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Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008

Palestinian poet was a political, cultural icon

August 10, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Mahmoud Darwish, whose poetry helped make him one of the leading cultural voices for the Palestinian experience, died Saturday in Houston of complications from open heart surgery. He was 67.

A revered cultural icon in the occupied Palestinian territories and among the Palestinian diaspora, Darwish in his poetry often touched on the themes of exile and resistance. He wrote the symbolic Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared a three-day mourning period, saying Darwish's passing "will leave a great gap in our political, cultural and national lives. . . . Words cannot describe the depth of sadness in our hearts."

Darwish's death prompted scattered vigils around Ramallah, the West Bank city where he had lived since the 1990s.

Born in 1941 in the village of Al Birwa near the northern coastal city of Acre, Darwish fled with his family after the founding of Israel in 1948. They later returned and settled in the northern village of Deir Al Assad.

In 1960, at 19, Darwish published his first book of poetry. He quickly emerged as a leading cultural voice, writing at least 20 books of poetry and five books of prose. His works have been translated into more than 22 languages.

Some of his most popular and evocative writing vividly and angrily depicted Palestinian life, both in the diaspora and under Israeli occupation. His 1964 poem "Identity Card" recounts the experiences and frustrations of a Palestinian dealing with Israeli security restrictions. The following is an excerpt:


I am an Arab

And my identity card is number fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth is coming after a summer

Will you be angry?


I am an Arab

I have a name without a title

Patient in a country

Where people are enraged . . .

Despite his consistently nationalist themes, Darwish sometimes chafed under the title of Palestine's unofficial poet laureate.

Darwish was repeatedly imprisoned for his writings and his political activities. He again left Israel in 1970 and spent decades living outside the country, including stops in Moscow; Cairo; Paris; Tunis, Tunisia; and Beirut.

One of his most famous volumes of poetry, "Qasidat Beirut" ("Ode to Beirut"), recounts the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut to drive out the Palestinian Liberation Organization, of which Darwish was both a longtime member and a frequent critic.

In 1987, Darwish was elected to the PLO's Executive Committee, but he resigned in 1993 in protest over the Oslo Accords, which he said were lopsided in Israel's favor. In 1995, he was granted permission by the Israelis to return and settled in Ramallah.

This year, Darwish gave a rare public reading in Ramallah to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Israel's creation, known among Palestinians as Al Nakba, which means "the catastrophe." The event drew crowds that overflowed the auditorium, leaving large groups outside listening on loudspeakers.

Despite his former prominence in the PLO, Darwish often expressed frustration about the state of Palestinian politics. At a 2007 reading, he mourned the ongoing clashes between the Hamas and Fatah factions in the Gaza Strip, which he called "a public attempt at suicide in the streets."


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