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.