Mahmoud Darwish; poet gave voice to Palestinians' plight; 67

Mahmoud Darwish emerged as a Palestinian cultural icon, eloquently describing his people's struggle for independence. Mahmoud Darwish emerged as a Palestinian cultural icon, eloquently describing his people's struggle for independence. (Gil Cohen Magen/Associated Press/File 2007)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Diaa Hadid
Associated Press / August 10, 2008

GAZA CITY - Mahmoud Darwish, a poet whose prose gave voice to the Palestinian experience of exile, occupation, and infighting, died yesterday in Houston. He was 67.

The predominant Palestinian poet, whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages and won numerous international awards, died after open heart surgery at a hospital, said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Born to a large Muslim family in historical Palestine - now modern-day Israel - he emerged as a Palestinian cultural icon eloquently describing his people's struggle for independence, while also criticizing 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.

Mr. Darwish first gained prominence in the 1960s with the publication of his first poetry collection, "Bird without Wings." It included the poem "Identity Card," which 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, "The Impression of Butterflies," in 2008.

Qleibo described Mr. Darwish's poetry as "the easy impossible," for the poet'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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 lawmaker 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, Mr. 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."

Mr. Darwish was born in the Palestinian village of Birweh near Haifa, which was destroyed in the 1948 Mideast war that led to Israel's independence. 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 lawmaker and veteran member of the Israeli Communist Party.

Mr. Darwish left Israel in the early 1970s to study in the former Soviet Union, and from there he traveled to Egypt and Lebanon. He joined the Palestine Liberation Organization, but resigned in 1993 in protest over the interim peace accords that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed with Israel. Mr. 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 Mr. Darwish's poems in the Israeli high school curriculum. But Prime Minister Ehud Barak overruled him, saying Israel was not ready 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 Mr. Darwish called for Jews to leave the region.

Adel Usta, a specialist on Mr. Darwish's poetry, said the poem was misunderstood and mistranslated.

"He created a national Palestinian identity that no other poet could achieve," Usta said.

Mr. Darwish married and divorced twice. He does not have any children.

Siham Daoud, a fellow poet and longtime friend of Mr. Darwish, said the poet traveled to a hospital in Houston 10 days ago for the surgery and asked not to be resuscitated if it did not succeed. She said Mr. Darwish had a history of heart problems, and had been operated on twice in the past.

Akram Haniyeh, editor in chief of the Al Ayyam newspaper and a close friend of Mr. Darwish, was by his bedside in Houston. He said Mr. Darwish underwent an operation Wednesday and there were complications.

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