He feared death less than the threat of no longer being able to write.
I remember him sitting, somewhat uncomfortably, in a square armchair in the reception of a hotel in Mantua, during a literary festival. I remember his long, serious face in a cloud of cigarette smoke, his glasses perched uneasily on a long, inquisitive nose. I remember his bony fingers drawing circles in the air to make a point about the links in poetry, and his deep, staccato voice describing Mural, the elegy he had written for his father but also, providently, for himself. I remember him quoting from another elegy, this one by a medieval Spanish poet (Jorge Manrique, Couplets on His Father’s Death), which Darwish had read a long time ago in a fairly decent English translation (by Longfellow, as it turned out). According to Darwish, the dialogue that Death holds with the Spanish poet’s father echoed somewhere in his own stanzas—stanzas that in turn owed something to the Mu’allaqat, the pre-Islamic ode of the desert Arabs that was later devotedly displayed on a wall of the temple in Mecca. For Darwish, not the style nor the tone but the poetic subject itself created a universal web that poets wove, wherever and whenever, “one figure and many threads.” The image, he told me, was Mutanabbi’s, the most famous of Arab poets of the classic age, and a great favourite of his.
In some sense, all Darwish’s poems were elegies, visions of a half-dreamt world. The ancient metaphor that links death with sleep (it appears in the Gilgamesh epic more than four thousand years ago) was for Darwish an everyday fact; he referred to it often, both as the condition of exile and that of life itself. “Being not yet dead” is how he described it during his visit to Beirut in the terrible days of August 1982, when Israel bombed the city. Memory for Forgetfulness was the title he gave to his account of that visit; he was unconsciously quoting one of his favourite authors, Robert Louis Stevenson (“I’ve a grand memory for forgetting,” says Alan Breck in Kidnapped). “Writing poetry is a way of leaving aside the inessential, of grounding the real world in memory, not in the trivialities of documentary fact,” he said to me once. “A poet has an obligation to that dreamt truth.” Darwish stayed away from theoretical pronouncements. “What I have to say about poetry is in my poems,” he said. “I don’t have a talent for theory, so I don’t theorize about the subject.” And then he added with a smile: “Perhaps because I’m afraid of being mistaken.”
Mahmoud Darwish was born in Barweh, a small village in Galilee, in 1942 and, after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and his self-imposed exile from Palestine in 1970, he lived in a number of different places around the world: Moscow, Paris, Cairo, Beirut and London. He died in Houston, Texas, on August 9, 2008. A few months earlier, he confessed that he feared death less than the threat of no longer being able to write. When a poet friend was found dead after two days because of the DO NOT DISTURB sign he had hung outside his hotel room, Darwish swore never again to hang the sign or lock his door. “When death comes,” he said, “I want to be disturbed.”
“I live in a suitcase,” he once said, and spoke of how poets today seem to have inherited the wandering nature of the troubadours. Wherever he read his poems, huge crowds assembled, but those who approached him with the preconception of meeting the poet of the Palestinian movement would have been disappointed. It is true that he was heard as the voice of the Palestinian diaspora and as someone who lent words to the suffering of the Palestinian exile (“I am myself alone an entire generation,” he wrote), but these were circumstantial facts. Darwish was read as a universal poet both in Lebanon and in Israel. (In 2000, the Israeli minister of education, Yossi Sarid, suggested that Darwish’s poems should be part of the school curriculum; Prime Minister Ehud Barak vetoed the proposal.) And though Darwish was steeped in the classic Arab tradition, his poems carry echoes of Dante, of Homer, of Emily Dickinson, of the modernist Europeans.
Whenever we met, we spoke of Jorge Luis Borges, and of Borges’s interest in Arabic culture and in the stories of the Arabian Nights (which, for Darwish, proved both their universality and his), of the love poems of Abu Nuwas, the medieval poet who celebrated wine and the pleasures of the body (“less dear to me because they are original than because they are good”), of Flaubert (whom he had first read in English), of Nazim Hikmet, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda, for all three of whom his admiration had not diminished since he first read them as a young man. Speaking of Homer, he said that had television existed in Homer’s day, he would only have written the Odyssey, not the Iliad. “He would no longer have seen his role as that of a historian and anthropologist, only as that of a mythographer. Poets today must dream up myths.”
“I don’t belong to myself,” is how Mural, written in 2000, ends. Today, the verse reads as a fitting epitaph and as Darwish’s greatest achievement: the recognition that he, the poet, is no longer his individual circumstances, bound by his own suffering and experience, and that he now belongs to the world, to the experience, love and suffering of all his readers.