Mahmoud Darwish

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Mahmoud Darwish
محمود درويش
Mahmoud Darwish at Bethlehem University, (2006).
Born 13 March 1942
al-Birwa, British Mandate of Palestine
Died 9 August 2008(2008-08-09) (aged 66)
Houston, Texas, United States
Occupation Poet and writer
Nationality Palestinian
Period 1964–2008
Genre Poetry

Mahmoud Darwish (Arabic: محمود درويش‎, 13 March 1942 – 9 August 2008) was a Palestinian poet and author who won numerous awards for his literary output and was regarded as the Palestinian national poet.[1] In his work, Palestine became a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection, and the anguish of dispossession and exile.[2][3] He has been described as incarnating and reflecting "the tradition of the political poet in Islam, the man of action whose action is poetry".[4]


Mahmoud Darwish was born in the village of al-Birwa in the Western Galilee.[5] He was the second child of Salim and Houreyyah Darwish. His family were landowners. His mother was illiterate, but his grandfather taught him to read.[3] After Israeli forces assaulted his village of al-Birwa in June 1948 the family fled to Lebanon, first to Jezzin and then Damour.[6] The village was then razed and destroyed by the Israeli army[7][8][9] to prevent its inhabitants from returning to their homes inside the new Jewish state.[10][11] A year later, Darwish's family returned to the Acre area, which was now part of Israel, and settled in Deir al-Asad.[12] Darwish attended high school in Kafr Yasif, two kilometers north of Jadeidi. He eventually moved to Haifa.

He published his first book of poetry, Asafir bila ajniha or "Wingless Birds", at the age of 19. He initially published his poems in Al Jadid, the literary periodical of the Israeli Communist Party, eventually becoming its editor. Later, he was assistant editor of Al Fajr, a literary periodical published by the Israeli Workers Party (Mapam).[13]

Darwish left Israel in 1970 to study in the USSR.[14] He attended the University of Moscow for one year,[3] before moving to Egypt and Lebanon.[15] When he joined the PLO in 1973, he was banned from reentering Israel.[3] In 1995, he returned to attend the funeral of his colleague, Emile Habibi and received a permit to remain in Haifa for four days.[16] Darwish was allowed to settle in Ramallah in 1995,[16] although he said he felt he was living in exile there, and did not consider the West Bank his "private homeland."[14]

Darwish was twice married and divorced. His first wife was the writer Rana Kabbani. In the mid-1980s, he married an Egyptian translator, Hayat Heeni. He had no children.[3] The "Rita" of Darwish's poems was a Jewish woman that he was in love with when he was living in Haifa. The relationship was the subject of the film "Write Down, I Am an Arab" by the filmmaker Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin, an Arab Muslim woman who is married to a Jewish man. While such relationships are rare today, they were more common during the Mandate period, and among communists, who were united by class struggle.[17][18][19]

Darwish had a history of heart disease, suffering a heart attack in 1984, followed by two heart operations, in 1984 and 1998.[3]

His final visit to Israel was on 15 July 2007, to attend a poetry recital at Mt. Carmel Auditorium in Haifa,[20] in which he criticized the factional violence between Fatah and Hamas as a "suicide attempt in the streets".[21]

Literary career[edit]

Darwish published over thirty volumes of poetry and eight books of prose. He was editor of Al-Jadid, Al-Fajr, Shu'un Filistiniyya and Al-Karmel (1981). On 1 May 1965 when the young Darwish read his poem "Bitaqat huwiyya" ["Identity Card"] to a crowd in a Nazareth movie house, there was a tumultuous reaction. Within days the poem had spread throughout the country and the Arab world.[22] Published in his second volume "Leaves of Olives" (Haifa, 1964), the six stanzas of the poem repeat the cry "Write down: I am an Arab."[23]

In the 1970s, "Darwish, as a Palestinian poet of the Resistance committed himself to the ... objective of nurturing the vision of defeat and disaster (after the June War of 1967), so much so that it would ‘gnaw at the hearts’ of the forthcoming generations."[24]

Palestinian poetry often addresses the Nakba and the resultant tragedies. The mid 1980s saw the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and preceded the outbreak of the first Intifada (uprising) on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in December 1987. Mahmoud Darwish addressed these and other issues in Ward aqall [Fewer Roses] (1986), and more specifically in one poem, "Sa-ya'ti barabira akharun" ["Other Barbarians Will Come"].[25]

Darwish's work won numerous awards, and has been published in 20 languages.[26] A central theme in Darwish's poetry is the concept of watan or homeland. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote that Darwish "is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging...."[27]

Writing style[edit]

Darwish's early writings are in the classical Arabic style. He wrote monorhymed poems adhering to the metrics of traditional Arabic poetry. In the 1970s he began to stray from these precepts and adopted a "free-verse" technique that did not abide strictly by classical poetic norms. The quasi-Romantic diction of his early works gave way to a more personal, flexible language, and the slogans and declarative language that characterized his early poetry were replaced by indirect and ostensibly apolitical statements, although politics was never far away.[28]

Literary influences[edit]

Darwish was impressed by the Iraqi poets Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.[6] He cited Rimbaud and Ginsberg as literary influences.[3] Darwish admired the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, but described his poetry as a "challenge to me, because we write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes it better?"[3]

Attitude toward Israel[edit]

Darwish is widely perceived as a Palestinian symbol[14] and a spokesman for Arab opposition to Israel. He rejected accusations of antisemitism: "The accusation is that I hate Jews. It's not comfortable that they show me as a devil and an enemy of Israel. I am not a lover of Israel, of course. I have no reason to be. But I don't hate Jews."[29] Darwish wrote in Arabic, and also spoke English, French and Hebrew. According to the Israeli author Haim Gouri, who knew him personally, Darwish's Hebrew was excellent.[30] Four volumes of his poetry were translated into Hebrew by Muhammad Hamza Ghaneim: Bed of a Stranger (2000), Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (2000), State of Siege (2003) and Mural (2006).[14] Salman Masalha, a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew writer, translated his book Memory for Forgetfulness into Hebrew.[14] In March 2000, Yossi Sarid, the Israeli education minister, proposed that two of Darwish's poems be included in the Israeli high school curriculum. Prime Minister Ehud Barak rejected the proposal on the grounds that Israel was "not ready."[31] It has been suggested that the incident had more to do with internal Israeli politics in trying to damage Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government than poetry.[32] With the death of Darwish the debate about including his poetry in the Israeli school curriculum has been re-opened.[33]

"Although it is now technically possible for Jewish students to study Darwish, his writing is still banned from Arab schools. The curriculum used in Arab education is one agreed in 1981 by a committee whose sole Jewish member vetoed any works he thought might 'create an ill spirit'."[34]

Darwish described Hebrew as a "language of love."[4] He considered himself to be also a part of the Jewish civilization that existed in Palestine and hoped for a reconciliation between the Palestinians and the Jews. When this happens, "the Jew will not be ashamed to find an Arab element in himself, and the Arab will not be ashamed to declare that he incorporates Jewish elements."[35]

Political activism[edit]

Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Darwish & George Habash (pictured in 1980)

Darwish was a member of Rakah, the Israeli communist party, before joining the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut.[36] In 1970 he left for Moscow. Later, he moved to Cairo in 1971 where he worked for al-Ahram daily newspaper. In Beirut, in 1973, he edited the monthly Shu'un Filistiniyya (Palestinian Affairs) and worked as a director in the Palestinian Research Center of the PLO and joined the organisation. In the wake of the Lebanon War, Darwish wrote the political poems Qasidat Bayrut (1982) and Madih al-zill al'ali(1983). Darwish was elected to the PLO Executive Committee in 1987. In 1988 he wrote a manifesto intended as the Palestinian people's declaration of independence. In 1993, after the Oslo accords, Darwish resigned from the PLO Executive Committee.[37]

Views on the peace process[edit]

Darwish consistently demanded a "tough and fair" stand in negotiations with Israel.[38]

Despite his criticism of both Israel and the Palestinian leadership, Darwish believed that peace was attainable. "I do not despair," he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "I am patient and am waiting for a profound revolution in the consciousness of the Israelis. The Arabs are ready to accept a strong Israel with nuclear arms – all it has to do is open the gates of its fortress and make peace."[15]

1988 poem controversy[edit]

In 1988, one of his poems, "Passers Between the Passing Words", was cited in the Knesset by Yitzhak Shamir.[3] He was accused of demanding that the Jews leave Israel, although he claimed he meant the West Bank and Gaza:[39] "So leave our land/Our shore, our sea/Our wheat, our salt, our wound." A specialist on Darwish's poetry Adel Usta, said the poem was misunderstood and mistranslated,[40] while poet and translator Ammiel Alcalay wrote that "the hysterical overreaction to the poem simply serves as a remarkably accurate litmus test of the Israeli psyche ... (the poem) is an adamant refusal to accept the language of the occupation and the terms under which the land is defined".[41]

Views on Hamas[edit]

In 2005, outdoor music and dance performances in Qalqiliya were suddenly banned by the Hamas-led municipality, for the reason that such events would be forbidden by Islam. The municipality also ordered that music no longer be played in the Qalqiliya zoo.[42][43] In response, Darwish warned that "There are Taliban-type elements in our society, and this is a very dangerous sign".[42][43][44][45]

In July 2007, Darwish returned to Ramallah and visited Haifa for a festive event held in his honor sponsored by Masharaf magazine and the Israeli Hadash party.[30] To a crowd of some 2,000 people who turned out for the event, he voiced his criticism of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip: "We woke up from a coma to see a monocolored flag (of Hamas) do away with the four-color flag (of Palestine)."[46]

Music and film[edit]

Many of Darwish's poems were set to music most notably "Rita and the Rifle", "I lost a beautiful dream", "Birds of Galilee" and "I Yearn for my Mother's Bread" and have become anthems for at least two generations of Arabs, by Arab composers, among them Marcel Khalife,[47] Reem Kelani,[48][49] Majida El Roumi and Ahmad Qa'abour.[16] In the 1980s, Sabreen, a Palestinian group in Israel, recorded an album including versions of Darwish's poems "On Man" and "On Wishes".[50] Khalife was accused of blasphemy and insulting religious values because a song entitled "I am Yusuf, oh my father" based on Darwish's lyrics, cited a verse from the Qur'an.[51] In this poem, Darwish shared the pain of Yusuf (Joseph) who was rejected by his brothers, who fear him because he is too handsome and kind. "Oh my father, I am Yusuf / Oh father, my brothers neither love me nor want me in their midst". The story of Joseph is an allegory for the rejection of the Palestinians.

Tamar Muskal, an Israeli-American composer incorporated Dawish's "I Am From There" into her composition "The Yellow Wind," which combines a full orchestra, Arabic flute, Arab and Israeli poetry, and themes from David Grossman's book The Yellow Wind.[52] Youseff M. Ibrahim,

In 2002, Swiss composer Klaus Huber completed a large work entitled Die Seele muss vom Reittier Steigen…, a chamber concerto for cello, baritone and countertenor that incorporates Darwish's "The Soul Must Descend from its Mount and Walk on its Silken Feet".

In 1997, a documentary entitled Mahmoud Darwish was produced by French TV, directed by French-Israeli director Simone Bitton.[53]

Darwish appeared as himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique (2004).

In 2008, Mohammed Fairouz set selections from State of Siege to music.

In 2008 Darwish starred in the five-screen film id – Identity of the Soul from Arts Alliance Productions, in which he narrates his poem "A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies" along with Ibsen's poem "Terje Vigen". Id was his final performance and premiered in Palestine in October 2008, with audiences of tens of thousands, and currently (2010) continues its worldwide screening tour.

In 2009 Egin, patchanka band from Italy, published in the album Des Maunet a song with the poem "Identity Card".



Darwish's grave and memorial in Ramallah

Mahmoud Darwish died on 9 August 2008 at the age of 66, three days after heart surgery at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas. Before surgery, Darwish had signed a document asking not to be resuscitated in the event of brain death.[56] According to Ibrahim Muhawi, the poet, though suffering from serious heart problems, did not require urgent surgery, and the day set for the operation bore a symbolic resonance. In his Memory for Forgetfulness, Darwish centered the narrative of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and 88-day siege of Beirut on 6 August 1982, which was the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. A new bomb had been deployed, which could collapse and level a 12-storey building by creating a vacuum. Darwish wrote: "On this day, on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, they are trying out the vacuum bomb on our flesh and the experiment is successful." By his choice of that day for surgery, Muwahi suggests, Darwish was documnting: "the nothingness he saw lying ahead for the Palestinian people."[57]

Early reports of his death in the Arabic press indicated that Darwish had asked in his will to be buried in Palestine. Three locations were originally suggested; his home village of al-Birwa, the neighboring village Jadeida, where some of Darwish's family still resides or in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ramallah Mayor Janet Mikhail announced later that Darwish would be buried next to Ramallah's Palace of Culture, at the summit of a hill overlooking Jerusalem on the southwestern outskirts of Ramallah, and a shrine would be erected in his honor.[36] Ahmed Darwish said "Mahmoud doesn't just belong to a family or a town, but to all the Palestinians, and he should be buried in a place where all Palestinians can come and visit him."[58]

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning to honor Darwish and he was accorded the equivalent of a State funeral.[36][59] A set of four postage stamps commemorating Darwish was issued in August 2008 by the PA.[60][61]

Arrangements for flying the body in from Texas delayed the funeral for a day.[62] Darwish's body was then flown from Amman, Jordan for the burial in Ramallah. The first eulogy was delivered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to an orderly gathering of thousands. Several left-wing Knessets members attended the official ceremony; Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) stood with the family, and Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad) were in the hall at the Mukataa. Also present was the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin.[63] After the ceremony, Darwish's coffin was taken in a cortege at walking pace from the Mukataa to the Palace of Culture, gathering thousands of followers along the way.

Published work[edit]


  • Asafir bila ajniha (Wingless birds), 1960
  • Awraq Al-Zaytun (Leaves of olives), 1964
  • Ashiq min filastin (A lover from Palestine), 1966
  • Akhir al-layl (The end of the night), 1967
  • Yawmiyyat jurh filastini (Diary of a Palestinian wound), 1969
  • Habibati tanhad min nawmiha (My beloved awakens), 1969
  • al-Kitabah 'ala dhaw'e al-bonduqiyah (Writing in the light of the gun), 1970
  • al-'Asafir tamut fi al-jalil (Birds are Dying in Galilee), 1970
  • Mahmoud Darwish works, 1971. Two volumes
  • Mattar na'em fi kharif ba'eed (Light rain in a distant autumn) 1971
  • Uhibbuki aw la uhibbuki (I love you, I love you not), 1972
  • Jondiyyun yahlum bi-al-zanabiq al-baidaa' (A soldier dreaming of white lilies), 1973
  • Complete Works, 1973. Now al-A'amal al-jadida (2004) and al-A'amal al-oula (2005).
  • Muhawalah raqm 7 (Attempt number 7), 1974
  • Tilka suratuha wa-hadha intihar al-ashiq (That's her image, and that's the suicide of her lover), 1975
  • Ahmad al-za'tar, 1976
  • A'ras (Weddings), 1977
  • al-Nasheed al-jasadi (The bodily anthem), 1980. Joint work
  • The Music of Human Flesh, Heinemann 1980, Poems of the Palestinian struggle selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
  • Qasidat Bayrut (Ode to Beirut), 1982
  • Madih al-zill al-'ali (A eulogy for the tall shadow), 1983
  • Hissar li-mada'eh al-bahr (A siege for the sea eulogies), 1984
  • Victims of a Map, 1984. Joint work with Samih al-Qasim and Adonis in English.
  • Sand and Other Poems, 1986
  • Hiya ughniyah, hiya ughniyah (It's a song, it's a song), 1985
  • Ward aqal (Fewer roses), 1985
  • Ma'asat al-narjis, malhat al-fidda (Tragedy of daffodils, comedy of silver), 1989
  • Ara ma oreed (I see what I want), 1990
  • Ahad 'asher kaukaban (Eleven planets), 1992
  • Limaza tarakt al-hissan wahidan (Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?), 1995. English translation 2006 by Jeffrey Sacks (Archipelago Books) (ISBN 0-9763950-1-0)
  • Psalms, 1995. A selection from Uhibbuki aw la uhibbuki, translation by Ben Bennani
  • Sareer El-Ghariba (Bed of a stranger), 1998
  • Then Palestine, 1999 (with Larry Towell, photographer, and Rene Backmann)
  • Jidariyya (Mural), 2000
  • The Adam of Two Edens: Selected Poems, 2000 (Syracuse University Press and Jusoor) (edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche)
  • Halat Hissar (State of siege), 2002
  • La ta'tazer 'amma fa'alt (Don't apologize for what you did), 2003
  • Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, 2003. Translations by Munir Akash, Caroyln Forché and others
  • al-A'amal al-jadida (The new works), 2004. A selection of Darwish's recent works
  • al-A'amal al-oula (The early works), 2005. Three volumes, a selection of Darwish's early works
  • Ka-zahr el-lawz aw ab'ad (almond blossoms and beyond), 2005
  • The Butterfly's Burden, 2007 (Copper Canyon Press) (translation by Fady Joudah)


  • Shai'on 'an al-wattan (Something about the homeland), 1971
  • Wada'an ayatuha al-harb, wada'an ayuha al-salaam (Farewell, war, farewell, peace), 1974
  • Yawmiyyat al-hozn al-'aadi (Diary of the usual sadness), 1973 (Turkish translation, 2009 by Hakan Özkan)[64]
  • Dhakirah li-al-nisyan (Memory for Forgetfulness), 1987. English translation 1995 by Ibrahim Muhawi
  • Fi wasf halatina (Describing our condition), 1987
  • al-Rasa'il (The Letters), 1990. Joint work with Samih al-Qasim
  • Aabiroon fi kalamen 'aaber (Bypassers in bypassing words), 1991
  • Memory for Forgetfulness, 1995 (University of California Press) (translated by Ibrahim Muhawi)
  • Fi hadrat al-ghiyab (In the presence of absence), 2006
  • Athar alfarasha (A River Dies of Thirst: journals), 2009 (Archipelago Books) (translated by Catherine Cobham)


Why are we always told that we cannot solve our problem without solving the existential anxiety of the Israelis and their supporters who have ignored our very existence for decades in our own homeland?[65]

We have triumphed over the plan to expel us from history.[66]

"I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe, but now I think that poetry changes only the poet."[67]

"We should not justify suicide bombers. We are against the suicide bombers, but we must understand what drives these young people to such actions. They want to liberate themselves from such a dark life. It is not ideological, it is despair."

"We have to understand – not justify – what gives rise to this tragedy. It's not because they're looking for beautiful virgins in heaven, as Orientalists portray it. Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope – a political solution – they'll stop killing themselves."[3]

"Sarcasm helps me overcome the harshness of the reality we live, eases the pain of scars and makes people smile. The sarcasm is not only related to today's reality but also to history. History laughs at both the victim and the aggressor."[5]

"I will continue to humanise even the enemy... The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn't see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings." Several poems are to Jewish lovers. "These poems take the side of love not war,"[3]

"When he thought about hope he felt weary and bored, and constructed a mirage and said:"How shall I evaluate my mirage?" He searched in his desk drawers for the person he was before asking this question, but found no notes containing thoughtless or destructive urges. Nor did he find a document confirming he had stood in the rain for no reason. When he thought about hope, the gap widened between a body that was no longer agile and a heart that acquired wisdom. He did not repeat a question "Who am I?" because he was so upset by the smell of lilies and the neighbours' loud music He opened the window on what remained of a horizon and saw two cats playing with a puppy in the narrow street, and a dove building a nest in a chimney, and he said:" Hope is not the opposite of despair. Perhaps it is the faith that springs from divine indifference which has left us dependent on our own special talents to make sense of the fog surrounding us." He said: "Hope is neither something tangible nor an idea. It's a talent." He took a beta blocker, putting the question of hope aside, and for some obscure reason felt quite happy." Translated from A Talent for Hope.


The Mahmoud Darwish Foundation was established on 4 October 2008 as a Palestinian non-profit foundation that "seeks to safeguard Mahmoud Darwish’s cultural, literary and intellectual legacy".[68] The foundation administers the annual "Mahmoud Darwish Award for Creativity" granted to intellectuals from Palestine and elsewhere.[69] The inaugural winner of the prize, in 2010, was Ahdaf Soueif.


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  26. ^ "". 
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