by Amal Amireh
The new Syrian TV drama “In the Presence of Absence,” about the life of the poet Mahmoud Darwish, is giving some Palestinians an ulcer this Ramadan season. The series is being broadcast on several Arab satellite channels, including the Palestinian one. Some objected to the series before it was made because they thought those who were undertaking the project are doing it for profit and are not being faithful to the memory of Palestine’s national poet. Their effort to stop it didn’t pan out and now they are watching in horror as they see their beloved poet miscast, misrepresented, and twisted out of shape. The actor-criminal is one Firas Ibrahim that everyone seems to love to hate. Believe me, voodoo dolls of him will sell like hot qatayef in Rmallah.
They are lamenting that this great poet is being sacrificed on the altar of egos and art-for-profit. They are in a panic that the legacy of Darwish is in danger and that he is being mutilated for an audience that does not know much about him. Some of those objecting to this drama knew Darwish personally: they are friends, disciples, and colleagues. Some are readers who love the man for the poetry he wrote. I feel their pain!
But instead of using the occasion of a bad TV drama to celebrate the Darwish they love, to educate people about his poetry, to write articles that critique the drama they don’t approve of, I’m sad to report that two thousand Palestinian intellectuals are demanding taking the offensive drama off the air. They have even demonstrated in front of Palestine TV to that effect. In other words, they are calling for censorship. Their love for Darwish seems to have obscured their vision.*
This is a travesty considering that these same artists and intellectuals have suffered (and continue to suffer) from censorship of their works and ideas. The main threat to not only Palestinian, but to Arab writers and artists, has always been those who try to silence them. The Israeli state tried to silence Darwish himself by imprisoning him and by putting him under house arrest for many years. His poem “Ana Yousuf Ya Abi” (I’m Yousef, Father) almost landed Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifeh in jail after Muslim authorities in Lebanon accused him of blaspheme (Khalifeh is now being attacked for his involvement in the making of this drama). Iraqi poet Muthaffar al Nawwab and Saudi novelist Abdel Rahman Mounif were sent to exile by their respective governments. Egyptian novelist and noble laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by someone who never read him but was told that he writes blasphemous books. Mahfouz was eighty two at the time. His book Awlad Haretna (translated as Children of Gabalawi), was banned from Egypt for decades. A month ago, Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoush, nicknamed the Nightingale of the Revolution, was found dead in River Assi, with his throat carved out. And the list goes on and on!
In light of this reality, one hoped that intellectuals will mobilize to defend freedom of expression, not censorship. But unfortunately they wasted a golden opportunity to support the one principle that can protect them as artists and intellectuals.
Standing against censorship should be their position regardless of how good or bad the work in question is. Censors always have “good reasons” to justify silencing others: national security is often a popular excuse. Others are to defend traditional values, to protect religion, and to safe guard morality. In this case, the excuse is no better: to protect Darwish, his memory and legacy, from misrepresentation. Some are trembling at the artistic blaspheme being committed by bad acting and superficial dramatization. Others went as far as to call the series “national treason. This all reminds us that the challenge is to be against censoring even those you disagree with. Otherwise, you are just fending for your own tribe, something anathema to Darwish’s art.
I find it also troubling that the language used to defend Darwish almost deifies him (Darwish the Great, Darwish the Giant, Darwish the Legend etc. etc). Therefore, I couldn’t help notice that the biggest crime of the drama seems to be that it shows Darwish as a womanizer! That is blasphemy according to Darwish’s lovers — how dare they! This reminded me of a friend who threw a violent fit when he heard that the Syrian novelist Ghada al Samman published the love letters that she and Ghassan Kanafani exchanged during an affair they had. My friend thought that it was a crime against Palestine to show Kanafani in a the position of the weak lover, groveling to a woman. He (my friend not Kanafani) cursed al Samman with the most obscene curses he has in his repertoire. “How dare that so and so woman bring down our man,” he fulminated. For him, Kanafani was not a man. He was a symbol of Palestinian manhood and such letters expose his weakness and therefore is a dagger in the heart of the Palestinian nation.
Something similar seems to be at work here. But that will be the subject of another post.
For now, let us remember that artists and writers are usually the first victims of censorship, whether populist or state sponsored. The best way to pay our tribute to Darwish is to affirm a principled, un-wavering commitment to freedom of expression. Yes, even for bad TV dramas!
Amal Amireh is a Palestinian associate professor of English and World Literature at George Mason University.
* Zakaria Mouhammad is a bright exception.