One of the wisest pronouncements I have heard in my life was that of an Egyptian general, a few days after Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem.
We were the first Israelis to come to Cairo, and one of the things we were very curious about was: how did you manage to surprise us at the beginning of the October 1973 war?
The general answered: “Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets.”
I reflected on these words last Wednesday, at the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish.
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DURING THE funeral ceremony in Ramallah he was referred to again and again as “the Palestinian National Poet”.
But he was much more than that. He was the embodiment of the Palestinian destiny. His personal fate coincided with the fate of his people.
He was born in al-Birwa, a village on the Acre-Safad road. As early as 900 years ago, a Persian traveler reported that he had visited this village and prostrated himself on the graves of “Esau and Simeon, may they rest in peace”. In 1931, ten years before the birth of Mahmoud, the population of the village numbered 996, of whom 92 were Christians and the rest Sunni Muslims.
On June 11, 1948, the village was captured by the Jewish forces. Its 224 houses were eradicated soon after the war, together with those of 650 other Palestinian villages. Only some cactus plants and a few ruins still testify to their past existence. The Darwish family fled just before the arrival of the troops, taking 7-year old Mahmoud with them.
Somehow, the family made their way back into what was by then Israeli territory. They were accorded the status of “present absentees” – a cunning Israeli invention. It meant that they were legal residents of Israel, but their lands were taken from them under a law that dispossessed every Arab who was not physically present in his village when it was occupied. On their land the kibbutz Yasur (belonging to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement) and the cooperative village Ahihud were set up.
Mahmoud’s father settled in the next Arab village, Jadeidi, from where he could view his land from afar. That’s where Mahmoud grew up and where his family lives to this day.
During the first 15 years of the State of Israel, Arab citizens were subject to a “military regime” – a system of severe repression that controlled every aspect of their lives, including all their movements. An Arab was forbidden to leave his village without a special permit. Young Mahmoud Darwish violated this order several times, and whenever he was caught he went to prison. When he started to write poems, he was accused of incitement and put in “administrative detention” without trial.
At that time he wrote one of his best known poems, “Identity Card”, a poem expressing the anger of a youngster growing up under these humiliating conditions. It opens with the thunderous words: “Record: I am an Arab!”
It was during this period that I met him for the first time. He came to me with another young village man with a strong national commitment, the poet Rashid Hussein. I remember a sentence of his: “The Germans killed six million Jews, and barely six years later you made peace with them. But with us, the Jews refuse to make peace.”
He joined the Communist party, then the only party where a nationalist Arab could be active. He edited their newspapers. The party sent him to Moscow for studies, but expelled him when he decided not to come back to Israel. Instead he joined the PLO and went to Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Beirut.
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IT WAS there that I met him again, in one of the most exciting episodes of my life, when I crossed the lines in July 1982, at the height of the siege of Beirut, and met with Arafat. The Palestinian leader insisted that Mahmoud Darwish be present at this symbolic event, his first ever meeting with an Israeli. He sent somebody to call him.
His description of the siege of Beirut is one of Darwish’s most impressive works. These were the days when he became the national poet. He accompanied the Palestinian struggle, and at the sessions of the Palestinian National Council, the institution that united all parts of the Palestinian people, he electrified the hall with readings of his stirring poems.
During those years he was very close to Arafat. While Arafat was the political leader of the Palestinian national movement, Darwish was its spiritual leader. It was he who wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the 1988 session of the National Council on the initiative of Arafat. It is very similar to the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which Darwish had learned at school.
He clearly understood its significance: by adopting this document the Palestinian parliament-in-exile accepted in practice the idea of establishing a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, in only a part of the homeland, as proposed by Arafat.
The alliance between the two broke down when the Oslo agreement was signed. Arafat saw it as “the best agreement in the worst situation”. Darwish believed that Arafat had conceded too much. The national heart confronted the national mind. (That historical debate has still not been concluded today, after both of them have died.)
Since then Darwish lived in Paris, Amman and Ramallah – the Wandering Palestinian, who has replaced the Wandering Jew.
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HE DID not want to be the National Poet. He did not want to be a political poet at all, but a lyrical one, a poet of love. But whenever he turned in this direction, the long arm of Palestinian fate dragged him back.
I am not qualified to judge his poems or to assess his greatness as a poet. Leading experts on the Arabic language are still bitterly quarreling among themselves about the meaning of his poems, their nuances and layers, images and allusions. He was a master of classical Arabic, and equally at home with Western and Israeli poetry. Many believe that he was the greatest Arab poet, and one of the greatest poets of our time.
His poetry enabled him to do what no one had succeeded in doing by other means: to unite all the parts of the fractured and fragmented Palestinian people – in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, in Israel, in the refugee camps and throughout the Diaspora. He belonged to all of them. The refugees could identify with him because he was a refugee, Israel’s Palestinian citizens could identify with him because he was one of them, and so could the inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories, because he was a fighter against the occupation.
This week some people of the Palestinian Authority tried to exploit him for their struggle with Hamas. I don’t think that he would have agreed. In spite of the fact that he was a totally secular Palestinian and very far from the religious world of Hamas, he expressed the feelings of all Palestinians. His poems also resonate with the soul of a member of Hamas in Gaza.
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HE WAS the poet of anger, of longing, of hope and of peace. These were the strings of his violin.
Anger about the injustice done to the Palestinian people and every Palestinian individual. Longing for “my mother’s coffee”, for his village’s olive tree, for the land of his forefathers. Hope that the conflict would come to an end. Support for peace between the two peoples, based on justice and mutual respect. In the documentary by the Israeli-French film-maker Simone Bitton, he pointed at the donkey as a symbol of the Palestinian people – a wise, patient animal that manages to survive.
He understood the nature of the conflict better than most Israelis and Palestinians. He called it “a struggle between two memories”. The Palestinian historical memory clashes with the Jewish historical memory. Peace can come about only when each side understands the memories of the other – their myths, their secret longings, their hopes and fears.
That is the meaning of the Egyptian general’s saying: poetry expresses the most profound feelings of a people. And only the understanding of these feelings can open the way for a real peace. A peace between politicians is not worth very much without a peace between the poets and the public they express. That’s why Oslo failed, and why the present so-called negotiation for a “shelf agreement” is so worthless. It has no basis in the feelings of the two peoples.
Eight years ago, then Minister of Education Yossi Sarid tried to include two poems of Darwish in the Israeli school curriculum. This caused a furor, and the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, decided that “the Israeli public is not ready for this”. This meant, in reality, that “the Israeli public is not ready for peace.”
This may still be true. Real peace, peace between the peoples, peace between the children born this week, on the day of the funeral, in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, will only come about when Arab pupils learn the immortal poem of Chaim Nachman Bialik “The Valley of Death”, about the Kishinev pogrom, and when Israeli pupils learn the poems of Darwish about the Naqba. Yes, also the poems of anger, including the line “Go away, and take your dead with you.”
Without understanding and courageously facing the flaming anger about the Naqba and its consequences, we shall not understand the roots of the conflict and shall not be able to solve it. And as another great Palestinian man of letters, Edward Said, said: without understanding the impact of the Holocaust upon the Israeli soul, the Palestinians will not be able to deal with the Israelis.
The Poets are the marshals of the struggle between the memories, between the myths, between the traumas. We shall need them on the road to peace between the two peoples, between the two states, for building a common future.
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I was not present at the state funeral arranged by the Palestinian Authority in the Mukata, so orderly, so orchestrated. I was there, two hours later, when his body was buried on a beautiful hill, overlooking the surroundings.
I was deeply impressed by the public, which gathered under the blazing sun around the wreath-covered grave and listened to the recorded voice of Mahmoud reading his poems. Those present, people of the elite and simple villagers, connected with the man in silence, in a very private communion. Despite the crowding, they opened a way for us, the Israelis, who came to pay our respects at the grave.
We bade our silent farewell to a great Palestinian, a great poet, a great human being.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.