When Lieutenant-Colonel Omri Borberg ordered an Israeli soldier to fire a rubber-coated bullet into the leg of a bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoner on July 7, 2008, the torment illustrated the inhumanity of occupation, which Mahmoud Darwish repeatedly carved through his inimitable poems.

What words would Darwish imagine about Borberg or the automate combatant who obeyed without thinking? What would he say about this disgraceful abuse of power?

Like all nations that cherished thinkers, Palestinians recognised in Mahmoud Darwish a great son who was attuned to their innermost thoughts and aspirations.

His experiences with occupation, eviction and exile, channelled his anger to encourage empowerment and to set the wheels of justice in motion.

In fact, few Palestinians managed to articulate the “burden'' of national thinking the way Darwish did through his poems, having reached the apex of popularity among the masses.

Undoubtedly, one of the Arab world's best-selling poets, Darwish's public appearances drew large crowds.

Envious politicians were mesmerised when entire football stadiums were filled to capacity to listen to his readings.

Beyond nostalgia for Palestine, which became the centre of his professional universe, Darwish spoke of the anguish of refugees who were dispossessed of their land.

Over the years. he spoke and wrote critically of power, including Arab figures who paid lip service to the cause while wallowing in failure.

In fact, he was bitterly ironic about an Arab continent “fast asleep under repressive regimes'', where soccer replaced Palestine as a unifying passion.

First experiences

Darwish was born in 1942 into a land-owning Sunni family in Palestine. When he was 6, Israeli guerrillas occupied his village, razed it and expelled its inhabitants.

The Darwish family joined the exodus of Palestinian refugees into nearby Lebanon in 1948 but sneaked back into a nascent Israel in 1949.

Needless to say, the trauma marked the young boy, who grew up fast, watching his relatively wealthy father reduced to agricultural labour.

Without Israeli citizenship — the result of their year-long absence in 1948-1949 — Darwish hurriedly understood what it meant to be a mere “resident'', although he dreamt of becoming a poet after his grandfather recited to him.

In 1964, he published his first collection, Leaves of Olive, which earned him a small but growing number of devotees.

This was followed in 1966 by Lover From Palestine, which reinforced his reputation as a poet of resistance.

At the age of 22, Identity Card, addressed to an Israeli policeman (Write down, /I am an Arab, /Identity card number fifty thousand), became a rallying cry of defiance.

He was promptly arrested in 1967 after the poem was made into a popular protest song. Several other pieces quickly took on legendary traits.

According to the late Edward Said, another of Palestine's great thinkers: “Darwish's early, militant poems defined Palestinian existence.''

Militancy in exile

Assisted by the Israeli Communist Party, Darwish made his way to the Soviet Union in 1970 but was rapidly disillusioned.

In his own words: “For a young communist, Moscow was the Vatican but I discovered it was not heaven.''

In Cairo and especially in Beirut before 1982, Darwish honed his analytical skills, explaining the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a “struggle between two memories''.

Over the years, his numerous poems challenged the Zionist tenet, embodied in Haim Bialik's “a land without a people for a people without a land'', by turning it upside down and enlightening his reader that the struggle was “between the sword and the soul''.

In State of Siege, written in 2003 after Israel attacked Ramallah, Darwish relied on poignant text to unleash his anger through the imagination of a “martyr'': “I love life/On earth, among the pines and the fig trees/But I can't reach it, so I took aim/With the last thing that belonged to me.''

Earlier in Beirut (1973-1982), where he lived and worked, Darwish “liberated [himself] from all illusions, and became cynical''.

He “asked absolute questions about life, where there is no room for nationalist ideology''.

After he fled Beirut in 1982, Darwish wrote his prose masterpiece Memory For Forgetfulness, an autobiographical odyssey in the form of a diary set in a single day of heavy Israeli shelling on August 6, 1982, which he titled “Hiroshima day''.

While he eventually revised several of the more direct political poems of his Beirut period, he nevertheless authored some of his masterpieces after that catastrophic occurrence — Eleven Planets (1992), a “lyric epic'' sequence on 1492, included two seminal events, which linked his narrative with the rest of mankind.

Of course, 1492 was the date of the Columbus voyage to the New World, which destroyed Native American dreams, and the expulsion of Arabs from Andalusia, Spain.

Naturally, his parallels between 1492 and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe), compared the fate that befell Palestinians in 1948 to those earlier tragedies.

Love and marriage

Although Darwish was consumed by the grave injustices he had to endure, his personal life was equally daunting, as is best described by several romantic liaisons.

“I'm told I've been married but I don't remember the experience,'' he reportedly confided to a friend when prompted to give his views of marriage.

In fact, he met Rana Qabbani, the niece of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, in Washington DC in 1977 but the marriage did not last.

Rana left him after a few years, ostensibly to pursue a Cambridge doctorate, which he could not handle. In the mid-1980s, he was married for “about a year'' to an Egyptian translator, Hayat Heeni, but that relationship was also troubled.

“There were no wounds,'' he claimed, because the couple “separated peacefully'' and “there was no third wife and won't be'' because Darwish acknowledged that he was “addicted to being alone''.

In his words: “I never wanted children, maybe I'm afraid of responsibility. I'd need more stability. I change my mind, places, styles of writing.

"The centre of my life is my poetry. What helps my poetry I do; what damages it, I avoid.'' In the event, Darwish admitted to falling in love often: “I love to be in love. My horoscope sign is the fish; my emotions are changeable.

“When it's over, I realise it wasn't love. Love is to be lived, not remembered.''

Ode to power

His emotional ties notwithstanding, Darwish handled contradictions brilliantly and, in a remarkable tour de force, managed to make sense of what was incomprehensible.

He wrote with a vengeance after 9/11 and opposed terrorism in clear terms: “Nothing justifies terrorism,'' he chimed and with respect to the series of suicide bombings that plagued the despair of occupation, he insisted that Palestinians must reject the culture of death.

“We have to understand — not justify — what gives rise to this tragedy. It's not because they're looking for beautiful virgins in heaven, as Orientalists portray it.

"Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope — a political solution — they'll stop killing themselves.''

Simultaneously, Darwish knew the value of opposition but insisted on a two-state solution, on equal terms.

In 1974, he penned the words of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the United Nations when the latter declared: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.''

Though he was a fully committed patriot, in 1988 Darwish wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood, which recognised coexistence with Israel.

In fact, while Darwish befriended Arafat, he refused several offers for office (and power) and scolded the chairman when the latter complained that the Palestinians were an “ungrateful people''.

Darwish forcefully retorted, telling him to find himself “another people''.


After his second heart surgery, Darwish reached deep into his soul, positing that his illness clarified his eternal mandate.

On his sickbed, Darwish claimed that he was involved in a fight as he “saw myself in prison and the doctors were policemen torturing [him]''.

He concluded: “I have no fear of death now. I discovered something more difficult than death: the idea of eternity.

To be eternal is the real torture. I don't have personal demands of life because I'm living on borrowed time.

I have no big dreams. I'm dedicated to writing what I have to write before I go to my end.''

In 2000, Darwish touched the very Palestinian soul in Mural, one of his more recent publications, in which a critically ill man contemplates death and the mortality of civilisations amid the Al Aqsa Intifada.

The story was inspired by the September 30, 2000, assassination of Mohammad Al Durra, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by Israeli soldiers and died in the arms of his father.

In Mural, Mohammad Al Durra appears as a young Jesus Christ, which was Darwish's way of incorporating Christian symbolism in his inheritance.

“I don't have a pure Arab cultural identity,'' he concluded, because “I am the result of a mixture of civilisations in Palestine's past. I don't monopolise history and memory and God, as Israelis want to do.

They put the past on the battlefield.'' He rejected this crusade, insisting that “each one [ought to] tell his narrative as he wants.'' “Let the two narratives make a dialogue,'' he concluded, so that history can “smile''.

Vision and awards

When Yossi Sarid, Israel's education minister, suggested including some of Darwish's poems in the Israeli high school curriculum in 2000, Ehud Barak, then Israeli prime minister, overruled him on account that Israel apparently was not ready for such a revolutionary idea (coexistence).

This reluctance notwithstanding, Darwish was widely acclaimed and won several major prizes, including the prestigious Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001 and Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters.

But despite the many accolades he received throughout his life, Darwish was saddened by intra-Palestine brawls that perpetuated occupation.

A few weeks before he died, Darwish delivered a stinging criticism of the rival Hamas and Fatah factions that were, in his own words, “engaged in a classic fratricide''.

Speaking in Haifa after a 35-year absence from the city where he grew up — a programme that was broadcast live in June 2008 on several Arab satellite television networks — he described the recent violence in Gaza as suicidal.

Darwish opined that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state was now far more unlikely because “Gaza became independent of the West Bank''.

With his vintage irony, he concluded that Palestinians were seeking “for one people, two countries'', but ended up with “two prisons''.

Unlike Lieutenant-Colonel Omri Borberg or the automate combatant who obeyed without thinking, Darwish called on Palestinians and all those in a position of authority to distance themselves from extremes that encouraged abuse of power.

Through his magical poetry, he translated the pain of a people and shook the emotions of all victims, including those of mindless occupiers.

A master poet, Darwish ensured that his nation learned from the pain it endured, which defined and empowered thinkers who perceived injustice.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently
of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.

For additional resources, visit the following web pages:

A life lived in exile

Born on March 13, 1942 in Barwah, a village that was razed by Israeli forces in 1948, to Salim and Huriyyah Darwish, Mahmoud experienced exile at an early age.

Though his mother was illiterate, he learnt to read and write on his grandfather's lap and at the tender age of 6 joined the exodus of Palestinian refugees who were exiled to Lebanon.

The family lived for a year on UN handouts before returning to Israel, “illegally'', in 1949. “We lived again as refugees, this time in our own country,'' recalled Darwish of his early trauma, understanding that what befell the Palestinians was “a collective experience'', a wound that could never be forgotten.

Because they were absent during the first Israeli census of the remaining Arab population in Palestine, the family was denied Israeli nationality, which meant that they could only circulate with a laissez-passer.

They settled in Dayr Al Assad and Mahmoud attended high school in Kafr Yasif but eventually moved to Haifa where, at 19, he published his first book of poetry, “Asafir bila Ajniha'' (Wingless birds), 1960. In 1961, Darwish joined the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah, where Arabs and Jews mixed, editing its newspaper.

Repeatedly imprisoned on a variety of trumped-up charges, Darwish delved into poetry and published “Awraq Al Zaytun'' (Leaves of Olive) in 1964 and “Ashiq min Filastin'' (Lover from Palestine) in 1966, both of which established his reputation as a foremost poet.

In Haifa, Darwish became the editor of “Ittihad'' but left Israel in 1971 to study at the University of Moscow.

From the Soviet Union, he moved to Egypt and worked for “Al Ahram'' but quickly settled in Beirut to assume the editorship of “Shu'un Filastiniyyah'' (Palestinian Issues), published by the prestigious Palestinian Research Centre.

In 1973, Darwish joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and became a member of its executive committee.

Despite the raging Lebanese civil war, Darwish founded “Al Karmel'', a leading journal that articulated Palestinian aspirations in 1981.

Following the 1982 Israeli invasion and the siege of the capital that stripped the city of its humanity, he left Beirut with the expelled PLO leadership.

Though technically in Tunis, Darwish became a “wanderer'', moving from Syria to Cyprus to Egypt and eventually to France.

Along with several other Palestinian officials who sharply disagreed with chairman Yasser Arafat over the latter's controversial positions, Darwish resigned from the executive committee in 1993, which marked a significant political departure.

Though banned from re-entering Israel, Darwish attended the 1995 funeral of his colleague Emile Habibi in the West Bank, when he was granted permission to stay in Ramallah.

Still without a national passport, Darwish lived in Palestine, which was a dream come true.

His very large poetry collections were translated into at least 20 languages, earning him praise and fame and transforming him into an unparalleled Palestinian ambassador.

Mahmoud Darwish married and divorced twice, first to the Syrian writer Rana Qabbani and then to an Egyptian translator, Hayat Heeni, although without any progeny.

Health problems plagued him for a very long time, with a first heart attack in 1984, which necessitated surgery.

In 1998 he was operated on for a second time but died on August 9, 2008, at the Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas, from complications following a third open-heart surgery.


A Lover From Palestine, first published in 1973, in Selected Poems, Manchester, UK:

Your eyes are a thorn in my heart
Inflicting pain, yet I cherish that thorn
And shield it from the wind
I sheathe it in my flesh, I sheathe it protecting it from night and
agony, and its wound lights the lanterns,
Its tomorrow makes my present
Dearer to me than my soul.
And soon I forget, as eye meets eye,
That once, behind the doors, there were two of us…

I Come From There, a poem about exile from Palestine, first published in 1998:

I come from there and I have memories
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....

A State of Siege, a poem that describes the 2003 siege of Ramallah:

A woman asked the cloud: please enfold my loved one
My clothes are soaked with his blood
If you shall not be rain, my love … be trees
Saturated with fertility, be trees
And if you shall not be trees, my love … be a stone
Saturated with humidity, be a stone
And if you shall not be a stone, my love … be a moon
In the loved one's dream, be a moon
So said a woman to her son … at his funeral