The Enduring Significance of Mahmoud Darwish’s Controversial Poem “Identity Card”

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card” sparked much political controversy when it was published in 1964. Some Israeli politicians still find it objectionable, accusing Darwish of “hating” Israelis. But the poem’s nuance lies in its distinction between “anger” and “hatred.”
Mahmoud Darwish

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card” sparked much political controversy when it was published in 1964. Some Israeli politicians still find it objectionable, accusing Darwish of “hating” Israelis. But the poem’s nuance lies in its distinction between “anger” and “hatred.”

Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Identity Card” takes the form of a conversation between a Palestinian narrator and an Israeli official responsible for verifying his identity at a security checkpoint. The narrator confronts the Israeli bureaucrat with his anger at having been uprooted from his homeland. Israel has, in his account, “stolen the orchards of [his] ancestors” and reduced his identity to “a name without a title.”

These injustices were very real to Darwish (1942-2008). His family was forced to flee their home in Birwa when he was just a child, following an attack by Israeli forces. The Israeli army subsequently demolished the city to prevent its inhabitants from returning. After taking refuge in Lebanon for a year, Darwish’s family returned to territory now claimed by Israel. Because they had missed the Israeli census, the family was placed in the category of “internal refugees.”

The experience of exile is central to Darwish’s poetry and prose. It also defined his political career. He wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independent Statehood in 1988 and served on the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1987-1993.

The New York Times hailed Darwish in 2008 as “one of the greatest contemporary Arab poets.” He was highly acclaimed for both poetry about the Palestinian struggle and poetry that spoke to the human condition without reference to politics. Darwish’s poems about deracination, exile, and exclusion continue to represent the experience of many Palestinians.  

In July of this year, the Knesset passed the Basic Law, “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” which includes the provision that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” The exclusion of Palestinians and other religious minorities who live in Israel from the protection of this law makes Darwish’s “Identity Card” as relevant today as when it was first published in 1964.

Based on the premise of “Identity Card” —an Israeli functionary verifying the narrator’s identity—the reader might expect the functionary to ask questions and make demands of the narrator. Traditionally, it would be the official’s right to demand information and the displaced civilian’s duty to provide it.

The narrator disrupts this balance of power in the first lines of the poem, preempting the Israeli’s evaluation of his identity card: “Write down!/ I am an Arab /And my identity card number is fifty thousand.” With this command, “Write down!”, the narrator asserts his right to define his own identity and demands that the functionary take in the information he is about to provide: details about the individual members of his family, their deep relationship with the land, and their uprooting at the hands of the Israeli state.

Details of the narrator’s connection to the land and his family’s suffering are interspersed with queries for the Israeli: first, “Will you be angry?” then, “Are you satisfied with my status?” and finally “Will the state take [these rocks, that are all you have left us]/As it has been said?” In short, “Identity Card” is a provocation in which the narrator asks: given what I have shared with you about my own humanity, how will you choose to treat me?

The poem sparked immediate controversy when it was published and remains a source of contention for some Israeli politicians today. In June of 2017, Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev left an awards ceremony in protest of a performance that included lines from Darwish’s poem, “Think of Others.” In the speech she made before walking out, Regev described Darwish as a “Palestinian poet who hoped . . . for the death of the Jewish state, who wanted to eat the flesh of the ‘occupier.’” Regev’s reference, however, was not to “Think of Others,” the poem whose words were recited in the ceremony, but to “Identity Card,” which concludes:

Therefore!

Write down on the top of the first page:

I do not hate people

Nor do I encroach

But if I become hungry

The usurper’s flesh will be my food

Beware..

Beware..

Of my hunger

And my anger!

By referencing the line “The usurper’s flesh will be my food” out of context, Regev erroneously frames Darwish’s opposition to the Israeli occupation as hatred of the Jewish state. However, the conclusion of “Identity Card,” does not express a desire to destroy Israel; it warns of the consequences of long-lasting oppression. The violent threat in this stanza can only be understood within its context as the second half of a conditional sentence: “if I become hungry/The usurper’s flesh will be my food.”

Hunger, distinct from bloodlust, is not the desire to enact violence, but the result of going without food. This statement is a warning about the consequences of keeping Palestinians in a state of deprivation, a warning that leaving people with no constructive way to sustain themselves will only lead to destruction.

The nuance that Regev omitted from her speech lies in Darwish’s distinction between anger and hatred. “I do not hate people,” the narrator asserts. While hatred is impossible to reason with and encompasses the desire to annihilate the other, anger is contingent on circumstances. Recognizing that Darwish did not hate the Israelis but rather was angry at them would entail acknowledging the actions that have provoked his anger. Condemning “Identity Card” as a hateful poem allows Israeli politicians to discredit the voice it gives to Palestinian anger, and to deflect attention from the reasons for that anger.

The narrator of “Identity Card” not only expressly disavows hatred, but  also avoids accusing his interlocutor of it. His tone is enraged, but also intimate: the question “Will you be angry?” is more typical of a conversation between relatives or friends than a conversation between opposing sides in a political conflict. Darwish avoids making the Israeli official in “Identity Card” an embodiment of oppression and hatred, emphasizing instead his capacity to respond to the narrator on an individual level.

Regev’s criticisms attempt to place Darwish within the dichotomy of victim and oppressor, in which one side of the conflict hates and the other side is hated. As long as Israeli politicians misconstrue Darwish’s poems as expressions of hatred, they can discredit the reasonable voice the poems give to Palestinian anger.

The enduring strength of “Identity Card” is that it rejects this binary relationship of hatred altogether, recognizing instead the complex emotions of both individuals in the poem. Darwish asks both the Israeli official and the reader to consider, given the human complexity on both sides of the conflict, how they will proceed.