Sunday, August 17, 2008

Elegy for Mahmoud Darwish by Israeli poet Haim Gouri

Teaching Israeli and Palestinian literature in dialogue, I have found a surprising, but hope-building solidarity between the writers of these opposed nations. Israeli poet Haim Gouri here expresses his admiration of Mahmoud Darwish's work and life.

Fleeting words

By Haim Gouri

The death of poet Mahmoud Darwish, in an American hospital, far away from his land, grieves me. This man and his multifaceted poetry has occupied me since the 1960s. Even then he was already known as a young member of the group of poets and writers from Maki - the binational Israel Communist Party - whose work appeared in the party newspaper, Al-Ittihad, and its literary supplement, Al-Jadid. There you found names such as Emile Habibi, Saliba Hamis, Dr. Emile Toma, Samih al-Qasim, Mahmoud Darwish, Salem Jubran, "and others."

In those years a few encounters took place between Arab and Hebrew artists, which, if they did not offer a balm to the wounds of our land, stimulated mutual curiosity and forged personal ties that proved to be enduring. I remember one such instance in Haifa, in 1970, which still haunts me. My wife and I came from Jerusalem for a protest meeting held in a cinema in the lower part of the city. On the agenda: a military censor order demanding that Arab poets submit their manuscripts for review prior to publication! I no longer remember everyone who spoke. One of the speakers was Amos Kenan. We told a few of our Arab colleagues that despite the dispute between us, we shared their protest against a directive which we perceived as insulting, foolish and pointless.

We had lunch at a nearby restaurant. There were five of us: Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Dahlia Rabikovitch, my wife Alika and me. Maybe there were others whom I've forgotten. Our Arab colleagues complained that despite the decision by the Knesset to abolish the Military Government [in 1966], the authorities continued to hound them, prohibiting free movement in the country and making them report periodically to the police.

Mahmoud Darwish then got up and, begging our pardon, said he had to report to the police station right then. Overwrought, Dahlia Rabikovitch joined him. We waited for them to return. Then, as I recall, I told them that despite the severe national-political dispute, this approach infuriated us as well, and if they found themselves being persecuted they should not hesitate to turn to us. Not long afterward, Mahmoud called me at home and informed me that he had been invited to visit Moscow, but did not know how he would get to the airport in Lod, as he was barred by official order from leaving Haifa. In the end, he left the country without an Israeli passport, which was not issued to him, but rather with a laissez-passer.

I learned this last Sunday from Samih al-Qasim in a phone call that brought back the memory of that meeting. Samih told me again, after all the time that had passed, that the authorities had pestered them, although Maki had been the only party throughout the Middle East that recognized Israel.

Mahmoud, he said, remained in Moscow for a year. He did not return to Haifa, but went on to Cairo. Thus began the protracted odyssey of the young poet, who hailed from the abandoned village of Birwa in Galilee, and who became over time - his power intensifying - known throughout the world as a poet in exile, the foremost Palestinian poet, and in the eyes of his many admirers, the unrivaled national poet. I also heard later that if peace were declared between Israel and Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai would be awarded the Nobel Prize.

I followed his progress - Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Paris, Amman, Ramallah ... As one who was conversant with the PLO leadership, he was a personal metaphor for the national condition: the uprooted, the refugee, the exile. But even among the leaders and the commanders, he preserved his autonomy as a poet and not infrequently voiced criticism of "the line."

Many of his poems were translated into Hebrew in periodicals and in literary supplements. Some of his books appeared under the imprint of the Israeli publishers Schocken, Babel and Andalus: "Bed of the Stranger," "Memory for Forgetfulness," "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone," "A State of Siege," "Mural." The Hebrew reader, too, found him to be a true poet, touched with greatness, blending different styles stemming from the generations-long Arabic poetic tradition and modern streams in international poetry. Yossi Sarid, as minister of education, wanted to include Darwish's poems in our high-school curriculum, and caused a scandal.

In a riveting interview with Dalia Karpel ("Return of the 'Modest Poet,'" Haaretz Magazine, July 13, 2007), Darwish says: "I believe in the power of poetry, which gives me reasons to look ahead and identify a glint of light. Poetry can be a real bastard. It distorts. It has the power to transform the unreal into the real, and the real into the imaginary. It has the power to build a world that is at odds with the world in which we live. I see poetry as spiritual medicine ... I have no other tool with which to find meaning for my life or for the life of my nation ... I built with words a homeland for my nation and for myself."

I, too, was a reader of his poetry. Among the poems were powerful works, in both personal and political terms, richly expressive, wise, interweaving pathos with irony, lacing gentle lyricism with sarcasm. They evoked a world that had been destroyed in this land, where the redemption of Israel took place through trials and tribulations. He rebuilt it from ruins by means of well-known symbols such as the prickly pear cactus, the oak and the vine, the fig and the olive, the pit and the well, and all the other sights, smells and objects. But in the unendurable reckoning he made with us, the Hebrew-Israelis, one found also - regrettably, astonishingly and shamefully - poems that were hard to read, that outraged me, because they attacked not the occupation regime, which he loathed, but my nation in this land, which we see as our ancient homeland, our "poor man's lamb," whose significance in the annals of civilization was conferred by my people, whence our right to realize independence and sovereignty, if only in part of the land.

In March 1988, I read in the daily Maariv Darwish's poem "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words," in which he writes: "O those who pass between fleeting words / Carry your names, and be gone / Rid our time of your hours, and be gone / Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea / And the sand of memory / Take what pictures you will, so that you understand / That which you never will: / How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky / ... From you steel and fire, from us our flesh / From you yet another tank, from us stones / From you teargas, from us rain / ... As bitter dust, go where you wish, but / Do not pass between us like flying insects / ... Pile your illusions in a deserted pit, and be gone / ... And we have what you lack / A bleeding homeland of a bleeding people ..."

And he concludes: "It is time for you to be gone / Live wherever you like, but do not live among us / It is time for you to be gone / Die wherever you like, but do not die among us / ... So leave our country / Our land, our sea / Our wheat, our salt, our wounds / Everything, and leave / The memories of memory / those who pass between fleeting words!"*

The poem sent shock waves among Israelis, particularly on the left, many of whom viewed Mahmoud Darwish as a poet expressing the afflictions of his people, but recognizing Israel's existence and aspiring, despite everything, to a brotherhood of nations in this bleeding land. I remember the fierce reaction of Halit Yeshurun.

The poet Siham Daoud, whom I respect, explained to me at the time: "He is referring only to the territories. He is not a fool. He is a world-class poet!" And Samih al-Qasim added, "It is unfair not to understand the pain in the face of what is going on in the West Bank and Gaza - 100 dead, hundreds wounded, thousands arrested. We are human beings, not angels, and every person at a certain moment can fly off the handle."

In the wake of the furor, Tom Segev went to Paris and conducted a long interview with Mahmoud Darwish. He told Segev, among other things: "Haim Gouri sometimes writes bad poems, too." I plead guilty.

Mahmoud continued to occupy me. I wanted to meet him. It was hard to get to him. I was given phone numbers in Amman and Ramallah. He was almost always abroad. From my young friend Prof. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, who was in touch with him continuously and also saw him occasionally, I learned more details about his loneliness, about his worsening heart condition, and also about the changes he had undergone.

On July 16, 2003, the Hebrew literary supplement of Haaretz published my review of his book "State of Siege," under the headline, "The Blood and the Stone of Blue." The book held me spellbound. It is not a narrative poem linked by an unfolding plot. The poems are read individually. Sometimes they identify with their neighboring poems, sometimes they conflict with them. Sometimes two parts of the same poem are in contradiction with each other. This is a crucially important book for understanding the lengthy and lethal conflict between us and our neighbors. Along with the high regard in which he is held as a poet, Darwish is a representative. I, who grew up in the "culture of the besieged and the just," saw how the "culture of guilt and remorse" trickled into the work of many of our poets.

There is no mention of this in the other nation's poetry, but this book is characterized by its ambivalence. The reader will find a certain desperate attempt at dialogue, at possible conciliation. It is a book that is very different from the poem I quoted above: "leave our country, our wounds, our land, everything." I found in it many splendid poems, felicitous formulations, subtleties and a refinement of description, as well as a feeling of being tired of blood. The concluding section deals entirely with a possible peace. He bursts into words that recall Natan Zach: "Quiet, Please." And then Darwish writes: "Truce, truce. A time to review the orders: can helicopters be turned into ploughshares? / We said to them: truce, truce, to examine intentions. / The flavor of peace may be absorbed by the soul." Yes, this too is in the book, in which there were other poems that pained me, and I was compelled to respond to them.

We did not meet. Upon his return to Ramallah and his visit to Haifa last year, where a very festive event was held in his honor, sponsored by Masharaf magazine and the Hadash party, we spoke at length by phone. His Hebrew was excellent. We talked about illnesses and old age, and we evoked the memory of that meeting in Haifa, before he set out on the long odyssey that has now ended in Houston. As these lines are being written, I do not know whether his body will be granted the right of return to Galilee.

This English translation was published in "Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation," edited by Zachary Lockman and Joel Belnin, South End Press, 1999. It is not identical to the Hebrew version published in Maariv.

And a poem by Gouri:

Account Current

And again, as always in the Land of Israel, the stones boil,
earth gives no cover.
And again my brothers call out from the depths.

Crop-eared dogs cry out at night to passing strangers
and their brothers answer back.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel, the headstones are dangerous.
Many of those who sleep see a ladder.

The moon is huge and rouses
poetic Gemulas and other somnambulists
and those who lie in ambush doze on the crossroads, as always.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
the gate of mercy is still locked
and so are the gravestones in the shade of the wall.

And a late summer sun and the mountains dripping sweet wine
and the hills melting away
and the honey overflowing.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
eyes peer through Virgo’s hands
and the stone ridges are black with distant fires
and before dawn the valley fills with fog
and the watermelons are ripe and the sea storms.
And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
roads groan with the footsteps of pilgrims
and God feels at home
and my brothers still call out from the depths.

And the might of fire
and the might of night
and a needle won’t pass through
and a feather in the mountains.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
the stones remember.
Earth gives no cover.
Judgment pierces the mountains.

© Translation: 1996, Stanley Chyet

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