.” But the same Darwish, who was never comfortable with Hamas, in an interview most generously called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “a struggle between two memories.” Even though Darwish was aware that he was competing (even with fellow-poets like Yehuda Amichai whom he admired and who admired him) for the same landscape and history, Darwish never stopped speaking to his adversary, his other. In poem after poem, Darwish admonishes as much as he appeals to the imagined Israeli interlocutor, seeking to engage with him. Darwish did not leave a single stone or word in its place while describing the lyrical experience of exile with pain and eloquence. Yet he was also acutely aware of the strange game between himself and his opponent that reduced both to shadows: “I hurry from the café. / I think: Maybe he’s a killer… / or maybe a passerby who thinks / I am a killer. / He’s afraid…and so am I.”Darwish is drawing the reader’s attention to how the fear of shadows and the shadow of fear pursues relations, and that it is time to remove — and emerge from — these shadows and face the truth. In such lines we find another Darwish, who in trying to make sense of a relationship gone wrong, is urgently speaking to his interlocutor. It reminds me of Levinas’ emphasis on “hearing”, which is an invitation to listen to the other, in whose contrary voice resides the promise of the future. Israel would do well to ignore its propagandists and allow that contrary voice of the Palestinian poet to be heard. Or else only the deaf and the deafening will be left to prolong this endlessly bitter saga of violence.

About Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar. He has contributed to Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Huffington Post (U.K and India), The Rumpus, Democracy Now, Outlook, The Hindu, Economic and Political Weekly, The Wire, etc. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib's Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

12 Responses

  1. gamal
    July 28, 2016, 4:01 pm

    You ask, “Who Am I, Without Exile?” I

    answer: You are the bulb of the pregrown

    plant carried in the stomach

    of a squirrel. You ask: Who Are You,

    Without Exile? I answer: I am

    wandering exile seeping my roots

    in our land. You are now

    the squirrel eating our bulbs snapping

    water lines lifting sidewalks and we both

    share the blood on our hands while I

    wash them use soap and water soap

    and bleach I scrub I scrub I

    scrub hard until my

    skin peels until I scratch the skin off

    I am scrubbing my muscles and I

    scrub I scrub I scrub and scrub my

    bones and I scrub peel the red

    peel the red peel the red until this body

    becomes nothing.

    I am a skeleton walking among poets.

    Mahmoud,
    Please teach me how to li(v)e with these stains.

    Love,

    M

    Morani Kornberg-Weiss

    from the opening of Dear Darwish

    http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/dear-darwish-by-morani-kornberg-weiss-361/

    i am speechless

  2. DaBakr
    July 28, 2016, 10:11 pm

    well…AL is not getting any awards for nuance, subtlety or literary understanding.

    • Marnie
      July 29, 2016, 3:56 am

      In the manner of zionist thugs here and abroad, knuckle-dragging neanderthals all.

      • gamal
        July 29, 2016, 8:59 am

        my god D you are reduced to that?

        call me al eh,

        ghost got hold of that depressive paul simon song and made it good with subtlety and nuance,

        who said you could call me al

        anyway Marnie take off your shoes and dance to this , Darwish would.

        https://youtu.be/7uAS0DPZ7Vk

      • Marnie
        July 29, 2016, 2:33 pm

        That was a good one gamal!

  3. silamcuz
    July 28, 2016, 11:08 pm

    The title of the article is extremely disrespectful and offensive to Mr. Darwish along with his family and friends. What was the writer thinking insinuating the torment of afterlife afflicting Mr. Darwish as if he is some great sinner who escaped justice of this world?

    • Annie Robbins
      July 29, 2016, 1:32 am

      The title of the article is extremely disrespectful and offensive to Mr. Darwish along with his family and friends.

      you do not speak for darwish or his family and friends, and how presumptuous to pretend you do. the title of an article is intended to reflect its content:

      It is rather hilarious that the minister read it as a cannibalistic threat issued by the poet. He needs to attend, if he cares, some elementary classes where the distinction between literal and literary language is taught. Unless it is a bizarre attempt by the minister to make a believable denunciation, or perhaps he is simply trying to say, Darwish is a bad poet who needs to be read like all Palestinians – without nuance, wisdom or empathy.

      sil, perhaps you should sign up for some elementary classes where the distinction between literal and literary language is taught.

      What was the writer thinking insinuating the torment of afterlife afflicting Mr. Darwish as if he is some great sinner who escaped justice of this world?

      the author insinuated no such thing. the banality of your interpretation (your crudely dismissive mindset … if it can be called an interpretation in the first place) — those classes i suggested you take, might teach you a thing or two:

      The reading of a poem becomes an excellent occasion to read the attitude of the Occupation. This banality of the minister’s interpretation (if it can be called an interpretation in the first place) of Darwish’s lines, goes a long way to show the crudely dismissive mindset of people belonging to the far right in Israel.

      • Mooser
        July 29, 2016, 11:43 am

        “the banality of your interpretation (your crudely dismissive mindset … if it can be called an interpretation in the first place)”

        Odd, isn’t it, “Annie”?
        If you asked Rush Limbaugh or Hannity to describe a “social activist” for “POC”as they see them, their description would tally almost exactly with “Simalcuz” in every particular.

      • Spring Renouncer
        July 30, 2016, 12:07 am

        That is ridiculous silamcuz. Only those completely invested in the folly of heaven and hell, and of souls would interpret the title in such a bizarre way. The afterlife being alluded to is not a literal one, but simply an expression of how one is regarded by the living after their death (as in Homer). In this case Darwish’s legacy is being maligned by Lieberman and others, and that is the agony being referred to in the title. Furthermore, while I don’t think that hell, heaven or souls exist, if they did, knowing whether a dead man is in hell would be impossible.

        Also Mooser, bringing up right wing commentators opinions on people of color activists is not helpful, because those opinions generally do not reflect reality. Are you trying to say that silamcuz fits some concocted and racist POC activist archetype?

      • Sibiriak
        July 30, 2016, 4:23 am

        Spring Renouncer: That is ridiculous silamcuz.
        —————–

        Of course. That’s the intention.

        Are you trying to say that silamcuz fits some concocted and racist POC activist archetype?

        Bingo!

      • Mooser
        July 30, 2016, 11:40 am

        “Are you trying to say that silamcuz fits some concocted and racist POC activist archetype?”

        In a word, yes.

        And he’s not half smart enough to play this game, and has exposed himself thoroughly.

  4. Mooser
    July 29, 2016, 12:38 pm

    “Change the title please.”

    Better do what “Simalcuz” says, or he might start slapping you around.

    Slapping is his “efficient” and “effective” method of getting his way, he tells us.

Leave a Reply