Adam of Lost Eden

by Najeeb Mubarki

(This article first appeared in The Economic Times, May 19, 2007, while the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, was still alive.  Darwish was born exactly seventy-one years ago in the Western Galilee village of al-Birwa on March 13, 1941.)

Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008)
Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008)

In his 2004 film Notre Musique [Our Music], a journalese-philosophical meditation on war and reconciliation, Jean-Luc Godard gave pride of place to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In the film, repeating what he had once told an Israeli journalist, Darwish inverts the relationship with the ‘other’: “Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interest is in you, not in me…” By saying that he was important because Israel is important Darwish wasn’t just referring to the erasure of identity and history the Palestinians have had to struggle against, but perhaps more to the continuum of suffering, of that erasure, that has been passed down, as it were, to the Palestinians by the Jews. Not that Darwish now needs to affirm his self as an inversion of his ‘enemy’, or that he needed a Godard to affirm his being. In fact, it is quite the other way round, he was in the film because one cannot make a film on reconciliation without him, and his is a poetry of love, loss, of memory and exile that is more a challenge to the occupier than slogans and bombs ever can be.

Perhaps it is enough to say that Darwish has made poetry of Palestine, that he, almost single-handedly, at least for the entire non-Arab world, was responsible for Palestine blazing forth in the culture pages. That he has made a nomadic elegance out of exile, while yet probing the nature of dispossession in stunning lines that seamlessly blend love and resistance.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living:
April’s hesitations, the aroma of bread at dawn
a woman’s point of view about men
the works of Aeschylus, the beginning of love
grass growing on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh
and the invader’s fear of memories 

These verses from “We Have On This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living” are perhaps symptomatic of Darwish’s oeuvre, his ability to maintain the tradition of classical Arabic love poetry within the language of literary modernity, (best reminiscent of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca), of his invoking of myths–Judaic, Biblical, Greek, Sumerian and pre-Islamic, and yes, Palestinian–to give utterance to his reality. Exile, perhaps is the dominating feature of that reality, of the lives of millions of Palestinians forced off their land by the Zionist guns and their rallying cry of ‘A land without people for a people without land.’  This erasure of a people, of the very concept of Palestine, is the hole that devours the holy land. And Darwish probes the exile that follows this dispossession with his exilic inventory of pain, dislocation, anxiety with exquisite lyricism.

Born in 1941 in the village of Birwa in Acre, Palestine, Darwish, as a six year old had to flee along with the rest of the inhabitants, as those of scores of other villages, before the advance of the Israeli army. Birwa was destroyed, wiped off the map, and Darwish became an ‘internal exile’—people who could not travel in their own homeland. Right until he left the country in 1970, Darwish was frequently imprisoned, put under house arrest, for the crime of reciting his poetry. In his later wanderings in Beirut (where he wrote his critique of nationalist rhetoric, and monument to coffee, Memory for Forgetfulness), Tunis and Paris, Darwish learnt how to make his home in poetry, created his homeland in his voice:

Who am I? This is a question that others ask, but has no answer
I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language? I am my language  
(A Rhyme for the Odes”)

As has been endlessly observed, with him, Palestine is a metaphor for the loss of Eden, and the attendant sense of exile permeates all: memory, nostalgia, even love is defined by it:

This jasmine in the July night is a song
for two strangers who meet on a street leading nowhere
“Who am I after your two almond eyes?” the male stranger asks
“Who am I after your exile in me?” the female stranger asks.
(“Night That Overflows My Body”)

There is none of the ‘Hamas’ (rage) in Darwish, loss and exile become almost universal, the enemy is never vilified, he never betrays a wisp of the exclusionary nationalist. Even his poem, “Those who pass between fleeting words,” which was angrily denounced in the Knesset by Yitzhak Shamir, with its lines: Live anywhere, but do not live amongst us…and do not die amongst us, frequently quoted to “prove Darwish’s anti-semitism,” he himself dismisses as a poem too angry and direct—despite having addressed it to Israeli soldiers in the first place.  For, this was a man, who, as he once said, “never had any problem psychologically accepting the Jews. The teacher who gave me love for poetry was Jewish, the female judge who first sentenced me to prison was Jewish, my first love was a Jewish woman…” The latter, in fact, was to become the subject of one of his best-loved and most-sung poems: Between my eyes and Rita, there is a gun  Given the tradition of public recitals in the Arab world, Darwish invariably draws thousands of people, with his sonorous, incantatory voice, he is often seen as being foremost a voice of resistance. But perhaps like his other great contemporary, the Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani, for whom the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 war led to his overwhelmingly erotic love poetry acquiring a political edge, Darwish is best defined as the erudite cultural spokesman of the Arabs, a poet who seeks to write of love, for then, ‘he challenges the conditions that don’t allow him to write love poems.’

Though translated into over 20 languages, and by now a major world poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who turned 65 in March, is still not entirely available in English, apart from collections like The Adam of Two Edens (2001) and Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2002). [2]

Najeeb Mubarki is a Kashmiri journalist, and has studied at Delhi University, JNU, and SOAS, London.  Mubarki currently works at The Economic Times in Delhi.


[1]  The Palestinian group, Triple Gibran, performing “We Have On This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living”:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living:

The final days of September
A woman leaving forty in full blossom
The hour of sunlight in prison
A cloud reflecting a swarm of creatures
The peoples’ applause for those who face death with a smile
The tyrants’ fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living:
On this earth, the lady of earth,
Mother of all beginnings
Mother of all ends.
She was called… Palestine.
Her name later became… Palestine.

My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.

[2] Mahmoud Darwish died almost a year after the writing of this essay, on August 9, 2008.  Since then more of his books have been translated, though many more still await that attention.


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