A life of exile

Print edition : June 29, 2012

The work is a literary bequest of poetry and prose flooded with fond emotions as well as a moving critique of the violent history of West Asia.

I always found the name false which they gave us: Emigrants. That means those who leave their country. But we Did not leave, of our own free will Choosing another land. Nor did we enter Into a land, to stay there, if possible for ever. Merely, we fled. We are driven out, banned. Not a home, but an exile, shall the land be that took us in.

Bertolt Brecht in Concerning the label Emigrant.

Mahmoud Darwish is the most important poet in the Arab world. Edward Said's statement on his creative work says it all: Darwish's poetry is an epic effort to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed dream of return.

On his visit to Oxford a few years before his demise, Said discussed with me the question of the coalescence of poetry and politics in Darwish. I asked him the age-old question, that if no poetry had ever been written would it have made any difference to the trajectory of human history? His answer was that it remains inherently an act of survival in the face of a calamity. The power of poetry sustains the place that exists only in one's memory.

As W.H. Auden wrote: Follow Poet, Follow right/ To the bottom of the night,/With your unconstraining voice/ Still persuade us to rejoice. By rejoicing, the poet creates a mood of imaginative triumph that is his rejoinder to the nightmare of history.

For Darwish, to write poetry was to testify to human magnitude where the role of the imagination becomes the human value pitched against all that is brutal and heartless in the blood-torn history of West Asia: As long as the struggle continues, the paradise is not lost but remains occupied and subject to being regained.

Tragedy in his homeland metamorphoses into celebration through the act of imagination, and if imagination survives, art lives to tell the tale of utmost suffering and the sad loss of dear ones. It is in his memory that he can relive his poetic act. And it is in his prose and poetry that he can recreate his dream of returning home. What is a homeland? Darwish asks. To hold on to your memory that is homeland. To come to grips with his countrymen and their sense of displacement, no better rendition is available to us apart from the powerful prose and verse of Darwish. Pierre Joris writes about the collection of essays in Darwish's Journal of an Ordinary Grief: It is the most effective, useful, and deeply moving witnessing of a historical tragedy I have read. The writing has an unsurpassed freshness, power, and awe exactly because it is poetry that happens to have justified margins. Darwish hungers to understand why such calamities have befallen his people and has a profound need for sharing and succeeds brilliantly at both of these. His prose here, which approximates lyricism of the ultimate kind, survives to play its role when bad times overtake life.

These are bad times, sorrowful and bitter for an exile who cries out for the misery of his homeland, an injured national consciousness that is expressed through a kind of mysticism seen in the union of the poetic mind and the land one belongs to. Darwish's language and poetic art stand reinvented and reinvigorated to become compatible with the changing political environment that has given birth to the tragedy of modern Palestine. It is poetic prose of nostalgia and longing in the face of the nightmare of history capturing flashes of insights into the suffering of his people. A stirring mosaic of autobiographical pieces expressing loss give the reader an inspiring and provocative piece of writing which in itself becomes a kind of grieving.

Intensely symbolic and emotional, the collection takes us to the uncanny depths of human suffering and love. The lyrical imagery brings out the plurality of the location of the Palestinian refugees who have to face racism that has penetrated the organisation of the Israeli society. Being an Israeli Arab, Darwish understood the Jewish refusal to coexist with over 60,000 Israeli-born Arabs who speak Hebrew fluently and are integral to Israeli life. The Arabs have to endlessly face the phenomenon of widespread fanaticism among the Jewish inhabitants day in and day out. It is an unfortunate part of the West Asian political history that fifty thousand Arabs work on Jewish projects in Jewish cities, but Israeli workers are not ready to help them, or befriend them, or consider them partners even in joint professional struggle. The vehement rejection of Jews is obvious; barriers are maintained and decisive social distance between the two communities leaves a gaping void that Darwish struggles to face in his writings.

At the Damascus Gate, which leads into Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelis marched into the city on May 20 to celebrate Jerusalem Day when the Jewish state captured the Arab eastern sector 45 years ago.-MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

It is widely known that the Arab community has had to pay an exorbitant price to survive within Israel. The Arab fella who lost his land, which to him was homeland as well as source of livelihood, cannot glorify Israel because under its rule he has been able to earn a loaf of bread only through hard labour in construction, road building, and other menial jobs that Jewish workers find demeaning. It was an Israeli official who expressed the regret that the entire Arab population had not been turned into woodcutters and water sellers. The incomplete realisation of such a Zionist dream cannot be attributed to Israeli generosity. Rather it is a victory for the Arab citizen's will to remain steadfast in life, overcoming all obstacles to his development. It is an Israeli failure, not an Israeli bonus.

Darwish died in 2008 but years before his death he had begun to record his experience of residing in Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which dismantled the political borders of his homeland. From the time of his young days when his family had to escape from war-torn Al Birweh in the Galilee, Darwish's place of birth, he remembers his sad departure years later: The moon was our companion on a road that I later understood was the road of exile.

Darwish lived as an exile ever after, facing imprisonment and a life of placelessness, dreaming of the day he would return to his country. This is his life's painful story recounted here in this collection, a heart-rending account of the lives of displaced Palestinians. South: May 15, 1948; East: November 1956; West: June 5, 1967; North: September 1970, he writes. These are the borders of my body. It is in such intense prose that Darwish becomes united with the cause of the Palestinians. Like many of his fellow Palestinians, his family was denied the right of return home, leaving him with no spiritual sustenance but words and memories: Rocks possess the power of living language and trees are not just trees; they are the ribs of childhood. The work is powerful, an emotionally charged act of resistance that underpins his creative, and yet realistic, use of words, a literary bequest of poetry and prose that is flooded with fond emotions as well as a moving critique of the violent history of West Asia. Aesthetics and politics coexist in his work, mutually empowering the ultimate implications and impact of creative writing.

Palestinian poet and writer Mahmoud Darwish.-

The sorrowful question that he asks here is: Which is more painful, to be a refugee in someone else's country or a refugee in your own? Indeed, Darwish had lived most of his life at the heart of political upheavals and finally died in exile. The land of his dreams had been taken away from him, but not from his undying memories captured in his poetry. Until his end he sent out a clarion call to the world that Palestine was indeed his homeland and that its existence could never be denied: A place is not a geographical area; it's also a state of mind; And trees are not just trees; they are the ribs of childhood.

His homeland remained a personal and a psychological reality for him. Though on one of his visits he found the topography changed, the roads no longer with familiar names, villages completely disappeared and friends and people he once knew departed, setting foot on his homeland became for him an act of belonging, a return of the homeless exile to his roots, probably the irony of non-being, which is the very essence of an exile.

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