‘This Land Is Mine’

Palestine as Metaphor

by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Amira El-Zein and Carolyn Forché
Olive Branch, 172 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Other books by and about Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish, Cairo, circa 1971
Courtesy of Sayyed Mahmoud/Al-Ahram Al-Arabi
Mahmoud Darwish, Cairo, circa 1971

The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008) liked to write in the mornings, preferably in a narrow room with a window overlooking a tree. He required solitude and coffee; he wrote in black ink on loose, thick, white paper. He often listened to music. His poems, he told the journalist and fellow poet Abbas Beydoun in 1995, always started out as a cadence, a tempo. “My mornings are sad,” Darwish said. But his afternoons and evenings could be joyful, for as he explained to Beydoun:

It happens sometimes that one writes something and then says, “Oh God” out of ecstasy. As if someone else has written it…. Sometimes, ravished by the musicality of a strophe that I have just written, I find myself going and coming in the apartment, reciting with gaiety, satisfied with myself, and telling myself, “Bravo! Bravo!” These days, after these moments of intense happiness, I reward myself with a dinner in a good restaurant, I invite friends, and I do a small feast.

Darwish made this delightful confession in one of five interviews that have been translated into English for the first time by Amira El-Zein and Carolyn Forché and collected in Palestine as Metaphor. They all took place in the mid-1990s, by which time he had been famous for three decades as the iconic voice of the Palestinian cause. It was a mantle that he at times wore nonchalantly—“Destiny has desired that my individual history be confused with a collective history and that my people recognize themselves in my voice,” he told Beydoun—and at others found painfully constricting. Perhaps because of this, he was eager in these interviews to analyze his work and explain his writing process. They are a rich trove of his reflections on his art, personal revelations, and political insights. In El-Zein and Forché’s vivid and fluid translation, one clearly hears Darwish’s voice: self-assured yet sensitive, witty yet sincere.

Darwish was born in the village of al-Birwa, in western Galilee. In 1947, when he was six, the UN passed a resolution calling for the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the establishment of both an Israeli and a Palestinian state there. When the Israeli state was declared in 1948, fighting broke out immediately between Israeli and Arab armies, and Darwish’s family fled to Lebanon. The Israeli army occupied and then razed al-Birwa; two Jewish settlements were built in its place. Two years later, Darwish and his family made their way back across the border, but they were classified by Israel as “present-absentee aliens”—internal Arab refugees who were denied all claim to their former homes.

Darwish grew up in poverty in a village near Acre. He remembered his father as a gentle, hard-working man and his mother as “a strong woman with a…

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