‘Record: I am an Arab!’
Mahmoud Darwish, the incomparable poet of Palestinian experience, of exile, and of resistance, has slipped into the absence he so often invoked in his poetry. Darwish, who was born in the spring of 1942 in a Palestinian village that no longer exists, died last week in a hospital in Houston, Texas. He was sixty-seven years old, the poet laureate of the Palestinians, a towering figure in Arabic literature, and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. He had published over 30 volumes of poetry and prose, been translated into 35 languages, and received numerous awards including the 1969 Lotus Prize from the Union of Afro-Asian Writers, the 1983 Lenin Peace Prize, and the 2001 Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom.
But Darwish's unparalleled popularity in the Arab world extended far beyond literary circles. He enjoyed a rare iconic status that few poets since Pablo Neruda or Faiz Ahmad Faiz can claim. His public appearances drew excited crowds that could fill football stadiums, his writing caused heated debates in the Israeli Knesset, and his words have been immortalised as anthems of the Palestinian struggle by the immensely popular Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife.
Darwish's own life played no small part in this strong identification between the poet and his homeland. He was born in Al-Birwa, a village in the Galilee, at a time when Palestine was under the British Mandate. The nakba or catastrophe of 1948 struck when he was barely seven years old, and Jewish militias destroyed Al-Birwa along with more than 400 other Palestinian villages. Darwish's family fled to Lebanon. When they returned a year later to what used to be their home, their village no longer existed, and from the standpoint of the new state of Israel, neither did they. Darwish, like thousands of other Palestinians inside Israel, became an internal refugee living under a system of military rule and legally classified in terms only Orwell could match: a "present-absent alien."
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