You are on page 1of 14

© Victoria Pearce-Smith 2009

University of Cambridge

Remembering Mahmoud
Darwish: Poetry and the Poet
in National Narrative

Abstract This study examines the discourse of
commemoration that has been constructed around
Mahmoud Darwish, exploring ways in which memory
and symbolic capital are appropriated by the
collectivity and reproduced in public life so as to
sustain collective boundaries. The following source-
groups are analysed: (a) physical ceremonial acts (b)
obituarial texts from Arabic and English-language
newspapers, (c) literary and academic responses.
These variously show how the reinforcement of
identity is inscribed in the rituals and ideology of

I am not mine
I am not mine
I am not mine

As is revealed by the metaphysics of ‘Mural’ 1 , Mahmoud Darwish
himself was perhaps the one most acutely conscious of the
expropriability of that self. The discord and incommensurability
between his private self and the idealised identity bestowed upon him

Rema Hammami and John Berger’s translation of the concluding lines of Darwish’s
“Jidariyya”, taken from: “Mural (1999 – An Excerpt),” Middle East Report 248 (Fall
by a clamorous public forms the existential canvas for much of his
creativity; indeed his poetry, which is ever bespeaking and questioning
of the particularities of his existence, imparts a complex and nuanced
insight towards the nature of his relationship to the world in which
these poems resonated. His death in August 2008 is a point at which
this relationship was crystallised in the form of eulogy, mourning and
obituary. His absence presaged what can be regarded as the inverse of
the metaphysics of “Mural”—gone is the conscious subject of Darwish,
moderator of his own fame, and in his stead comes a license for the
world to reply to that act of self-expression through the public acts and
texts of “tribute” that followed his passing. This profusion of public
expression has taken diverse forms; front page newspaper headlines
across the Middle East: lengthy articles devoted to his life and poetry—
a state funeral in Ramallah comparable to that of Yasir Arafat—
commemoration ceremonies held across the world from Iran to
America—a score of tribute poetry. It cannot be denied that these
gestures constitute an outpouring, in what might be regarded as a
hegemonic moment, of “spontaneous” identification with Darwish. It is
the project of this paper to demystify this outpouring—not in an
irreverent sense, but with a view to elucidating the rhetoric implicit
within its structure. By exploring the socio-cultural and semiological
mechanisms of commemorative discourse, it will be seen that the
sacralised public space devoted to honouring and remembering the
dead, whilst ostensibly organised according to codes of propriety, is
fraught with the forays of politics and ideology; and as the
particularities of Darwish’s posthumous treatment testify, there are
few political struggles in which the control of memory is so precious a
resource and weapon as it is in the Palestinian one.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the practice of public
commemoration, whether of historical events, mythical events, or
people, plays a significant role in producing societal norms, and is
essential to the process of collective identity-formation 2 . The 20
century rise in interest in the field of the mnemonic production of
collectivity took its lead from the Durkheimian sociologist Maurice
Halbwachs, who introduced the theory of collective memory in 1925 3 .
His essential and groundbreaking conclusion was that the faculty of
individual memory is reliant on group mnemonic practices to the
extent that truly “private” memory-content is not really possible 4 .
Subsequent studies which have accepted Halbwachs’ denial of the
autonomous memory have led to conceptions of power as an epistemic
process of recruiting collective memory 5 . Controlling collective
memory cannot be straightforward; its mechanisms are implacable,

See Bourdieu 1984:72, Butler 2003:32-4, Fowler 2002, Schwartz 1982, Olick 1998,
Connerton 1989.
Halbwachs 1992.
Ibid 24.
Terdiman 1993, 33-34.

contingent, discursive. However, the Orwellian notion of history-
control articulates what has been Machiavellian wisdom since time
immemorial, for, as Le Goff demonstrates in History and Memory
(1992), political ideologies must validate themselves through a specific
interpretation of history and therefore seek to stage-manage the
production of memory. Thus, for example, commemorative fervour and
the introduction of archives, libraries and museums accompanied the
rise of Romantic nationalism in Europe (Garval 2004, 30). Following
this paradigm, different ways of memorialising Darwish may be
accounted for by understanding the ritual of commemoration as a
mechanism of collectivising memory, and by situating the
particularities of Palestinian poetry and politics within the overarching
structural process of collective memory, the public act of
“remembering Mahmoud Darwish” is, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s
imagery, an act of telescoping the past through the inexorable politics
of the present 6 .

Edifying the memory aspect of Palestinian nationality by
addressing the oppositional relationship between the archaeologies of
Israeli and Palestinian identity, Edward Said in his essay “Invention,
Memory and Place” (2000), draws attention to the ways in which the
state of Israel has deftly constructed its allure, legitimacy and identity
upon an iconic and dynamic collective memory. Israel’s mobilisation of
the power of collective memory—whether consisting in authentic,
distorted, or fabricated renderings of history—has always been central
to its success as a nation. Conversely, Said effectively attributes
Palestinian weakness in the two decades following 1948 to a failure on
their part to compete with Israeli memory-work; a failure to ground
their sense of identity in historical continuity, narrative and
attachment to the land. In spite of the physical fragmentation of exile,
their negation by official Israeli narrative and the influence of Pan-
Arabism (Khalidi 181), a diverse movement emerged in the 1970s to
‘reclaim’ the history of the Palestinians through construction of what
Leeuwen calls the ‘textual homeland’ (1999, 270)—that which that
arises when the disruption of visual and tangible Palestine by a
dominant, militaristic Other prevents the homeland from being
physically demonstrable. Instead, it consists of an evocative repertoire
of recollections, emotions and symbols that signify an essential
Palestinian identity transcending the upheavals of time and physical
limits. By deploying symbolism that formed a vision of an organic,
rooted Palestine—the olive grove, stone house, orange tree, peasant-
farmer—combined with nostalgic metaphor, the early poetry of

Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades
Project, MIT Press 1999, 291: Benjamin saw that just as historical documents reflect
the particular situations and politics of chroniclers, our modern day interpretations of
them reflect our own. In this case, just as Darwish’s early reputation reflected the
politics of his advocates, posthumous interpretations of his biography (as a corpus) are
nuanced by the contingent concerns of interpreters.

Mahmoud Darwish and other Palestinian poets formed an integral
element of this collective reclamation of the past (Said 189).

This centrality of collective memory and its poetic and mnemonic
safeguards to Palestinian national identity has not faded, but as Laleh
Khalili observes in her study of historical transformation in Palestinian
national narrative, thirty years has indelibly altered the face and mood
of Palestinian memory. Whilst memory of the Nakba combined with
poetic symbolism 7 to form the primary iconic content of Palestinian
memory in the 1970s, political figures and events, heroic figures and
martyrs, the Intifada and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila have
since then become embedded in Palestinian national narrative (Khalili
2007, 19). Additionally, time has introduced to Palestinian national
narrative the individual narratives of heroic biography, and the rise of
print-journalism has placed a “front-page” around the iconographic
images of memory. Most of all, the pathos of suffering, in particular
bereavement, has become a vivid presence in Palestinian memory, and
the rituals of mourning and valorising the dead are rituals whose
symbolic power has been ingrained into the Palestinian mentalité
through repetition; and equally ingrained into global perceptions of
Palestine through the proliferation of funeral-images by the media
(Khalili 2007, 6).

A Palestinian state funeral, however, is a relatively rare image; and
a state funeral for any poet is an event warranting comment. The
Palestinian Minister of Culture anticipated prior to Darwish’s funeral
that it would compare in size to that of Yasir Arafat. Indeed, organisers
took every measure to facilitate a high turnout by providing free buses
from outlying areas into Ramallah, where Darwish’s body was
conducted via military cortege from the Presidential compound to the
Cultural Palace, and then laid to rest in the Palace’s courtyard upon a
hill overlooking Jerusalem 8 . Symbolic action and ritual theory oblige us
to consider the manner of Darwish’s interment to be of utmost
significance (Ben-Amos 2000, 5): The institution of the grand state
funeral emerged in post-Revolutionary France, when newly secularised
ceremonies brought the public to witness the committal of revered
political figures to the Panthéon (Fowler 2007, 12). Then, the state
funeral served to dramatically enact sacral ties between state, citizen
and the urban space that they occupy, in the act of publicly valorising
a life considered ideal. In view of the genesis of state funerals and
their explicitly symbolic structure, it is necessary to consider the
particularities of Darwish’s funeral. The choice of Ramallah as the site
of burial sparked opposition from students, writers, intellectuals and
Arab Knesset members 9 , who challenged that the appropriate venue

Kafah Zaboun, 2008, “Palestinians mourn Darwish”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 14 August.
Kafah Zaboun, 2008, “Palestinians of the interior unsatisfied with decision to bury
Darwish in Ramallah”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 13 August.

was in fact Darwish’s native village of Al-Birwa, in Israel. The
disparity between different Palestinian interpretations of where
Darwish ought to rest can be clarified by turning to a second funeral,
concurrent with the official one but vastly different in terms of its
aesthetics and mood. This second funeral took place in the countryside
near Al-Birwa and was attended by a few hundred people. Its
organizers stated that it was a “symbolic funeral”: this description
rings true in a number of ways, not least in the fact that the coffin was
empty. Its setting in Darwish’s birthplace evocatively spoke of Al-
‘Awdah; the red, black and white rags casually yet meticulously draped
on the sabra cacti surrounding the site of “burial” alluded to
Palestine’s inseparability from its organic nature; it was intimate,
lacking the vast crowds, the elaborate organisation, the media
presence, and the uniform and pageantry of the official event; and a
singer’s interpretation of ‘To My Mother’, accompanied by oud, set a
reflective and personal tone of remembrance that quietly contrasted
that set by the rifle salutes at Ramallah 10 . One of its organisers quoted
from ‘Mural’ in justifying that this was the funeral which most closely
followed Darwish’s own wishes:

So wait, Death, until I have settled the funeral arrangements
In the fragile Spring where I was born
And have forbidden the orators from continuing their preaching
About the sad land and the steadfastness of figs and olives in the face
of time and its armies 11

In Ramallah, meanwhile, the poetic line that marked the occasion
in the form of posters hung in the streets read, “We have on this earth
what makes life worth living” 12 . Although initially written in 1987,
Darwish renewed its meaning when he invoked it in order to explain
why he had stayed in Ramallah during the siege of 2002 13 . Thus it is
possible to construe the Palestinian Authority’s choice of this line as a
poetic justification for his burial in Ramallah.

It is interesting that several of Darwish’s poems speculate on his
own funeral 14 , yet he never formally expressed where he wished to be
buried. That he was formally tacit and yet poetically preoccupied over
this question demonstrates his profoundly poetic approach to a future
which he knew to be insolubly contingent upon the vicissitudes of
politics. The contradictory and perhaps even oppositional nature of the
two “funerals”—and for the purposes of this study, the question of

According to footage of the event at Al-Birwa from Alarz TV Productions, viewable at
My translation
Mahmoud Darwish, ‘On This Earth’, from Unfortunately, it was Paradise, trans. and
ed. by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche.
Kafah Zaboun, 2008, “Palestinians mourn Darwish”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 14 August.
Notably, also, in ‘A State of Siege’ where he discusses the arrangements of his
funeral in some detail.

[un]officialness is extraneous—expresses a dichotomy in Palestinian
political feeling that transcends the politics of disagreement between
Israeli-Arab Knesset Members and the Palestinian Authority. It has
been shown not only that death creates national heroes, but that the
nature of their heroism may be determined through the drama of their
death, the dramatisation of the moment at which they become memory,
or artefact. To my mind, this dual funeral must inevitably tease out the
deeper question: what is Palestine? Is it that which the Palestinian
Authority strives to attain through diplomatic and political processes?
Is it a piece of land—the pre-1948, pre-Nakba, pre-historical, pre-
political Palestine? Is it a vision somewhere within the pragmatism of
Oslo? Is it the direct opposite of the sentiment of Oslo? Or is it an
implacable place, the substance at the threshold of metaphor, the
irony of history 15 , the absence of the presence of exile? Darwish’s life
undeniably encompassed the multiplicity of the word “Palestine”:
neither the purely political nor the purely poetical side of its equation
may uniquely claim him, because his legacy entails both attributes.

Perhaps it is because the concepts of Palestine and Palestinian
identity, are so multi-layered that much of the language that is used to
remember Darwish imagines a spectrum at whose irreconcilable poles
lie “politics” and “poetry”: it is clear that the relationship between the
two themes is problematic for many of the texts on Darwish, in which
considerable attention is devoted to attempting their reconciliation—
through him—in various ways. One article’s title, “He refused to be
made a statue,” 16 alludes to the PA’s proposal to place a statue of
Darwish in Ramallah 17 . Muhammed Ali Farhat uses the statue
metaphorically however, to signify ossification and rigidity. Farhat
attests to Darwish’s ability to separate himself and his poetry from
politics at will by becoming the “poetic moment: a moment that
develops and mutates continuously”: this is the essential poetic nature,
and for this reason the true poet cannot be a thing of politics, which in
Farhat’s view has the opposite nature. Another writer, Safinaz Kazem,
recollects discussing Palestinian poetry with Ghassan Kanafani in early
1967, and whilst Kanafani was infatuated with ‘Identity Card’, she had
wanted to talk about “To My Grandfather”, which she saw as far
greater testimony to Darwish’s poetic genius. Contending the notion
that Darwish’s early poetry was loved by Arabs because it served as
“moral compensation” for the 1967 defeat, she writes that the joy it
had given her was akin to that of “finding survivors under the
rubble”—in embodying the patience and strength of the human

Suleiman 2006, 32: Ibrahim Muhawi suggests that poetics can resolve the
existential irony of exilic identity.
Muhammed Ali Farhat, 2008, Al-Hayat, 11 August. My translation.
Kafah Zaboun, 2008, “The poet at his last appearance,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 11 August.

condition 18 . Kazem challenges the notion that his politics are
indissoluble from him, his life and his poetry.

A curiously Hegelian interpretation of Darwish’s poetry comes from
the poet Abdou Wazin, who narrates its progression through the
struggle of selfhood:

Poetry itself is the impasse which faces the poet of ‘Mural’.
Politics has wearied and burdened him with questions, and he has
become in urgent need of freedom, freedom that will make him an
individual within the group, where before he was a group within
an individual. The time has come for the poet to face himself in
the mirror of his Self. 19

For Wazin, Darwish finally achieved this ‘freedom’ one month before
he died, whilst giving a reading of ‘Mural’ in France, and passed away
at the pinnacle of his poetic “youth”. The victory of poetry over politics
occurs when the reality of the power of a dream transcends the power
of the reality of the world, and Darwish’s struggle to free poetry from
politics culminated in the ‘Mural’, wherein he found waiting for him his
own realisation that he could ascend to his own metaphorical freedom.
“Politics” here is a trope for the world of limits, which art may
transcend only through the presence-absence of worldliness in
aesthetics 20 . Although his idiom is that of transcendent dialectics, and
his messianic tone perhaps itself metonymic rather than analytic,
Wazin is basically trying to resolve an issue which many writers have
addressed in various ways; the poetics of Darwish’s move away from
politics in search for pure poetry. There is something of a tendency in
Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat to talk about tendencies elsewhere to
misappropriate Darwish by concentrating only on particular stages in
his writing. For many writers, poets and critics, to do so is to do him a
disservice, and does worse than reduce him to his political position; it
reduces him to one’s own political position. Identity-projection,
according to Shawqi Bazi, was what Darwish recognised and resented
most in attempts to idealise and label him. He encapsulates this in a
recollection of how once Darwish responded to one call for “Write
down! I am an Arab” with the retort, “You write down—that you’re an
Arab” 21 .

These transnational papers are an exception both in their being
unaffiliated to governments, and in having the lion’s share of
contribution from the Arab literary elite. Although as a result their
insights tend to be the most sophisticated, it should be remembered

Safinaz Kazem, 2008, “Mahmoud Darwish”, Asharq Al-Awsat, March 14 (quotation
marks indicate my translation).
My translation
Abdou Wazin, 2008, “Veteran of renewal made his own modernity”, Al-Hayat, 11
Shawqi Bazi’, 2008, “Beirut, ‘our tent’”, Al-Hayat, 11 August.

that they have a relatively low circulation in the Arab world as a whole.
The national Arab press displays somewhat different tendencies in its
articles on Darwish, and it would not be an unfeasible generalisation to
say that most of the references made in Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat
to distorted, simplistic perceptions of Darwish are ultimately directed
at Arab national newspapers. Even Al-Quds Al-‘Arabi, which is
considered decidedly more polemic with regard to matters Palestinian
than its aforementioned transnational peers, published a number of
articles which expressed resentment regarding prevalent
misinterpretations of Darwish. Naji Al-Zahir observes that,

As happens after the departure of any great creator, the
departure of the great poet Mahmoud Darwish instigated a flood
of literature that ‘uncovered’ hidden aspects of the poet and
personal memories of their relationship with him, that they had
never mentioned previously.

He goes on to illustrate the point with an example of a man who had
had no contact with Darwish for most of his life, but who had known
him while he was at school. When Darwish passed away, however, he
promptly claimed that the main character in ‘Identity Card’ was
certainly based on him, so uncanny were the similarities between his
then-situation and that of the hero of the poem.

Al-Zahir is attacking only the most opportunistic specimens from the
‘flood of literature’ phenomenon precipitated by the death of a great
figure, but it would be politic at this point to turn to the ‘flood’ in itself.
A structuralist analysis would explain this flood in terms of a struggle
for the political currency of collective memory, as suggested towards
the beginning of this paper. Deconstructed yet further, the volume and
diversity of this literature may find a foothold in the Laclauian
description of signifiers, and indeed discourses, as being
fundamentally “empty”. Collective language is thus viewed as a hollow
repository for privately owned definitions, such that the functionality
of a signifier consists in its being devoid of essence because it presses
upon each individual mind to fill it, to animate it, to essentialise it. This
osmotic analogy of meaning explains how different people, most of
whom never knew Darwish, are involuntarily drawn into creating,
through ritual, reflection and remembering, to the discourse of his

In addition to the contrasts between transnational and national
Arabic responses to Darwish’s departure, a distinction must be made
between the Arabic discourse and its English-language counterpart.
Whilst Darwish’s death is addressed almost exclusively through formal
obituaries in most of the major English-language dailies, there is no
formal equivalent of the obituary in Arabic newspapers. However,
various studies of the social process of commemoration in modernity
suggest that generic and formal variations between different,

culturally-based modes of commemoration may be attributed only
limited significance if one is seeking to understand how
commemoration impacts social attitude in the broadest sense. Cultural,
historical and sociological studies of death suggest that key symbolic
processes occur at the point of death which generally serve to
sacralise the powerful and thus legitimate the social order (Fowler
2007, 41). It is interesting, for example, that the structural style of the
obituary, that of concise biographical narrative, has far-reaching
equivalence within Arabic language newspapers, where by-lined
articles (in contrast to the British tradition of anonymity) announcing
the death of a publicly known person and going on to summarise their
careers are the norm. Such cross-cultural structural similarities may
be explained in part by recognising the socio-historical genesis of the
daily newspaper is being tied inextricably to the rise of nationalism.
Stripped to their essence as ‘spiritual biography’ (Fowler 43),
obituaries and their cross-cultural cognates operate as part of a
nation’s narration of itself.

Political differences across the language-divide are demonstrated
through a comparison of obituaries, but they can only be recognised by
situating the texts culturally. For example, the broad tendency of the
English-language obituaries to commit the same ‘crime’ as the
simplistic Arab national papers by focussing on Darwish’s early poetry
does not necessarily mean that these groups share a political stance on
Palestine at all, because poetry has culturally-specific attributes in
terms of its symbolic status. English readers, in short, would be
unlikely to be acquainted with the role or the centrality of Arabic
poetry within Arab culture. The Economist, ever aware of the cultural
gap, allocates the entire first paragraph of Darwish’s obituary to
explaining poetry’s importance to Arab culture 22 . In addition, Western
configurations of ‘poetics’ and ‘politics’ seem to contrast certain Arab
assumptions about how they relate.

A New Republic article 23 on Darwish validates through converse
means the idea that poetry is a powerful humanising/depoliticising
force. With heavy sarcasm, Marty Peretz attacks the notion of a
Palestinian valorising of poetry, accusing the publicity surrounding
Darwish’s death as “a desperation by journalists to prove that the
Palestinians are a poetic people than the more banal reality of the
case” and proceeding to liken Darwish to Ché Guevara. Peretz’s
comparison suggests an anxiety regarding the humanising of
Palestinians, a project which he seeks to counteract by invoking the
ruthless, poetryless image of a Marxist revolutionary. The absurdity of
the analogy is edifying; the New Republic readership, being very
unlikely to consist of any of the camp which has posthumously
transformed Guevara into a cultic hero, would associate Guevara with

“Mahmoud Darwish”, The Economist, 21 August, 2008.
Marty Peretz, 2008, “The Paletinian Che Guevara”, The New Republic, 14 August.

the most unforgivable ritual of the radical left—namely that offensive
disparity between adulatory iconic representation and violent reality.
For Peretz, Darwish becomes the dangerous allure of the Palestinian
cause in the West, an allure which he attempts to debunk through
debunking Darwish’s prestige.

On the other hand the Electronic Intifada consented when initially
reporting his death 24 that Darwish did enjoy a rare level of political
influence for a cultural figure but went on to rather ambivalently muse
on his political life, highlighting the often controversial nature of his
political stances. In the same publication, Irish poet Raymond Deane’s
article ‘in memoriam’ 25 and Abu-Khalil’s piece a week later 26 lay
particularly emphasis on the “burden” Darwish often felt at being
forever associated with his early, political poetry. The Intifada
contributors convey in tandem the sense that interrelation between
Darwish qua person, politician and poet were often tense and riven,
and that particularly later in life he sought to liberate his writing from
the wider Palestinian political agenda. This emphasis is by no means
unique but it contrasts the New Republic’s central claim that Darwish
was first and foremost a servant of politics 27 . This contrast reflects the
orientations of the two publications: both somewhat niche journals
aimed towards educated American readers, the Intifada seeks
ultimately to counteract biased American media in forging a
rapprochement between Anglophone sentiments and the Palestinian
struggle, whilst the New Republic is inimical to such an association.
The disparity between these two proportional configurations of the
themes of “poetry” and “politics” in reconstructing Darwish is striking.
The implications, and indeed the requisiteness of, attempting such a
balancing act are ubiquitously showcased throughout media portrayals
of Darwish, suggesting a complex semantic, symbolic and culturally
exacerbated tension between the two themes.

The struggle for memory of Darwish can be reformulated as a
struggle between aesthetics and politics, because on a certain and
unavoidable level, pure art is construed as irreconcilable from
politics—and yet on another level, the two are never really found apart.
Poetry’s migration from subjective to objective, from poet to audience
renders poetry an unavoidably political vehicle for collective
identification. Its duality, or the incommensurability between its
symbolic status and practical implications, make its invocation a useful
mechanism for making politics “invisible”, hence the ironic fact that
they are closely integrated realms expressing themselves on a
“Mahmoud Darwish”, The Electronic Intifada,
Raymond Deane, 2008,“A Guest of Eternity”, 13 August,
As’ad AbuKhalil, 2008 “The Poetics of Palestinian Resistance”, The Electronic
Intifada, 18 August,

structural level that situates them antithetically: we see poetry as an
expression as opposed to an exhortation; it appears to remain
distanced from and untarnished by the dialectical interactions of the
socio-political milieu. The West in particular has a tradition of
distinguishing the function of poetry from that of other writing: for
example, Sartre’s classic theory of “committed literature” holds that
poetry “cannot serve the committed writer’s project of “revealing” [in
order to change]: for poets, words have the opacity of objects rather
than the transparency of signs”, meaning that poetic language
functions only self-referentially and to a world of abstract symbols,
thus lacking the instrumentality to engage with world external to
itself 28 . The specificities of the role of poetry in the Arab world,
however, consist in its historic development within unique socio-
political conditions and must be considered on its own terms; when the
philosophy of commitment in literature struck chords in the Arab world
in the mid-twentieth century, Sartre’s distinction was challenged there.
Bayyati said in 1968, “I disagree with Sartre when he exempts the poet
from commitment. In my view the poet is immersed up to his ears in
the chaos and welter of this world and of the revolution of man.”
(Badawi, 208).

Accordingly, Mourid Barghouti attributes Darwish’s status in the
Arab world simply to the fact that he was “a poet, and a Palestinian”,
explaining, “poetry lies at the centre of Arab art, and Palestine at the
centre of Arab consciousness” 29 . Barghouti’s formula essentialises the
complex interrelationship that has developed between Palestinian and
Arab poetry and identity. The wider importance of Palestinian poetry
has its roots in the era of “resistance poetry”. As Elmessiri
demonstrates in “The Palestinian Wedding”, Palestinian resistance
poetry is to be situated firmly within the Pan-Arab context, in terms
both of provenance and consequence. Although Palestinian identity has
an autonomy and specificity emanating from a unique experience, the
Arab dimension to their struggle is manifest in Palestinian expression,
which takes its cue from the revered Arab poetic tradition 30 . After all,
when Palestinian poets assert their identity, they do so in classical
Arabic, rarely using the various Palestinian dialects. The theme of
resistance lends itself readily and successfully to the genealogical
tropes of Arabic poetic tradition. At times, the resistance poet
“becomes the warrior-poet of classical Arabic poetry” 31 , simultaneously
liberating his subjective experience from the constraints of time and
space, and breathing essential life into metaphor. Thus “Palestine” as
subject and place, brings into unity the eternal and the contingent: the
Christina Howells, The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, (Cambridge University
Press, 1992), 141-2.
Mourid Barghouti, 2008, “He is the son of all of you”, The Guardian, 16 August.
‘Poetry … has accompanied [the Arabs] throughout their history and enshrined their
victories and defeats… It is no accident that Palestinians have turned to poetry as a
way of asserting its Arab identity…’ (Elmessiri 1981, 79)
Ibid 79

Arab poetic tradition, unscathed and ennobled by the upheavals of
history, gives voice to the contingent reality of the daily struggle of the
Palestinians and its forbearance mirrors their own enduring
steadfastness 32 . In turn, the arduous and unending challenges of
Palestinian existence provide the ready-made poetic form with a
reservoir of consciousness made acute by adversity and conflict. Thus
it could be said that the Palestinian condition is as indispensable to
Arab poetry as a whole as that whole is to Palestinian expression.

The question I would like to turn to next, that concerning the
symbolic status of “Palestinian poetry” in the Arab imagination, must
take into account the historicity of that imagination, and the way it has
developed politically and poetically in the modern age. Khalid
Sulaiman’s findings in Palestine and Modern Arab Poetry highlight the
effect of political developments upon the form and content of poetry,
and in the development of his thesis he touches on the reciprocity of
this relationship when he describes the effect of the surfacing of
‘Palestinian resistance poetry’ as introduced by Kanafani’s 1966 book
on Palestinian literature, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in turning Arab
attention for the first time towards the poetry of “the Occupied
homeland”, which was filled with defiant optimism in contrast with the
unbearable, nightmarish vision of defeat that plagued the responses of
other Arab poets. Due to the destabilising effect that the war had upon
Arab nationalist identity, the emergence of Palestinian resistance
poetry found vigorous acclaim in the Arab world, where poems imbued
richly with national consciousness such as ‘Identity Card’ served to
rejuvenate bruised national prides (196). Thus the voice of the
Palestinian declaring his Arabness in defiance of (the very immediate)
Israeli attempts to neutralise it became the emblem around which Arab
collective identity could regroup in the face of (the less easily-defined)
socio-political entropy. The critical role played by Palestinian
resistance poetry in stimulating Arab cultural life was such that its
criticism and commentary was often “over-enthusiastic” and lacked
objectivity, a habit which Darwish deplores, just as he attacks the
tendency to distinguish contemporary Palestinian poetry from that
which came before 1948 (Sulaiman 1984, 196-197).

The symbolism, form and content of Palestinian poetry is thus
demonstrated to have been paramount to the process of Arab identity
formation in this post-Karama period, when the Palestinian resistance
can be said to have come into its own (Khalidi 197), and Darwish’s
earlier poems, propelled to huge prominence under the hegemonic
auspices of “resistance” poetry, played no small part in the shoring up
of Arab cultural life. It is perhaps the legacy of this period of
Palestinian poetry—as a forceful, defiant, unifying and nationalising

Ibid 93: Here Elmessiri demonstrates that the Palestinians’ knowledge of their
rootedness and organic, historic bond to the land is what makes “steadfastness” a
uniquely Palestinian form of resistance.

phenomenon—which will forever permeate discussions of and even
sentiments towards it, and perhaps this is why the Arab papers that
are at least partially co-opted by Arab nationalist governments
remember Darwish first and foremost for his earliest poetry.

That Darwish has become a Palestinian national symbol is
something of an inevitability. There are two possible futures for his
memory: One dictates that, with time, the controversy over how he is
remembered, over what kind of symbol he ought to be, will be
alleviated as memories other than those made indelible through the
hegemony of national discourse fade. Perhaps, as collective memory
entails, the unstoppable process of group remembering and forgetting
will make an agreed-upon, loved, but two-dimensional icon. Perhaps he
will outlive his passions and help preserve the singularity of
Palestinian national identity, whilst becoming less and less vivid or
remarkable, and more and more like the stereotyped montage that
Arab governments will him to be. On the other hand—and only insofar
as poetry continues to be read in the world—his poetic oeuvre will
preserve an altogether different memory of him. It will be fragmented,
full of the contradiction of the one, the oppositionality of identity, and
yet it will bespeak the complexity of that identity, and indeed of Spirit.
There are evidently those who would allege a fragmentation and
dispersal of ideology and authority in Darwish’s poetry, a displacement
of the strong, rhetorical, collective voice and who would observe that
in its resultant meditative direction, poetry loses its strength of
communicability, and thus its role as a force in the process of change
and search for a better future. My conviction counter-balances this,
and suggests that an equal relationship shall emerge between the
polarised projects of remembering Mahmoud Darwish; for in turning
its search upon itself poetry becomes an ever more meaningful
mirroring of an existence in which modernity dissipates our certainties,
as a vision of the ineffable paradoxes and possibilities within the
search for the Self.


Abu Deeb, Kamal. “Conflicts, Oppositions, negations: Modern Arabic poetry
and The Fragmentation of Self / Text”. In Tradition and modernity in Arabic
literature, edited by Boullata, Issa and De Young, Terri. The University of
Arkansas Press, 1997.
Ashrawi, Hanan Mikhail. “The Contemporary Palestinian Poetry of
Occupation”. Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 7 No. 3 (Spring, 1978): 77-101

Badawī, Muhammad Mustafa. A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry.
Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Easthope Antony. Poetry as Discourse: New Accents. Taylor & Francis, 1983
Elmessiri, Abdelwahab M. “The Palestinian Wedding: Major Themes of
Fowler, Bridget. The Obituary as Collective Memory. Routledge, 2007.
Garval, Michael D. “A dream of stone": fame, vision, and monumentality in
nineteenth-century French literary culture University of Delaware Press, 2004
Guth, S., Furrer, P. and Bürgel, J. eds. Conscious voices; concepts of writing
in the Middle East, Band 72. Beirut/Stuttgart, 1999. 255-275.
Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. The University of Chicago Press,
Joffé, E.G.H. “Arab Nationalism and Palestine”. Journal of Peace Research Vol.
20 No. 2 (1983).
Khalidi, Rashid. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National
Consciousness . Columbia University Press, 1998.
Khalili, Laleh. 2007. Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National
Commemoration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Khamis Nassar, H. & Rahman, N. – Mahmoud Darwish: Exile’s Poet
Le Goff, J. History and Memory. trans. Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman.
Columbia, 1992.
Leeuven, Richard van. “The poet and his space: the prose works of Mahmud
Said, E. 2000. “Invention, memory and place”. Critical Inquiry. 26. 175-92
Suleiman, Khalid A. Palestine And Modern Arab Poetry Zed Books, 1984.
Suleiman, Y. and Muhawi, I. eds. Literature and Nationalism in the Modern
Middle East. Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
“Palestinian Resistance Poetry”. Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 10 No. 3
(Spring, 1981): 77-99