Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish dies
Last Updated: Saturday, August 9, 2008 | 4:55 PM ET
The Associated Press
Mahmoud Darwish, the world's most recognized Palestinian poet, whose prose gave voice to the Palestinian experience of exile, occupation and infighting, died Saturday in Houston, Texas. He was 67.
Darwish, whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages and who won numerous international awards, died following open heart surgery at a Houston hospital, said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.Mahmoud Darwish speaks during a reading in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on July 15, 2007. It marked his first appearance in Israel since leaving for Lebanon and Jordan in 1971. (Gil Cohen Magen/Associated Press)
Born to a large Muslim family, he emerged as a Palestinian cultural icon who eloquently described his people's struggle for independence, and as a vocal critic of both the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian leadership. He gave voice to the Palestinian dreams of statehood, crafted their declaration of independence and helped forge a Palestinian national identity.
"He felt the pulse of Palestinians in beautiful poetry. He was a mirror of the Palestinian society," said Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist and lecturer in cultural studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.
Darwish first gained prominence in the 1960s with the publication of his first poetry collection, Bird without Wings. It included a poem (Identity Card) that defiantly spoke in the first person of an Arab man giving his identity number — a common practice among Palestinians when dealing with Israeli authorities and Arab governments — and vowing to return to his land.
Many of his poems have been put into music — most notably Rita, Birds of Galilee and I Yearn for my Mother's Bread — and have become anthems for at least two generations of Arabs.
He wrote another 21 collections, the last in 2008, The Impression of Butterflies.
Eschewed tradition and wrote in a simple style
Qleibo described Darwish's poetry as "the easy impossible," for Darwish's ability to condense the Palestinian narrative into simple, evocative language — breaking away from the more traditional heavy, emotive and rhythmic verse of other Arab poets.
Darwish wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988, read by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat when he unilaterally declared statehood. The declaration was symbolic and had no concrete significance.
'He started out as a poet of resistance and then he became a poet of conscience.'—Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi
Darwish's influence was keenly felt among Palestinians, serving as a powerful voice for many.
"He started out as a poet of resistance and then he became a poet of conscience," said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi.
"He embodied the best in Palestinians … even though he became iconic he never lost his sense of humanity. We have lost part of our essence, the essence of the Palestinian being."
Last year, Darwish recited a poem damning the deadly infighting between rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, describing it as "a public attempt at suicide in the streets."
Joined Israeli Communist Party
Darwish was born in the Palestinian village of Birweh near Haifa. He joined the Israeli Communist Party after high school and began writing poems for leftist newspapers.
"When we think of Darwish ... he is our heart, and our tongue," said Issam Makhoul, an Arab legislator and veteran member of the Israeli Communist Party.
Darwish left Israel in the early 1970s to study in the former Soviet Union, and from there he travelled to Egypt and Lebanon. He joined the Palestine Liberation Organization but resigned in 1993 in protest over the interim peace accords that Arafat signed with Israel. Darwish moved to the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1996.
His work is widely admired on the Arab and Palestinian street. In Israel, it evokes different feelings.
In 2000, Israel's education minister, Yossi Sarid, suggested including some of Darwish's poems in the Israeli high school curriculum. But Prime Minister Ehud Barak overruled him, saying Israel was not ready yet for his ideas in the school system.
In 1988, a Darwish poem, Passing in Passing Words, was read by then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir inside Israel's parliament as an example of the Palestinians' unwillingness to live alongside Jews. The poem suggested that Darwish called for Jews to leave the region.
Adel Usta, a specialist on Darwish's poetry, said the poem was misunderstood and mistranslated.
"He created a national Palestinian identity that no other poet could achieve," Usta said.
Darwish married and divorced twice. He did not have any children.
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