Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1941 in al-Birwah, a village east of Acre in Palestine. His father was a fairly prosperous farmer and his mother was the daughter of the chieftain of another town, al-Damun. Darwish grew up in a large family; he was the second of eight children and his grandfather played a decisive role in his life, teaching him to read and write. In 1948, after the Israeli takeover of al-Birwah, the family moved to Lebanon, but Darwish later returned to the Acre district to live in a town called Deir al-Asad.
Exhibiting remarkable writing talent from a very early age, he would go on to become a renowned poet, with a passion for the Palestinian struggle.
Darwish’s first collection, “Asafir bila Ajnihah” (Wingless Birds) – containing his popular poem “Identity Card” – became a national treasure. The compilation was published in 1960 when he was only 19 years old. That same year, Darwish moved to Haifa and, in 1961, became a member of the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah, and later the Editor of the party’s newspaper, al-Ittihad.
Mahmoud Darwish was imprisoned a number of times during the 1960s, mostly charged with reciting poetry deemed to be detrimental to Israel’s status.
Mahmoud Darwish was imprisoned a number of times during the 1960s, mostly charged with reciting poetry deemed to be seditious and detrimental to Israel’s status and stability. In 1964, “Awraq al-Zaytun” (Olive Leaves) was published. This was the work which established his reputation as the Palestinians’ “national poet.”
In the 1970s, Darwish traveled to Moscow to study at the Academy of Social Sciences and, upon his return to the Middle East a year later (with the help of H. Haikal, a prominent Egyptian writer and journalist), he chose to reside in Cairo. He attributed this relocation to feeling his intellectual freedom was being curbed and that he could not in any way endure such a confinement.
While based in Egypt, Darwish became the Editor-in-Chief of the Palestinian magazine called Shu’un Filastiniyyah, or Palestinian Affairs. He would also later become the Founding Editor of another Palestinian magazine, al-Karmel, which was established in Cyprus in 1981 and included the work of intellectuals such as Edward Said. Darwish did not stay long in Cairo, and soon returned to Beirut.
Around this time, he became greatly involved with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and, upon the Israeli occupation of the Lebanese capital in 1982, he left the city in the company of the Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat. Darwish then traveled around various capitals and eventually took up residence in Paris.
While Darwish was involved in Palestine’s political affairs throughout his life, the 1980s saw an increase in the prominence of his role in the country’s politics. In 1987, he was elected to the PLO’s executive committee and, a year later, wrote the official Palestinian Declaration of Independence, translated to English afterwards by Edward Said.
Darwish, however, was to resign from his post five years later in protest at the Oslo Accords, a pair of peace agreements between the PLO and Israel. He believed that the situation needed a much firmer and tenacious stand from the Palestinians and feared that the Accords would be unable to ensure a credible and stable Palestinian state. During the late 1990s, he alternated between living in Ramallah in the West Bank and Amman, the Jordanian capital.
While Darwish’s poetry is widely admired across the world, in Israel it evokes mixed sentiments.
Darwish’s poetry has been translated into over 40 languages, including Hebrew. His relationship with Israel has always been complicated. He had a close personal connection to Israel’s cultural life, finding the nation’s pioneering poet, Bialek, of extreme importance. While Darwish’s poetry is widely admired across the world, in Israel it evokes mixed sentiments, due to his outspoken criticism of the state.
Nonetheless, Darwish has been honored with various international prizes and awards such as The Lotus Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, The Knights of the Order of Arts and Letters, and the Prince Claus Awards, to name but a few.
Darwish’s poetry is demarcated by its resonant, incantatory delivery which chimes in with its fervid intimacy and personal sentiment. He is further credited for the virtuosity, simplicity, and musicality of his poetry. The themes unveiled in his work embody the struggle to protect a doomed homeland; yet they are accompanied by the conviction that a tangible truthfulness and compromise with “the other” can coexist.
A Visionary Poet
His contribution to poetry as a whole reveals his ingenuity in preserving the essence and characteristics of traditional Arabic poetry, while at the same time rejuvenating it and attracting diverse audiences. His career went through various phases, but his writing was always influenced by the Palestinian poetry of resistance, and the ever-changing and flourishing Arabic modernist verse style.
It was this bilateral dynamism that would compel him to write poetry of a unique type—one that involves an inventive style of love poem.
Indeed, Darwish would deviate from the putatively popular Arabic love poem and fuse the concept of a beloved with that of a tragic homeland and, in the process, infuse this coalescence with universal human values. This freed the traditional love poem, which the Arab world was so used to, and broke boundaries, encompassing diverse ideals in the process. He always reiterated (to this writer and to others) that the essential task of the poet is to humanize his poetry, even when it deals with hostile themes.
Darwish’s language is ingeniously formulated into a discernible entity, to which it is easy to relate and adjust. He adopts language that evolves out of a sometimes-startling lexicon. His prose finds rapture in all realms of life, is open to new subjects, and transcends reality by traveling beyond the known.
It is believed that Darwish always strove to find language that could touch and resonate with people of all backgrounds.
It is believed that Darwish always strove to find language that could touch and resonate with people of all backgrounds and, most importantly, could attract others through its magnetism. His poetry, moreover, creates a rare relationship with its reader, engulfing the audience in a vortex, privileging the reader with the aesthetic creativity of the work of art.
When Darwish died in August 2008, following complications from open-heart surgery, he was undoubtedly a leading figure in the Arab world, while also having gained eminence and popularity across the globe for his visionary inspiration and brilliance. His poetry amalgamates the conventional with the celestial, the historical with the transcendental, and defiantly creates an artistic expression on disparate subjects reaching beyond the tangible.
In her superb book, “Proust Among the Nation: from Dreyfus to the Middle East” (2008), Jacqueline Rose put Mahmoud Darwish among the great figures of world literature and thought, such as Seamus Heaney, Marcel Proust, and Sigmund Freud. She also argues that the connection between Mahmoud Darwish and politics is inseparable.
In “Readers of Poetry,” Seamus Heaney talks of those poets for whom the struggle of an individual consciousness toward affirmation merges with a collective straining for self-definition. Mahmoud Darwish is the very model of such a poet, whose work yearns toward an identity that is never completely achieved.
Not only, or perhaps always, a political poet, it nevertheless appears Darwish saw the link between poetry and politics as unbreakable. Leaving behind an exceptionally creative and renowned body of work, his legacy will indeed impact literature and Palestinian discourse for years to come.