Biography of Mahmoud Darwish
Mahmoud Darwish (Arabic: محمود درويش) (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008) was a Palestinian poet and author who won numerous awards for his literary output and was regarded as the Palestinian national poet. In his work, Palestine became a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection, and the anguish of dispossession and exile. He has been described as incarnating and reflecting “the tradition of the political poet in Islam, the man of action whose action is poetry”.
Mahmoud Darwish was born in the village of al-Birwa in the Western Galilee. He was the second child of Salim and Houreyyah Darwish. His family were landowners. His mother was illiterate, but his grandfather taught him to read. After Israeli forces assaulted his village of al-Birwa in June 1948 the family fled to Lebanon, first to Jezzin and then Damour. The village was then razed and destroyed by the Israeli army to prevent its inhabitants from returning to their homes inside the new Jewish state. A year later, Darwish’s family returned to the Acre area, which was now part of Israel, and settled in Deir al-Asad. Darwish attended high school in Kafr Yasif, two kilometers north of Jadeidi. He eventually moved to Haifa.
He published his first book of poetry, Asafir bila ajniha or Wingless Birds, at the age of nineteen. He initially published his poems in Al Jadid, the literary periodical of the Israeli Communist Party, eventually becoming its editor. Later, he was Assistant Editor of Al Fajr, a literary periodical published by the Israeli Workers Party (Mapam). Darwish was impressed by the Arab poets Abed al-Wahab al Bayati and Bader Shaker al-Sayab.
Darwish left Israel in 1970 to study in the USSR. He attended the University of Moscow for one year, before moving to Egypt and Lebanon. When he joined the PLO in 1973, he was banned from reentering Israel. In 1995, he returned to attend the funeral of his colleague, Emile Habibi and received a permit to remain in Haifa for four days. Darwish was allowed to settle in Ramallah in 1995, although he said he felt he was living in exile there, and did not consider the West Bank his “private homeland.”
Darwish was twice married and divorced. His first wife was the writer Rana Kabbani. In the mid-1980s, he married an Egyptian translator, Hayat Heeni. He had no children. Darwish had a history of heart disease, suffering a heart attack in 1984, followed by two heart operations, in 1984 and 1998.
His final visit to Israel was on 15 July 2007, to attend a poetry recital at Mt. Carmel Auditorium in Haifa, in which he criticized the factional violence between Fatah and Hamas as a “suicide attempt in the streets”.
Darwish published over thirty volumes of poetry and eight books of prose. He was editor of Al-Jadid, Al-Fajr, Shu’un Filistiniyya and Al-Karmel (1981). On 1 May 1965 when the young Darwish read his poem “Bitaqat huwiyya” [Identity Card] to a crowd in a Nazareth movie house, there was a tumultuous reaction. Within days the poem had spread throughout the country and the Arab world. Published in his second volume “Leaves of Olives” (Haifa 1964), the six stanzas of the poem repeat the cry “Write down: I am an Arab.”
In the 1970s, “Darwish, as a Palestinian poet of the Resistance committed himself to the . . . objective of nurturing the vision of defeat and disaster (after the June War of 1967), so much so that it would ‘gnaw at the hearts’ of the forthcoming generations.”
Palestinian poetry often addresses the Nakba and the resultant tragedies. The mid 1980s saw the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and preceded the outbreak of the first Intifada (uprising) on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in December 1987. Mahmoud Darwish addressed these and other issues in Ward aqall [Fewer Roses] (1986), and more specifically in one poem, “Sa-ya’ti barabira akharun” [Other Barbarians Will Come”].
Darwish’s work won numerous awards, and has been published in 20 languages. A central theme in Darwish’s poetry is the concept of watan or homeland. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote that Darwish “is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging….”
Darwish was impressed by the Iraqi poets Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. He cited Rimbaud and Ginsberg as literary influences. Darwish admired the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, but described his poetry as a “challenge to me, because we write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes it better?”
Many of Darwish’s poems were set to music most notably Rita and the Rifle, Birds of Galilee and I Yearn for my Mother’s Bread and have become anthems for at least two generations of Arabs, by Arab composers, among them Marcel Khalife, Majida El Roumi and Ahmad Qa’abour. In the 1980s, Sabreen, a Palestinian group in Israel, recorded an album including versions of Darwish’s poems “On Man” and “On Wishes”. Khalife was accused of blasphemy and insulting religious values because a song entitled “I am Yusuf, oh my father” based on Darwish’s lyrics, cited a verse from the Qur’an. In this poem, Darwish shared the pain of Yusuf (Joseph) who was rejected by his brothers, who fear him because he is too handsome and kind. “Oh my father, I am Yusuf / Oh father, my brothers neither love me nor want me in their midst”. The story of Joseph is an allegory for the rejection of the Palestinians.
Tamar Muskal, an Israeli-American composer incorporated Dawish’s “I Am From There” into her composition “The Yellow Wind,” which combines a full orchestra, Arabic flute, Arab and Israeli poetry, and themes from David Grossman’s book The Yellow Wind.
In 2002, Swiss composer Klaus Huber completed a large work entitled Die Seele muss vom Reittier Steigen…, a chamber concerto for cello, baritone and countertenor that incorporates Darwish’s “The Soul Must Descend from its Mount and Walk on its Silken Feet”.
In 1997, a documentary entitled Mahmoud Darwish was produced by French TV, directed by French-Israeli director Simone Bitton.
Darwish appeared as himself in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique (2004).
In 2008, Mohammed Fairouz set selections from State of Siege to music.
In 2008 Darwish starred in the five-screen film id – Identity of the Soul from Arts Alliance Productions, in which he narrates his poem “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies” along with Ibsen’s poem “Terje Vigen”. Id was his final performance and premiered in Palestine in October 2008, with audiences of tens of thousands, and currently (2010) continues its worldwide screening tour.
Mahmoud Darwish died on August 9, 2008 at the age of 67, three days after heart surgery at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas. Before surgery, Darwish had signed a document asking not to be resuscitated in the event of brain death.
Early reports of his death in the Arabic press indicated that Darwish had asked in his will to be buried in Palestine. Three locations were originally suggested; his home village of al-Birwa, the neighboring village Jadeida, where some of Darwish’s family still resides or in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ramallah Mayor Janet Mikhail announced later that Darwish would be buried next to Ramallah’s Palace of Culture, at the summit of a hill overlooking Jerusalem on the southwestern outskirts of Ramallah, and a shrine would be erected in his honor. Ahmed Darwish said “Mahmoud doesn’t just belong to a family or a town, but to all the Palestinians, and he should be buried in a place where all Palestinians can come and visit him.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning to honor Darwish and he was accorded the equivalent of a State funeral. A set of four postage stamps commemorating Darwish was issued in August 2008 by the PA.
Arrangements for flying the body in from Texas delayed the funeral for a day. Darwish’s body was then flown from Amman, Jordan for the burial in Ramallah. The first eulogy was delivered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to an orderly gathering of thousands. Several left-wing Knessets members attended the official ceremony; Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) stood with the family, and Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad) were in the hall at the Mukataa. Also present was the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin. After the ceremony, Darwish’s coffin was taken in a cortege at walking pace from the Mukataa to the Palace of Culture, gathering thousands of followers along the way.
I Come From There
I come from there and I have memori
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…..