Book Review: Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness

The title of Mahmoud Darwish’s memoir of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon deals with the power of language through its direct impact on memory and history, on what is remembered: the capacity that words possess in determining what remains and endures. Throughout the book, Darwish plays with the idea of an exchange with the aggressors, a “blow by blow” of sorts. They have weapons, he has words: “You give me bombs, I give you a text;” “You give me forgetfulness, I give you memory.”
Mahmoud-Darwish-Palestinian-Poet (1941-2008)

“It is precisely because I forget that I read.”

~Roland Barthes

“Let my language overcome my hostile fate, my line of descendants. Let it overcome me, my father, and a vanishing that won’t vanish. This is my language, my miracle, my magic wand.”

~Mahmoud Darwish, “Mural”

A Poetic Childhood

From early childhood, Mahmoud Darwish intuited that his problems “could be resolved through language.” While still in elementary school, and always at the top of his class, he began writing poetry and quickly realized how powerful words were. When he was twelve years old, and living under Israeli military rule, he was invited to read his verses at a celebration for Israeli independence. The poem he composed reflected on the irony of Arabs being forced to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. The following day, the military governor himself called the child to his office and harshly reprimanded him for writing such things. 

Unintimidated, he was convinced he had written the truth and felt at peace with his words. He also came to the realization that poetry was serious business and that his “deliberate act of writing the truth as he deeply and honestly felt it was a dangerous activity.” 

“Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982”

This early experience marked Darwish’s destiny, leading him to take poetry seriously and to profoundly identify with language as a powerful means of expression. Mahmoud Darwish was defined by words: his verses were his country and he fully inhabited them. Language was “home and self –it is outside of place and time, because with it, Palestinians ‘carried the place . . . carried the time’.”

He insisted on his identity as a poet even in the cruelest of situations, including the 1982 Israeli invasion and the shelling of Beirut which he directly experienced. He wielded language as a shield to defend himself against physical annihilation (“poets may die, but their words endure”) and as a weapon against the obliteration of his history, culture and memories: “I want to find a language that transforms language itself into steel for the spirit –a language to use against these sparkling silver insects, these jets.”

The Realm of Memory

“I come from there and I have memories” –Mahmoud Darwish 

It is precisely Mahmoud Darwish’s refusal to comply with the amnesia that is imposed upon the Palestinians that drives him to write his memoir. By writing, he fights for the remembrance of the history the occupiers seek to obliterate. Furthermore, with his words, he acts on the Palestinians’ human need to be remembered. “No one wants to be forgotten,” he states, explaining that the need to be remembered is the existential motive for much of life’s activity, including the building of forts and citadels, which are “no more than attempts to protect a name that does not trust time to preserve it from oblivion . . . people bring children into the world to carry their name, or to bear for them the weight of the name and its glory.” If the need for remembrance is part of human nature, “why then should those whom the waves of forgetfulness have cast upon the shores of Beirut be expected to go against nature? Why so much amnesia to be expected of them?” 

Knowing that memories are unstable, and that history is written by the “conquerors” (as he calls the Israelis), his writing stands as a witness for that which the occupiers seek to destroy: “I want a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness . . .” By writing, he guards his own memories and preserves the existence of the “lost realm” of Palestine. Birweh, his birth town, is merely one out of the five hundred and thirty-one Palestinian villages that were “totally and systematically wiped off the face of the earth by Zionist terrorist gangs in 1948.” As if the physical annihilation of these towns were not enough, the memory of their existence may be criminalized in the never-ending attempt to eliminate the Palestinians and their history: There have been recent Israeli attempts to pass laws that would prohibit uttering the word nakba, and the mention of Arabic names for towns, villages and other places in “Israel.”  

While honoring the need to be remembered, Darwish is critical of how this very need has been manipulated and the Palestinian identity exploited by others in exchange for the “blessings of memory.” Palestinians are constantly reminded that they do not belong: ““You’re aliens here,” they say to them there. “You’re aliens here,” they say to them here.””

The Realm of Forgetfulness

“Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?” –Mahmoud Darwish 

“[T]hat which remains is established by the poets.” –Friedrich Hölderlin

Darwish wanted to forget the “longest day in history,” the day when Israel laid siege to Beirut. His memoir thus acquires another purpose and another layer of meaning: By writing, he is not simply preserving the memories of a people whose whole existence is being erased, but also transcending and overcoming his own excruciating memories. Darwish must forget in order to keep living. But he must remember in order to forget, for if words can be made powerful, then some words can bury others. To remember is to forget. 

Darwish was unable to write poetry for four years after the invasion of Lebanon and finally liberated himself by writing this book of poetic prose: “I had a personal motive,” he says. “I was not a historian or an analyst. I was doing it for personal reasons. By writing it, I got over my writer’s block.” 

However, forgetfulness has more than one dimension in Darwish’s work. It is a meditation on forgetfulness as a fact of life and a part of history: just as memory applies both to Darwish’s personal experiences and collectively to the Palestinian people, so does forgetfulness. History has thus far kept Palestinians in exile since 1948. Their return dream may or may not be realized. Darwish expresses hopelessness, and intimates the possibility that Palestinians may remain homeless, victims of history’s long record of oblivion: “I don’t like the sea. I don’t want the sea, because I don’t see a shore, or a dove. I see in the sea nothing except a sea. I don’t see a shore. I don’t see a dove.” 

Nevertheless, for Darwish (as well as for his readers) there is hope in beauty and creativity. His commitment to aesthetic creation does not conflict with his humanist or political purposes. There is no contradiction for him between the development of the poem’s form and that of its contents. This artistic integration of form and substance allows him to transmute unbearable pain into sublime creation. Darwish resists the “conquerors,” and is successful, by imbuing creativity and beauty into one of the starkest days in history, one with nonstop shelling and a thunderstorm of bombs. Yet even that August of 1982, “the cruelest month” will be remembered through the power of his aesthetic lens. 

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1 Mahmoud Darwish. Interview with R. Shehadeh. Bomb Magazine No. 81. Fall 2002, 54-59
2  ibid., 55-56.
3  Mena, Erica. The Geography of Poetry. Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge. VII. 2009, pp. 111-118, 11
5 Darwish, Memory,15
4 Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness, xxiii
5 Darwish, Memory,15
6 Memory, 52
7 Hamdi, Tahrir. Yeats’s Ireland, Darwish’s Palestine. Arab Studies Quarterly 36.2 [2014], pp. 92-106, 102
8  ibid.
9  Memory,13.
10 Darwish, Shehadeh Interview, 55.
11 Memory, 182.