What makes a poem subversive? Expressing a common humanity? Refuting identities thrust at us? Turning the pen against injustices? Appreciating beauty in people? Confronting history? Telling stories of life as it is? Singing of sadness, regret and anger? Ironical, but the answer is yes. Mahmoud Darwish of Palestine did all this. He belonged to the tribe of ‘raconteurs of conscience’ whose poetry stirs the hearts that have not closed their eyes to oppression of people and their misery.  Darwish’s is really “an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered…” as his fellow Arab poet Naomi Shihab once famously said.

Mahmoud Darwish’s death on 9th August 2008 went largely unnoticed in India which has all but turned its back on the Palestinian struggle and people. It was left to the independent voices on internet to let us Indians know that the great voice will no longer sing the songs it had created and give us pleasure, touch us with the beauty of his thoughts, make us sad and uncomfortable with what he recounts. Breyten Breytenbach, an anti-apartheid Afrikaner poet who also knows well the pangs of exile and pain of prison, was at the last reading by Derwish just weeks before he died. He describes the evening thus…

“The sun was setting, there was a soundless wind in the trees and from the neighbouring streets we could hear the voices of children playing. And for hours we sat on the ancient stone seats, spellbound by the depth and the beauty of this poetry. Was it about Palestine? Was it about his people dying, the darkening sky, the intimate relationships with those on the other side of the wall, ‘soldier’ and ‘guest’, exile and love, the return to what is no longer there, the memory of orchards, the dreams of freedom…? Yes – like a deep stream all of these themes were there, of course they so constantly informed his verses; but it was also about olives and figs and a horse against the skyline and the feel of cloth and the mystery of the colour of a flower and the eyes of a beloved and the imagination of a child and the hands of a grandfather. And of death.”

Derwish was fluent in Hebrew and read the work of Lorca and Pablo Neruda in Hebrew translations. His poetry resembles that of Faiz in the sense that he uses stylistically classical language but writes of common concerns in the voice of oppressed people. Also, like Faiz, Derwish’s poetry has many layers of meaning. In a hard hitting poem, he describes the violence that Palestinians face on day to day basis. Its full force comes not from harsh angry words but soft, melancholy tones of lost relationships, death, dreams and colours.

Victim #18

The olive grove was once green;
It was! And the sky was
A blue forest; it was!
What has changed it tonight?

And tonight
I’ll come through the window
And bring you jasmine.
Don’t blame me if I’m late;
They always stop me on the way.

They quietly stopped our truck
at the curve of the road
and quietly turned us East.

My heart was once a blue sparrow;
It was! And your handkerchiefs
Were all white, my beloved.
What has soiled them tonight?
I don’t understand.

They quietly stopped our truck
and quietly turned us East.

For you I have everything:
Both shade and light
And a wedding ring
And even an orchard of fig trees.

They quietly stopped our truck
and quietly turned us East.

The olive grove was always green;
It was, my beloved.
But tonight
The blood of fifty victims
Has turned it into a red pool.
Please don’t blame me
If I can’t come;
They’ve murdered me, too.

A Palestinian blogger from Gaza- Heba says, “He taught me to believe that our cause is alive and just and that a Palestinian does live in the conscience of millions with his/her long legacy of love, patience, exile, and nostalgia.” Heba, you are right Palestine will continue to live in my heart with Derwish’s legacy and poetry.  

In one of his last poems, set in ditch where a victim and his enemy have fallen, he articulates his dejectedness at not having been able to see a resolution of Palestine Israel conflict and passes the baton to future poets to dream on and realize their dreams for the Palestinian people.

He said: Would you negotiate with me now?
I said: For what would you negotiate me now,
in this grave-hole?
He said: On my share and your share of this common grave
I said: What use is it?
Time has passed us,
our fate is an exception to the rule
here lay a murderer and the murdered, sleeping in one hole
and it remains for another poet to take this scenario to its end!

I conclude with another of his famous poems, a chance reading of which introduced me to Derwish and the Palestinian struggle, years ago.

The Earth is closing on us
pushing us through the last passage
and we tear off our limbs to pass through.
The Earth is squeezing us.
I wish we were its wheat
so we could die and live again.
I wish the Earth was our mother
so she’d be kind to us.

I wish we were pictures on the rocks
for our dreams to carry as mirrors.
We saw the faces of those who will throw
our children out of the window of this last space.
Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?
We will write our names with scarlet steam.
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.
We will die here, here in the last passage.
Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.

 

Mahmoud Darwish, poet, born March 15, 1941; died August 9, 2008