Mahmud Darwish (1941-2008)

The sad news of the great Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish’s passing just in (see AFP piece below). In 2005 I published a few extracts from a poem called Halât bisâr in Arabic and Etat de Siège (State of Siege) in the French translation by Elias Sanbar. It is a 90-page work composed of fragments written while Darwish was holed up — confined, more accurately — in Ramallah during January of 2002. Here are these fragments, again:

* * *

at death’s threshold, he said:
I got nothing left to lose.
I’m free next to my freedom
and my tomorrow is in my hand…
soon I’ll enter my life,
I’ll be born free, without father or mother,
and will choose azure letters for my name.

* * *

here, at smoke level, on the staircase of the house,
no time for time.
like those who rise toward God,
we forget pain.


mistress of the house who doesn’t stretch her washing line in the morning
satisfied with the cleanliness of this flag.

* * *

no homeric echo here.
the legends knock on our doors when we need them.
no homeric echo of anything whatsoever…
here, a general is searching for a state that sleeps
under the rubble of a Troy that is yet to come.

* * *

the soldiers measure the distance between being
and nothingness
with the tank’s gun sight…


we measure the distance between our bodies
and the shell… with our sixth sense.

* * *

[to a poet]
each time absence abandoned you
you found yourself implicated in the solitude of the gods.
so be the wandering “inside” of your outside
and “the outside” of your inside,
be present in absence.

* * *

[to poetry]
besiege your siege.


[to prose]
from the dictionary of the law
pull your proofs toward a real
proofs have destroyed
and explain your dust.


[to poetry and prose]
fly away together
like the two wings of a swallow carrying blessed spring.

* * *

our cups of coffee. the birds. the green trees
throwing blue shadows and the sun which junps from one
wall to the other like a gazelle…
the water of the clouds and their infinite shapes
in what little sky there remains for us
and other things remembrance of which has been pushed back to later
show that this morning is strong is splendid
and that we are the guests of eternity.

* * *

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Mahmud Darwish, widely considered one of the
greatest Palestinian poets, died Saturday in a US hospital following
open-heart surgery, hospital officials told AFP.

“Mr Darwish has died at 1:35 pm (1835 GMT),” Ann Brimberry, a
spokeswoman for the Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas, where
he was being treated told AFP.

The 67-year-old writer was placed on life support two days ago
following complications arising from the surgery, a friend told AFP in
Jerusalem earlier, asking not to be named.

Darwish has published more than two dozen books of poetry and prose
rooted in his experience of Palestinian exile and the bitter Middle
East conflict, in a career spanning nearly five decades.

Widely considered one of the Arab world’s greatest poets, Darwish has
been harshly critical of Israel over the years and was detained
several times in the 1960s before going into self-imposed exile in

Over the next 25 years Darwish wandered from place to place, spending
time in several Arab capitals and briefly residing in Moscow and

He received numerous literary awards during his career, including the
Ibn Sina Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, the 1969 Lotus prize from the
Union of Afro-Asian Writers, France’s Knight of Arts and Belles
Lettres medal in 1997, the 2001 Prize for Cultural Freedom from the
Lannan Foundation, the Moroccan Wissam of intellectual merit handed to
him by King Mohammad VI of Morocco, and the Stalin Peace Prize,
according to the Academy of American Poets.

“Darwish is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the
eloquent witness of exile and belonging,” the poet Naomi Shihab Nye
once said of him.

Born in 1941 in an Arab village in what is now northern Israel,
Darwish and his family were expelled during the 1948 war that followed
the creation of the Jewish state, though they returned to Israel a few
years later.

A sequence of poetic prose written about his experience living in
Beirut during the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Lebanon in 1982
was translated into English in 1995 under the title “Memory for

In 1988 he wrote the official Palestinian declaration of independence
and served on the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO) until 1993, when he resigned in protest at the Oslo
autonomy accords.

He has been living in the West Bank town of Ramallah since 1995.

In 2000, a proposal by then Israeli education minister Yossi Sarid to
teach Darwish’s works in public schools sparked a political firestorm
and led the right-wing opposition to register a no-confidence vote in
the government.

In July 2007, Darwish decried the Islamist Hamas movement’s bloody
takeover of the Gaza Strip a month earlier in his first poetry recital
in Israel since quitting the Jewish state in 1970.

“We woke up from a coma to see a monocolored flag (of Hamas) do away
with the four-color flag (of Palestine),” Darwish said before some
2,000 people who attended the reading in the northern port city of

“We have triumphed,” he said with thick irony. “Gaza won its
independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two
prisons who don’t greet each other. We are victims dressed in
executioners’ clothing.”

“We have triumphed knowing that it is the occupier who really won.”

Following news of Darwish’s death, the Palestinian ambassador to
Jordan said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas would send a plane to
repatriate the body.

Atallah Kheiry also told AFP in Amman that Abbas had “asked
Palestinian officials to contact the Israeli authorities to press them
(to allow) for the burial of Darwish in his native Galilee,” in
northern Israel.

Darwish previously underwent heart surgery in 1984 and 1998, with the
latter operation inspiring the following verse: “I have defeated you,
death/ All the beautiful arts have defeated you/ The songs of
Mesopotamia, the obelisks of Egypt, the carved tombs of the pharaohs
on the altar have defeated you, and you are vanquished.”

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