Entry 15: The day Mahmoud Darwish asked for my hand in marriage

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This is Entry 15 in the Mondo Awards end-of-year Inspire-us contest. Taxi is a pseudonym for a regular commenter on this site.  

Perhaps it is time to confess I really am a female despite my use of the blogname ‘Taxi’ and my affected tomboy style of writing. And yes, my smiling-astonished folks, the above headline is a true story.

But first, a little background.

My first actual exposure to the I/P conflict was during the ‘67 war when I was five years of age and my parents and I, while doing a bit of tourism in Jerusalem, got caught in the tumultuous crossfire there. I have already related this particular incident some time ago on Mondo so I won’t repeat it here. Because really, my actual education/awareness/concern with the I/P conflict, what I would call my actual ‘involvement’, began when I was around ten years old and living in Beirut with my parents.

My father was a published political writer/analyst in 1970‘s, studying the Mideast up-close and living in Beirut. Beirut at the time, pre-civil war, was enjoying its new found freedom of the press so the city’s local and multi-national intellectuals were openly congregating, abuzz and vibrant about town and in private gatherings.

During that time, Mahmoud Darwish lived in Beirut too and befriended my father who was some twelve years his senior and a celebrated intellectual too. Their friendship was very dynamic and Mahmoud was a frequent visitor to our house when I was growing up. Often accompanying him, of course, was an endless stream of other notable Palestinian and Arab intellectuals, writers, journalists, poets, feminists, professors and the occasional musician. You could easily say that our house was a regular salon where ideas of national liberation, personal freedom, revolution and democracy were all being hotly analyzed, de-constructed and reconstructed again – for hours and hours on end my father and his Palestinian friends would chin-wag to copious amounts of Turkish coffee or whiskey/wine/Araq and yes to copious amounts of Marlboros and Cuban cigars to boot! History, politics, ethics and everything under the sun was discussed, opined and vigorously argued with much wit and wisdom and sometimes even with much fiery angst, especially when the topic was the encroaching Zionist territories and how best to deal with this ongoing Nakba.

Being the only girl and having no friends to play with at the time, I was always excited to play mini-hostess to my parent’s many friends, without realizing who these people fully were in the grand and historic scheme. These gatherings at my father’s house became, in effect, ‘educational parties’ for my hungry, young mind. I’m not exaggerating here when I tell you that hundreds of these debating parties over some five years took place at my parent’s house, thus educating me on the I/P conflict early on in life and from way outside the average American’s experience of this conflict.

I’m recalling right now how at first I really couldn’t understand what the heck the adults were talking about, couldn’t even understand the meaning of some of the words they were using, like: Zionism, holocaust, Nakba, oil-embargo, communism, pan-Arabism, socialism, capitalism, Ba’athism – goodness so many isms for such a young mind to comprehend all at once! Yet I was often transfixed by the sheer nimble energy of their verbal exchanges and their ability to articulate so acrobatically against each other’s argument. I listened-in on these sessions enough nights till slowly, gradually, the pieces of the I/P puzzle started coming together in my little head and with it came clearly the humanitarian context of the plight of Palestinians. I still have this memory of being twelve years old and seeing one particular newspaper photo that showed a close-up of an IDF boot on a grimacing Palestinian teenager’s face. I remember feeling shock and outrage at his violent humiliation in public; this photo was powerful truth and proof that backed-up pretty much everything I’d heard my father’s friends discuss. I felt by this stage emotionally vested and truly mentally engaged. I kept up my interest in my father’s Palestinian friends and especially thoroughly enjoyed the way they brutally satirized their leaders as well as ours, usually every time their discussions on American foreign policy would hit a brick wall – which was often as you can imagine.

But hands down, my favorite soirées with my father’s Palestinian friends was when at the end of some nights, and after exhausting themselves with much wine and hours of rhetoric, they would settle down all bleary-eyed, play Fairuz and Frank Sinatra albums on the turntable, and drunkenly, soulfully, slur-sing altogether a while before a handful of them, with just about enough marbles and zest left in them, would start a cackling poker game at the owl-hooting hour of 1am. When the gambling started, is usually when I got looks from my mum and I would bid everyone good night and retire. Next morning, I always made sure my parents were still sleeping before I would stealthily tip-toe into the sitting room and immediately start fine-tooth combing the decorative floor rugs for coins that our drunken poker-playing guests would have accidentally dropped. More often than not, I found coins and later on in the day, I would secretly spend this loot on sweets that I stuffed into my mouth while hiding behind a bush in the garden.

So my childhood years went on such and like till several months before the Lebanese civil war started in 1975, we moved to London and subsequently soon after the civil war began, Mahmoud too moved to London and he remained a close family friend. Ten years later, in the mid 80’s, my father and mother decided to live in Paris; and so did Mahmoud. Myself, I remained living in England, finishing a degree at a university there, but visiting Paris every now and then.

Now fast-forward to the mid 90’s and I find out that unbeknown to me in London during the early 80‘s, Mahmoud (who was then divorced from his first wife) had asked my dad for my hand in marriage and my dad had gently declined. My dad had refrained from telling me at the time so as not to embarrass me, Mahmoud, or himself, over the many more years thereafter we would all spend together. Mahmoud himself didn’t let anything on either, treating me always with his usual friendly affection and humor. I think my dad was wise to keep the proposal from me. And I think he was right to decline Mahmoud’s offer too as I was twenty three years of age and Mahmoud was thirty-five at the time. We’d known each other for a good dozen years when the marriage proposal came and quickly went.… Like a dream, on retrospect.

I consider myself truly honored and fortunate to have met in my travels so many great Palestinians and to have learned about their history and culture directly from them. What I have especially appreciated from observing Mahmoud and his Palestinian friends over the years, is that you can face calamity with a beautiful song in your heart and you can indeed face your jailer standing up straight.

But in all honest truth, my Mondo friends, it’s also been a sorrowful burden knowing so many Palestinian refugees over such a long period of time. Yet the brown-eyed beauty, the humility and human courage that I’ve seen famed and ordinary Palestinians show, is exactly the tonic that helps me, a non-Palestinian, endure alongside them, lift up with them and live another day – heave another push for their justice and liberation.

“My palms have grown accustomed

To my wounded hopes

Shake my hands with vigor

And passion, a river of songs will flow

O Guide of my colt and my sword

O Mother! I can endure the

Daggers’ stabbing

But not the rule of a coward.”

(Mahmoud Darwish, from his song-poem, ‘Mawwaal’)

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