Mahmoud Darwish: the poet of our ambivalence


I have been reading him for twenty five years. I read him with adolescent enthusiasm and I read him with a reader’s patience. I read him with a passion for enchanting poetry, and read him with a critic’s commitment and attention to detail. I read him for mere pleasure, and read him scrupulously and carefully.
Mahmoud Darwish: the poet of our ambivalence
For over twenty years I have avoided writing about him; I resisted writing any article in any book concerning him, and never made any public statement about his poetry. That was my way to thwart my perplexity about him and the ambivalence of my relation to the experience of his poetry which I loved, hated, and respected.

Since the late seventies he was our political anthem. The angry and joyful songs of our rebellious youth were him. Our imagination, imprinted with blood and soil, was him.

Darwish's lyrics put to music by Marcel Khalifeh’s, had such impact on us, that our hearts trembled at the smoothness of his words, abundant with warmth, images and sounds.

And then shame came along: shame of our sins, foolishness, defeats and adolescence; shame of our idiocy and emotionality. Hence, we pushed him away from us, and turned our backs to him and to the ‘phase’ he represented. It can be compared to when maturity annihilates every trace of teenage lunacy. We then headed towards writing: journalism, experimental reading and poetry.

It didn’t occur to us that the early relation we had with political romanticism and with poetry - which we came to despise - is that which set us on our paths. Its residue, which we repressed, is what decided our look, our features and our mood.

It didn’t occur to us that eliminating Mahmoud Darwish's influence from our choices and tastes would position him deep within our conscience, which was already irredeemably damaged by our immaturity, and embittered by poisonous lyricism.

Concerning our poetry, we protested against popularism, rhetoric, lecturing, directness, cheap vocalisation and rhyme. Thus, we shifted towards prose. We wanted to separate ourselves from the traditions of poetry which were shaped by ideologies. We went so far in this separation, that we excluded from our sight and thoughts many poets, along with Mahmoud Darwish. We washed away their influence from our sensibility, and made sure to avoid any use of their metaphors and periphrasis in our sentences; we mocked their images, figures of speech, and chatter.

We were inflamed – and still are – by this necessary separation, for it was this which gave us our 'legitimacy'. In other words, it allowed us to declare our fathers 'damned', and that was how we stated our angry affiliation.

We felt at ease with poetic and temporal classifications. We thought that these periods could be limited by thoughts, culture, and politics. It seemed as simple as in a historical account, when we say ‘before or after 1982’, the year of the Israeli invasion which concluded an era with a traumatic ending, and which Darwish himself commemorated with the lyric anthem, ‘a Eulogy for the tall shadow’ (1983). We turned the page on one epoch, and on him at the same time, and in doing so sounded like those who mention ‘before and after 1967’, the year of the ‘Nakssa’ (The Depression).

But then Mahmoud Darwish returned to us with ‘Eleven Planets’ (1992). We noticed that something had changed in his language but didn’t pay it much attention. For what was prominent in his work - his recitations, his visionary pretension, his Andalusian worry, his obsession with identity and exile - remained unchanged like a never-ending hymn.

Then he came back with ‘Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone’ (1995), which left us confused about ourselves because – we confess – we discovered that we were still guided by our emotions, and that our relation to Mahmoud Darwish was neither critical nor reverential; instead, it was merely emotional. It is in that spirit that we read ‘Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone’, ‘Bed of a Stranger’, ‘Don't Apologise for What You Did’, ‘Mural’, and ‘State of Siege’. We allowed ourselves to be captured by his poetry; its radiance and suavity and the sound of his voice enchanted us.

We were ashamed of our love for him and tried to swallow our feelings. We weren’t capable of rejecting him as we did with others. Perhaps it was thanks to him that we maintained a sense of intimacy while reading him, for his new writings gave way to a ‘new’ Darwish, more dialectical and more introspective. He seemed enchanted by beauty, obsessed by poetry. His new works were strengthened both in style and authority.

His tragedies remained sorrowful, as well as prophetic and lyrical. His voice was clear; he was still himself in his new work, but even more so, and more creative. The fruit had ripened.

The only poetry evening with Mahmoud Darwish that I ever attended took place in ‘Jamal Abdel Nasser Hall’ in the Arab University of Beirut in 1981. The name of both the hall and the university reflect a certain culture and ideology. Darwish’s poetry formed the core of that, like a fruit's pip. Ever since, I withstood the seduction of his Beiruti nights. I never attended any of the several evenings he gave when he returned many times in later years. For I didn’t want to have an aversion to his poems, which I didn’t always like as much in themselves as their implications.

I was then led to the value of ambiguity in my relation to Darwish, which I discovered in his own relation with poetry itself. At a higher level, I began to agree with the ambiguity he found in his relation to his identity, his history, with 'the other', with politics, and with the ‘enemy’. Suddenly I realised that Darwish, in his journey through language, politics, ideas and places, had mutated from certainty to ambiguity. His importance lies in this dialectic inspired by his past; he escaped the banality that overtook 'the cause’, 'the identity’ and 'the memory’, a well as the scandalous violation of blood, meaning and language.

Darwish became genuinely exiled and expatriated. He was the symbolic founder of the 'great ambiguity'.

One month earlier, Waddah Sharara pointed out to me the saying by Jean-Paul Sartre on the Jew: “The Jew is the one seen by the other as being ‘Jewish’. The Jew figuratively is the eternal exiled, he is the persecuted who doesn’t have a place, who doesn't integrate, who can only be defined through his history and geography. He is the refugee, the different, the one who carries the burden of prophets and sins on his shoulders, the one who constantly tries to ‘return to the promised land’. He is the unwanted, the victim, the minority, the assassin and the guilty.” How do we define the Palestinian then? Is that why Mahmoud Darwish wrote: “Our history is their history, their history is our history” ('The Tragedy of Daffodils, p.17)? Is that why ‘Reeta’ was both the lover and the enemy?

Mahmoud Darwish said in his dialogue with Abdo Wazen (‘The Stranger's Fall’): “There are two disputes within Palestinian and Israeli poetry. One is a conflict about who owns the language of the place, and the other about who takes control over the ‘land’… We are forced into a deep cultural dispute. For instance, the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai; he didn’t leave one landscape in Palestine - he calls it the land of Israel – that he didn't write poems about. The beauty of some of his poetry can really challenge the Palestinian poet.”

That is how the obsession of Darwish appears to us. He wrote, “I haven’t washed my blood from my enemies’ bread” (“Weddings” p.37). From this ambiguity embodied in the mythical role of the exchange between David and Goliath, the poet marches as a Palestinian, towards a Judaism that opposes the march of the Jew towards his Israeli identity (Amichai, for example). For as soon as the Jew settles, he looses his identity. Is that why Darwish was scared of the ‘return’? Did he worry about loosing his exile?

We go back to ambiguity and take comfort in it, for it preserves our affection for Darwish’s poetry, and keeps him with us.



Youssef Bazzi
Translated by Chimène Eid


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