Mahmoud Darwish was the 2001 winner of the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom. He is considered one of the foremost poets of the Arab world. His readings in Arab capitals are attended by thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—from all sectors of the society. The critic Hassan Khader calls Darwish a poet of love. Darwish’s early poetry was lyrical; it later evolved to address more symbolic and abstract themes. Khader credits Darwish for saving Arabic lyrical poetry from the stagnation it fell into in the ’60s by taking it beyond immediate political concerns into more metaphysical subjects. His technical innovations affected both the form and the substance of this popular form of poetry. In Darwish’s poems private and public concerns are carefully balanced and expressed through his own poetic vocabulary and imagery. This has had a profound influence on generations of poets throughout the Arab world.
Mahmoud has a house in the same Ramallah hills where I live. Our homes are less than a quarter of a mile apart. Along with all the other Palestinian cities, Ramallah has been under Israeli military curfew since June 24th. Israeli tanks rumble day and night on the narrow streets of Ramallah, often causing destruction to walls and telephone poles. Anyone leaving their house runs the risk of being shot. All movement is strictly prohibited. Close to a million people have been forced to abandon their work, their routine, their pursuit of pleasure and remain locked up at home in one of the most pernicious forms of collective punishment practiced by a modern state in modern times. No limit has been placed on this practice. Israel has been urged by several governments around the world to withdraw its forces from Palestine population centers, but these calls have not been heeded. The curfew prevented me from meeting with Mahmoud despite the proximity of our homes until July 4th, when it was lifted for five hours, long enough for us to get together and have this conversation.
Raja Shehadeh Let us begin at the present. How does the current situation of prolonged curfew affect your writing?
Mahmoud Darwish This is a difficult time for reflection on any subject that is not related to politics. Poetry needs space for contemplation beyond the present moment. It also needs disengagement from the conditions of the present to allow the poet to link the present moment with the larger issues. He must have the possibility of connecting the daily with the metaphysical. But the closeness of tanks around my house and my preoccupation with living issues makes it difficult to write poetry.
I feel strongly the urge to free myself from the contingencies of the present moment. I have managed to write a long text called State of Siege, in which I tried to liberate myself from the Israeli occupation and involve myself in poetics. But because the occupation is constant it never ceases to be an uphill battle.
RS Have you been writing prose?
MD I like prose. I feel that sometimes prose can achieve a poetic state more poignant than poetry. But time is passing and my poetic project is still incomplete. There is competition in my personality between prose and poetry, but my bias is toward poetry.
RS What led you to write Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, a book about the siege of Beirut? You began this book by writing, “Out of one dream, another is born,” and then you proceeded through a sequence of vivid prose poems to evoke the sights and sounds of a city under siege. How did this book come about?
MD I wrote it four years after the event. At the time I was living in Paris. I managed to do it in record time—in a matter of two to three months. I was unable to liberate myself from the effect of the siege, from the memory of Beirut. I was unable to write poetry. It was similar to the state I am in now. So I liberated myself through writing that book of prose. I had a personal motive. I was not a historian or an analyst. I was doing it for personal reasons. By writing it, I got over my writer’s block.
RS You’ve lived through both periods—what’s the similarity between that time and now?
MD The siege of Beirut was much more intense and dangerous than the situation now. It was a war in the classical sense of the word. There was not a street that was out of danger. Those who came out of that war alive were simply lucky. One’s life was in danger in Beirut. Everyone’s life. Here it is all happening in installments. There are short, intense, dangerous periods and longer periods when it is just painful and difficult to take. During the worst time, the month of April, I happened to be in Europe. So I missed the most dangerous time, when there was active bombing and shooting taking place every day. Now the state of siege has become routine. There is no fighting taking place. But it reduces people to a condition where all they are concerned about is when will the curfew be lifted, when will the garbage get collected, when will it be possible to get to the office. The whole affair has stopped being an item of news. It’s become part of life, familiar. This is the worst aspect of it. It has stopped being a strong image under a bright light. The response now is almost of indifference. I don’t know if this experience will pass without record. I don’t know what form it will take, perhaps a combination of prose and poetry. But first there needs to be a time gap between the event and writing about it.
RS When did you first start writing poetry?
MD As a child I was physically weak. I could not take part in games. I could not wrestle or play football and could not distinguish myself in sports. So I turned to language. I also spent a lot of time with adults. I would attend the gatherings that used to be held in our house when my grandfather and our neighbors recited the old Arabic legends, which were interspersed with verse. They were romantic tales that as a rule included the lover and the poet. I would listen to them and feel stirred by the poetry. I did not understand why. All I knew was that the sound of the poetry appealed to me. I did not understand the high-flown language of much of the poetry, but it gave me a sense that my dilemma could be resolved through language. The experience aroused in me the love of language. I began to dream of becoming a poet. I believed the poet was a mysterious figure with superhuman faculties. I began to write poetry from a young age, but I was not aware that what I wrote was poetry. My parents and teachers encouraged me to write. I wanted to excel, and since I couldn’t do it through sports, writing became my arena and language my weapon. All this was of course child’s play. It was only later that I became seriously embroiled.
RS When did you start to take yourself seriously as a poet?
MD I don’t. What I take seriously is poetry. The irony is that this first happened through the Israeli military governor in Galilee where I grew up. In a sense he was my first literary critic who taught me to take poetry seriously.
I was 12 years old. My village was under Israeli military rule. I was at the top of my class and was invited during the celebration for the independence of Israel to read something that I wrote. It was, of course, a poem that reflected on our situation as Arabs forced to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.
The next day the military governor called me to his office and scolded me for writing such a poem. As far as I was concerned, what I wrote and read was what I felt to be the truth. I was innocent and had no idea that speaking out was dangerous. The incident made me wonder: The strong and mighty state of Israel gets upset by a poem I wrote! This must mean that poetry is a serious business. My deliberate act of writing the truth as I deeply and honestly felt it was a dangerous activity.
RS Did you go alone to meet the military governor?
MD Yes, I was all alone, a boy of 12 responding to a summons by none other than the military governor who had been upset by a poem that I wrote. Imagine!
RS What was your family’s reaction?
MD My family was torn between their pride that they had a son who spoke words that they couldn’t say and their concern about my future. Of course I was made to pay a heavy price for my writing. When I turned 16 I was imprisoned. After that I continued to be in and out of prison.
But my parents never tried to prevent me from doing what I was doing.
Then, I became close to the Israeli Communist Party. This introduced me to the notion that poetry can be an instrument of change. I took this very seriously until I arrived at my own conclusion that poetry changes nothing. It may have an effect on how people feel, but it has no effect on reality. The only person it changes is the poet himself.
But I don’t take myself seriously as a poet. On the contrary, the older I get and the more seriously my poetry is taken, the more worried I become about the future.
RS Is this a fear of failure?
MD It is the fear of repeating myself, the fear of reaching a point at which I am unable to develop further. There is a limit, I believe, to a person’s ability to develop himself. Every time I finish a volume of poetry I feel it’s my first and my last. It makes me very depressed. It always happens to me when I finish writing. Sometimes I feel that all I did is nothing, a failure.
I am not certain about anything; I’m very critical of any success or achievement.
RS When you started, what image did you have of the personality of the poet?
MD When I was young I thought of the poet as an unnatural being. I continued to be subjected to the popular image of the poet. It’s a narrow view. Many people believe that a poet must be a mystic or a bohemian, that he is not worldly and cares nothing about the concerns of ordinary people. These images must have been projected by a few poets, then became confirmed as fact. When I became a poet and was acquainted with other poets I discovered that none of this was true and got rid of those fantasies.
RS How much does people’s image of the poet bother you?
MD What bothers me is the failure of people to distinguish between the public and private man. Because I have my public side, people often fail to realize that I also have an individual self that must be respected and protected.
I also suffer from rumors. In line with people’s fixed notions about the personality of the poet, I was thought to be a Don Juan and a drunkard. The better known I become, the stronger become the rumors about me and my private life. A well-known poet is liable to be interpreted by the public and judged. Once I read an article about myself by a writer from Aleppo, Syria. He went into great detail describing the palaces I lived in and the shirts I wore that had buttons made of pure gold. He was, of course, talking about what he would have done if he were in my place, not about me. The fact of the matter is that I am a very private man. I don’t like going to public places. I’ve never in my life been to a cabaret. I don’t sit out in cafés. I’m neither a bohemian nor a drunkard. I am a very domestic person and spend most of my time alone in my house.
RS And yet you cultivate a very public self. On your last trip to Beirut you read your poetry to an audience of some 25,000 people in a football stadium. Do you feel pressure from your audience to write what would appeal to them? Is there at times a divergence between the man you are and the expectation people have of you as a poet? Does this ever present a problem for you?
MD I have cultivated a strong relationship with my audience. My image as a poet has gone through several transformations. When I began, I was known as a poet who wrote on emotional, human subjects. My first famous poem was about my mother. Then I became known as a poet who wrote on nationalist subjects. I wrote “Write down, I am an Arab,” and this became very well known. I continued to be pursued by this poem for a very long time. I began to be defined by it. But my desire to develop and a rebellious streak in me made me turn against the love of my audience for this poem. I saw it as a hindrance to the audience’s acceptance of my aesthetic development. But I managed to carry my audience along and I felt that I won their confidence. They came to believe in my commitment to aesthetic development without abandoning the commitment to my humanist or nationalist principles. I find there to be no contradiction between the development of the form of the poem and its contents. My audience, the readers, encouraged me to experiment. As long as I gained the readers’ confidence, they gave me the freedom to do what I liked in the scope of my poetry. They stopped expecting from me what I gave in the past and began to expect that I would give something new. So now there is no problem. Of course the audience always expects there to be a political content to my poetry, but they stopped being satisfied by this alone and consented to go further and welcomed the aesthetic development that I was bringing forward.
RS You are known to be one of the most prominent Arab poets who is constantly introducing poetic innovations. What does this mean and how have you tried to bring this about?
MD What is meant by innovation is change in the form. I am one of the first who started writing in a nontraditional way where the poem was not built on one single rhyme.
RS What influenced you to move in this direction? What was the incentive for such a drastic change in Arabic poetry?
MD After 1948 we Palestinians who stayed in what became the state of Israel found ourselves in a state of defeat. It was a most perplexing time. There was nothing in the old forms of poetry that could help us express the state in which we found ourselves. Hence the need arose for a revolutionary form of expression for revolutionary poetry. This was a spontaneous response to events far beyond our control. It was not a deliberate, studied response.
RS Turbulent times, though, could produce the exact opposite result. Because the times were so uncertain you could have resorted to the comfort of the traditional, couldn’t you?
MD This is possible.
RS Why then was it not so?
MD In our community there were two responses to the political transformation that went side by side. There were the conservatives who did not seem to be affected or angered by what happened to our community after 1948. These were the people who cooperated with the Israeli authorities and who celebrated Israeli Independence Day as though it was their own. The poets among them wrote traditional verse. The rebels were the modernists who rejected traditional forms and used new forms for writing poetry.
RS How would you describe your poetic process?
MD The full picture is not clear to me. When I work on a poem I know what I’m doing. I know how I am developing my craft, forging ahead through one chapter in the larger project. The nature of the path, however, is not clear to me.
RS Do you build on the work of others?
MD Yes. Very much so. I feel that no poem starts from nothing. Humanity has produced such a huge poetic output, much of it of a very high caliber. You are always building on the work of others. There is no blank page from which to start. All you can hope for is to find a small margin on which to write your signature.
RS What sort of continuity is there in your own poetry?
MD I have found that I have no poem that does not have its seeds in a poem that preceded it. Several critics have brought this to my attention. There is always a line or a word in an earlier work that I manage to take up and develop. My worry is always what’s next.
This is the only process where there is no insurance against failure. Drying up is inevitable to every human being. The end we know all too well; what we don’t know is the beginning.
My happiest times are when the public reads and interprets an aspect of my poem that was not clear to me. The life of the poet is conditioned by the reader.
RS Do you worry that what you write may come to be what your audience expects rather than what you want to write?
MD My audience is varied, from academics to simple people. I don’t ask my audience to understand me, but I believe they feel what I write. The poem is not a speech with one clear dimension; it has several levels. I believe that in the hall in which I read, people are feeling my poetry and being enthralled by it. It is the same as when you respond to music. You cannot describe what happens but you know that you are responding. When I get stuck in my writing I often resort to music. I begin to interpret the music.
RS What sort of music?
MD Western classical.
RS Who’s your favorite composer?
RS You said it is not true that poetry can be a vehicle for change. Do you feel you’ve made a contribution to the Palestinian national struggle?
MD In the beginning my poetry contributed to the development of the Palestinian identity. The poet can contribute to the development of a nation in language. He can empower people, make people more human and better able to tolerate life. My poetry is read during times of mourning and celebration. It has also given people joy. Some of my poetry that has been turned into song gives a sense of compensation for losses and defeats.
But my main concern is the extent to which my poetry contributes to the development of Arabic poetry.
RS You have spoken about wanting to liberate Arabic poetry from older forms. I want to hear more about this.
MD At various points in history the poetic image gets exhausted from overuse; all revolutions in poetry are attempts to liberate poetry from the exhaustion of beauty that affects it. The desire to change is very important; whether this is through severing ties with the past or otherwise.
In 1967, with the Arab defeat in the June war, the desire to change became very strong, because many blamed the defeat on Arab rhetoric. This of course was an exaggeration. What is correct is that there was a lot of fantasizing, too many verbal victories that tried to compensate for the defeat that the nation was suffering.
Faced with this, the poet felt he had to strengthen his poetry through a stronger tie to reality. And so there was the urge to liberate poetry from empty rhetoric and romanticism and bring back to it the pulse of life. This was later followed by another attempt at liberating poetry from both realism and modernism (in its Arabic version) through an attempt at total deviation from reality, emotion, and traditional forms.
What is noticeable, though, throughout these phases that Arabic poetry went through is that all these changes were connected to political events. The first defeat led us to return to reality and then the failure to defeat the defeat led us to a mistaken understanding of modernism.
In other words, poetry could never reflect on itself in the absence of external events and political influences. In the particular Palestinian case, what our poetry needs is to be humanized. We cannot be defined by our relationship, positive or negative, to Israel. We have our own identity, a personality that is peculiar to us, just as we have our own questions that are particular to our condition, in addition to the others that we share with the rest of humanity. The Palestinian cannot just be defined as terrorist or freedom fighter. Any trite, routine image ends up reducing and usurping the humanity of the Palestinian and renders him unable to be seen as merely human. He becomes either the hero or the victim—not just a human being. Therefore I very seriously advocate our right to be frivolous. I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous. The sad truth is that in order to reach that stage of being frivolous we would have to achieve victory over the impediments that stand in the way of our enjoying such a right.
RS You have now been living in Ramallah for how long? Four, five years?
MD Five years.
RS What changes have taken place in you?
MD I wrote a volume of love poetry. My first volume that is just about love. It could not have been written outside Palestine. Perhaps I needed to write on love in order to liberate myself from what is expected of me—that I am a Palestinian poet who must write about my return to Palestine. So I didn’t write about this. I wrote about love.
My writing on love was also an assertion and a development. The Palestinian writer used to be unable to write about metaphysical subjects—love and death—because there were more pressing issues: oppression, occupation, resistance, and liberation. So writing about love was a form of liberating the human side of me.
During these five years in Ramallah I also wrote my long poem, “Mural,” a dialogue with death. This arose out of a personal experience with death.
So while living in Palestine I did not write directly about Palestine.
I also wrote State of Siege, which is a poet’s journal that deals with resisting the occupation through searching for beauty in poetics and beauty in nature. It was a way of resisting military violence through poetry. The victory of the permanent, the everlasting, the eternal, over the siege and the violence.
RS What effect has the landscape around Ramallah had on your poetry?
MD Nature, however beautifully described, remains more beautiful than its imitation in words.
The landscape in Palestine has a distinctive character. Because of how much it has been written about and described in the Old Testament, you cannot experience it without the echo of those passages. That is, you begin to refer to the text to read nature, not the other way around. The land is so rich in legends and myths. I am a secular person, yet I find that I cannot liberate myself from feeling that in this place God spoke to man and produced his miracles. I find that the landscape is already written, and because it has been so fully described, I feel it is difficult to add to it. The poetic image has been realized geographically. My role as a contemporary poet is to liberate the natural landscape from the burden of those legends and ease the burden of history. We need to read the rose as a rose, not the interpretation of it as the blood of Adonis. The role of the poet is to celebrate life, not through history but through life itself.
RS Do you feel any differently when you read your poetry in the Arab world than when you read in Palestine?
MD In the Arab world I feel the space is larger. In Palestine the human being has no space for celebration. With the oppression and occupation it is as though it is not a time for poetry. In the Arab world it’s different. I don’t blame anyone for this. In Beirut I read for 25,000 people; but here people are restricted from moving from city to city, village to village. It would be inconceivable to bring together such a large number for a reading. It would simply not be allowed by the Israeli authorities.
RS How long on average does it take you to finish a volume of poetry, and do you share drafts with others?
MD On average, I complete one volume of poetry every two to three years. I usually go through three drafts. In the first I write everything down. Then I begin to think about the structure. The pleasure comes in the last draft, when the final shaping and editing takes place and the final product begins to become clear and finalized. I usually show the final product to a poet, a critic, and someone who is not a literary person.
RS If it can take you up to a year to finish a piece of writing, and during all this time you are not sharing your writing with others, this means that for a whole year you are working entirely alone.
MD Isolation is a condition for writing poetry. No artistic work can be done without isolation. You must be alone, plucking your thorns with your hands. If in the process you fail to realize your project, no one can compensate you for your failure. You bear the brunt of it yourself. You have to endure the depression alone as well as the celebration that comes when you know you’ve done something of real excellence and beauty.
RS Which is easier for the poet, to live in a city such as Paris or in a large village like Ramallah?
MD For gaining in experience and furthering one’s knowledge, the city is the better locale, but for getting on with the writing process the village has fewer distractions. The smaller the place the better for writing. In my house the room I write in is the smallest in the house.
RS After a hard day’s work in normal times, when there is no curfew, what do you find in Ramallah that can distract you? Do you not then yearn for what a city has to offer?
MD I welcome the anonymity that cities offer. Ramallah is not a city. It is also not exactly a village. You should also remember that I’m not from Ramallah and I don’t have many relations here. My only distraction in Ramallah is to take nature walks in the hills around my house.
RS Why then do you stay? You have the possibility of leaving, so why don’t you?
MD I sometimes ask myself the same question. The first motivation for staying is the moral. I still suffer from doubts concerning my first departure from Palestine, when I left my village in Galilee. I continue to ask myself, Was it right to leave? I cannot repeat that mistake. I have lived in exile and the opportunity came for me to return, in a manner of speaking. To return to a part of the land. I don’t feel I should waste that opportunity even if I am not convinced about the usefulness of the process that brought me back. I have strong doubts whether this process can lead to full independence.
I shall only be liberated of Palestine when Palestine is liberated. Then it shall no longer be a condition to be here in order to write. That which is sought after is easier to write about. That which is realized is harder. No one praises a country that is liberated. You praise what has not been attained.
I don’t leave because I still suffer from pangs of conscience from the first time I left. The problem is between me and myself, not with my people.
RS Where do you feel more at home, in Ramallah or Galilee?
MD Galilee is my home. My personality was formed there. My personal nation is there, I have feelings for the place, for its hills and rocks and plants and sunsets.
Palestine is the group homeland, but my personal homeland is where I can interpret and understand every flower; it is the place where I grew up. And that is Galilee, not Ramallah. Yet it is not possible for me to be in Galilee, and I am resigned to never making it my home again.
It was noon already, and we could hear the Israeli tanks returning to our streets, indicating that curfew was being reimposed. It was time for Mahmoud to return to his home.
—Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah. He is a founder of the pioneering nonpartisan human rights organization Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the author of several books about international law, human rights, and the Middle East. His memoir, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, was published in January by Steerforth Press.