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 sharp tongue,” intelligent and domineering, who vented her anger by hitting her children, and her pent-up sadness by attending funerals where she could cry freely. The family lived painfully close to the lands they had lost. Decades later, in his meditation In the Presence of Absence, Darwish described their sudden dispossession:
We live, if we are able to live, in an infant past, planted in fields that were ours for hundreds of years until a moment ago, before the dough rose and the coffeepots cooled. In one ill-fated hour, history entered like a bold thief through a door as the present flew out through a window. With a massacre or two, the country’s name, our country, became another.
In the village school, Darwish’s teachers would hide him from police inspectors; he had no legal existence and hence no right to be there. Nonetheless, he learned fluent Hebrew, which “opened…the door of European literature” to him. His grandfather had already taught him Arabic, which had entranced him (“if you do not misspell ‘river,’ the river will flow through your notebook,” he wrote of the magic of learning to read), as had the epics, story cycles, and songs performed at evening gatherings. Later he would be influenced by the work of Arab poets such as the Iraqi Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and the Egyptian ‘Abd al-Muti’ Hijazi. He published his first poetry collection, Wingless Birds, in 1961, at the age of nineteen.
As a young man, Darwish moved to Haifa, joined the Communist party Maki (the only party to welcome Arabs), and became the editor of its literary journal. Because the Israeli authorities considered his writing inflammatory, he was arrested several times, put under house arrest, and prevented from leaving Haifa; in 1970 he seized the chance to study in the USSR, but after a year he moved to Cairo and then to Beirut. After he joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1973, he was banned from entering Israel and the occupied territories. He wasn’t allowed to return to Haifa until the early 1990s.
By the time Darwish left Haifa, he was already famous across the Arab world. In 1964 he had published “Identity Card,” a declaration (to a presumed Israeli official) of identity and fraying patience:
Write it down!
I am an Arab
and my identity card is number fifty thousand.
I have eight children
and the ninth is due after summer.
Does this anger you?…
Write it down!
I am an Arab.
You have stolen my ancestors’ orchards,
the land I farmed
with my children.
You left us nothing
except for these rocks.
Will your State take them too
as it’s been said?!
record at the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
nor do I steal.
But if I become hungry
I will eat my robber’s flesh.
Beware then, beware of my hunger
and my anger!
I hesitate to quote this poem, knowing how weary Darwish became of it defining him. It was so popular that he was often asked to recite it; on one occasion in Beirut, an eager fan kept shouting the opening line, until Darwish reportedly snapped, “Write it down yourself!”
Darwish’s youthful ambition was to show he knew and loved his homeland better than Israeli poets did—he would lay claim to it through language, invent an irrefutably beautiful vocabulary of longing. In the poem “On This Earth There Is What Deserves Life,” he weaves together elements of grace and danger, culminating in a declaration of belonging:
On this earth there is what
deserves life: April’s hesitancy,
the smell of bread
at dawn, a woman’s invocation
toward men, Aeschylus’s
writings, the beginning
of love, grass on a stone, mothers
standing on a thread issued
from the notes of a flute,
and the conqueror’s dread of
On this earth there is what
deserves life: the end of
September, a woman who leaves
her forties with her apricots still
in bloom, the hour of sun in the
prison yard, clouds
imitating a herd of creatures, the
salutations given to those who
to their executions, and the
tyrants’ fear of songs.
On this earth there is what
deserves life: on this earth there
is the mistress of
the earth, mother of beginnings
and mother of ends. She used to
be called Palestine.
And she is still called Palestine.
My lady, I deserve, because you
are my lady, I deserve life.
But as he explains more than once in Palestine as Metaphor, Darwish chafed at being categorized mainly as a Palestinian poet and dreaded becoming a “prisoner of a political reading.” “The established critics insult me incessantly, whether glorifying me or ignoring me,” he told the Syrian literary critic Subhi Hadidi, because they treated him as a spokesman for Palestinian national aspirations, whereas he thought his poems should be judged on their aesthetic merits regardless of the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, and regardless of how well they served it.
For Darwish, the subject of Palestine was his natural element and inspiration, as well as “a poetical alibi.” As time went on, he explored it in ever more innovative ways, embedding his personal and national experience in meditations on time, love, exile, and identity. “The theme of Palestine, which is at the same time a call and a promise of freedom, risks transformation into a poetical cemetery” if it is treated too literally, he told Beydoun.
As his work evolved, Darwish also had to contend with his adoring readers, who he claimed rewrote his poems as they pleased, erasing him from them. “The reader is like a policeman,” he complained—one who patrolled the poem’s meaning and planted his own clues: “If I write a love poem to a woman, my reader forces himself upon the text and allows himself, as a consequence, to name this woman: Palestine.”
Yet misunderstandings and frustrations between Darwish and his audience could be productively resolved; his readers always followed him as his writing evolved. He was a cultural star, declaiming his poems to rapt and overflowing crowds across the Arab world. This is the Darwish many photos and videos have immortalized: dapper, charismatic, with a warm smile and a haughty gaze (although this may have actually been the effect of his poor eyesight and thick prescription glasses).
“All the poets of the world dream that their voices are also that of others,” he says in Palestine as Metaphor. “But truly, I don’t give a damn; maybe because, having such popularity, I can play the spoiled child and say that I don’t want it. Maybe if they forget me, I would desire to have it again. What counts for me, is to feel free.”
In a way, it was one of the worst blows to befall the Palestinian national liberation movement that furthered Darwish’s freedom. In the 1970s he lived in Beirut; by then he had become a member of the Palestinian political establishment and a friend of and speechwriter for PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The Lebanese civil war, which was partly caused by the presence of Palestinian militias in the country, broke out in 1975. As Khaled Mattawa notes in Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation, his work at this time became “resistance poetry” in the strictest sense, losing some of its subtlety and particularity and inching toward propaganda. Darwish acknowledged, in the interview with Beydoun, that he was not satisfied with his poems from that era. “Poetry writing requires a stable temperature, around twenty degrees Celsius!” he said. “Ice and very hot weather kill poetry, and Beirut was boiling. Boiling with feelings and visions. Beirut was a land of perplexity.”
In 1982 Israel invaded and laid siege to Beirut, with the aim of driving out the PLO. Intensive shelling destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed thousands of civilians. In the end, the PLO evacuated its leadership and fighters; Darwish was smuggled in a diplomatic car to Damascus and from there headed to Tunis. In Beirut, he had witnessed poets and writers arguing over how they should support the armed struggle. But he came to believe that “this obsession with always serving the cause through poetry is useless. It does not serve poetry or the cause.”
Darwish settled in Paris, and the years he spent there seem to have been among the most happy and productive of his life. In Palestine as Metaphor he says, “To disappear elsewhere is a liberation. The less they know about you, the better you know yourself. It’s also a question of maturity…. I learned to forgive.”
In 1986 he wrote Memory for Forgetfulness, a scathing, lyrical, darkly funny, electrifying memoir of his last terrible month in Beirut under Israeli siege. Darwish eschews the heroic mode and instead criticizes everyone, including the Palestinian resistance movement and its Arab allies, just as he exposes his own weaknesses. I have always adored the opening pages, in which he recounts waking up to Israeli bombardments in his high-rise apartment facing the sea. He cowers in the hallway, but all he can think of is how to reach the kitchen and make a cup of coffee. He spends pages rhapsodizing over coffee and its attributes, while also worrying about being crushed to death if his building collapses. He pictures his own funeral, which he hopes will feature an elegant coffin, yellow and red roses, and a radio announcer “who can put on a convincing show of sadness.” He imagines the cutting remarks his friends will make about his bon vivant habits: “‘He was a womanizer.’ ‘He was a dandy in his choice of clothes.’ ‘The rugs in his house are so plush you sink into them up to your knees.’…I’ll smile in my coffin and try to say, ‘Enough!’ I’ll try to come back to life, but I won’t be able.”
Darwish also contemplates his mortality in “I See My Ghost Coming from a Distance,” the opening poem of the collection Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, published in 1995:
I look out like a balcony on what I want
I look out on my friends carrying the evening mail
wine and bread
novels and records…
I look out on a sea gull and on the trucks of soldiers
changing the trees of this place.
I look out on the dog of my neighbor who emigrated
from Canada a year and a half ago…
I look out on the name Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi
who traveled from Tiberius to Egypt
on the horse of song
I look out on the Persian rose that rises up
over the iron fence
I look out like a balcony on what I want
I look out on the trees that guard the night from itself
and guard the sleep of those who want me dead…
I look out on the wind searching for its homeland
I look out on a woman sunbathing within herself…
I look out over the procession of ancient prophets
climbing barefoot to Jerusalem
I ask: Is there a new prophet
for this new time?…
Like this one, Darwish’s later poems are long, open-ended, traveling far in time and space, balancing many seemingly incongruous elements, moving in one line from the quotidian to the epic.
A voracious reader, Darwish used his knowledge of ancient civilizations to stake a claim to a broad heritage, in opposition to what he saw as the narrow boundaries of Zionism. He said:
This land is mine, with its multiple cultures—Canaanite, Hebraic, Greek, Roman, Persian, Egyptian, Arab, Ottoman, English, and French. I want to live all of these cultures. It is my right to identify with all of these voices that have echoed on this land. For I am not an intruder, nor a passer-by.
It was also his right to escape the circumscribed present and take a long and often ironic view of history. “Our permanent literary problem, we Palestinians, is that we are condemned to be the children of the immediate moment,” he argued. “The present is so difficult that it occults its own historicity, its past, and its future.” In “Ivory Combs,” he writes that he enters the poem
from its stone armpit, like
a wave enters eternity. I cross
ages as if I were crossing rooms
I see in myself the stuff of intimate time:
a mirror of a Canaanite girl
an ivory comb
a bowl of Assyrian soup
the sword of the defender of his Persian master’s sleep
the sudden leap of falcons from one flag to another
above the masts of the fleets…
Across the interviews in Palestine as Metaphor, Darwish lays out his charmingly immodest vision of his poetic mission. He has dispensed with heroes but is intent on creating his own mythology. He is moving from the national experience to the human one. And he is writing from as many points of view as he can, for “I’m not alone. Neither in place nor time…. I’m not the king of the truth.” He wants to express “the complex knot of historical argumentations” and to give his poems personal features, a specific geography: “A poem written in Israel or in Palestine must allow us to hear the voice of prophets, the genuine and the false. There must also be donkeys there.”
The wonder is that he pulls it all off. His poetry is polyphonic, containing the voices of lovers, enemies, parents, former selves. The poet’s own identity often gently disintegrates or splits:
I am the shadow that walks on water
I am the witness and the scene
I am the worshiper and the temple
in the land of my siege and yours
In his verses, Darwish liked turning things upside down and inside out, making them into their shadow or their opposite. So it is not surprising that he also transformed his exile from a burden into a gift. Exile “has been extremely generous to me,” Darwish told one of his interviewers. “It taught me, educated me, enlarged the horizons of my humanity and my language.” It even helped him gain his mother’s love—he believed absence had made him her favorite child, repairing a difficult relationship. And he believed that exile—understood as a psychic state, a lack of harmony with one’s surroundings, an interior solitude—was the source of his creativity. “I am convinced that exile is profoundly anchored in me, to the point that I cannot write without it,” he declared. “And I will carry it wherever I go, and I will bring it back to my first home.”
But at other times, he insisted that there was no going home. In 1993 the Israeli government and the PLO signed the first Oslo Accord, which stipulated limited Palestinian autonomy over most of the West Bank. Darwish resigned from the PLO in protest: he was in favor of peace with Israel, but like many others he was skeptical of the peace process. The negotiations resembled “a train driven by two engineers, one American and the other Israeli, and Arab partners have no idea of the final destination.” Too many crucial issues—the right of return, the status of Jerusalem, the settlements—weren’t tackled at all.
In 1996 Darwish began living between Amman and Ramallah in the West Bank, but he was quick to point out that this was not a true homecoming. “I don’t return. I arrive. No one can return to an imagined place or to a former self,” he told the Israeli poet Helit Yeshurun, who interviewed him in 1996. It is a long, fascinating discussion, and a rare one in being such a direct, eloquent, and at times contentious exchange of views between a Palestinian and an Israeli.
Darwish would often note that his first judge and jailer had been Jewish; but so had his first teacher and lover. (His poem “Rita and the Rifle” elegized this early relationship with a Jewish woman; set to music, as several of Darwish’s poems were, by the Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife, it became a renowned ballad.) His humanity, the poet argued, was safeguarded by acknowledging the humanity of his enemy.
The destiny of Israelis and Palestinians, he told Yeshurun, is to “live and dwell in the same metaphor”—or, as he put it in another interview, “we could say…that our two dreams sleep in the same bed.” Yet there could be no rest, no true peace, as long as Israel refused to let Palestinians speak their own full truth. “You pretend that this land has always been yours,” he said,
as if history did not continue while you were not here, as if there was no one and the land had only one function: wait for you. Do not impose your version upon me and I will not impose my version upon you. We must recognize, each of us, the right to tell his history. And history will laugh at us both.
At one point Yeshurun said, “Often, when we read Arabic poetry, we have the impression that this poetry is a weapon. That it delivers dynamite in the form of slogans.” In Israel, this alarmist view of Arabic poetry was often directed at Darwish’s work. His most blunt and political poems were always the ones singled out for attention. “Identity Card” remained controversial; his 1988 poem “Passengers Among Passing Words” even more so. He said he composed it on the spur of the moment, in indignation over the brutality of Israeli soldiers during the first intifada. It contained the lines:
O those who pass between fleeting words
It is time for you to be gone
Live wherever you like, but do not live among us
It is time for you to be gone
Die wherever you like, but do not die among us
For we have work to do in our land.
Although Darwish clarified that he was only calling for Israel to leave the occupied territories, the poem was greeted with shock and dismay by the Israeli left and used by the right as evidence that the Palestinians could not be negotiated with. “I wrote this poem as if I was putting a stone in the hand of a kid,” Darwish admitted. “I didn’t give a damn about its artistic value.” He came to regard it as a “weak text,” unworthy of him as a poet, but as he told Yeshurun, “Briefly, what can an occupied people say to those who occupy them? Get out of me!” Yet Israeli politicians continue to treat the possibility of hearing an angry Palestinian voice as a menace. In 2016, when Israel Army Radio aired some of Darwish’s poems in a program about him, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said they were “fuel for terror” and compared them to Mein Kampf.
Darwish died in 2008 in a hospital in Houston, Texas, while undergoing his third heart surgery. He is buried on a hilltop in Ramallah, within a small museum dedicated to him. Since he died, the settlements in the West Bank have continued to expand, and the Trump administration recently announced, ignoring international legal consensus, that it does not consider them illegal. Benjamin Netanyahu also recently suggested that if he became prime minister again he would annex a further third of the West Bank. Since 2018, the inhabitants of blockaded, miserable Gaza have marched regularly to the border with Israel; Israeli soldiers have killed hundreds of protesters and wounded thousands more.
These developments would have pained but not surprised Darwish. In 1996 he told an interviewer, “I do not believe that the birth of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state is possible if the settlements continue.” Already he believed that the only historical solution was a “secular, democratic state where the three monotheistic religions coexist.” He was as at home with loss as he was with exile, and with his usual sleight of hand, he could turn it into a gain, something to be proud of. Poetry, he maintained, could not be on good terms with power; its natural allies were the victims and losers of history. “There is more inspiration and human wealth in defeat than there is in victory,” he told Yeshurun.
“I chose to be a Trojan poet,” Darwish declared. “I’m resolutely in the camp of the losers. The losers who are deprived of the right to leave any trace of their defeat and deprived of the right of proclaiming it. I’m inclined to speak of this defeat, but there is no question of surrender.” Not surrendering consisted merely of continuing to speak. “I like poetry because it gives us the gift of strength, although fictitious,” Darwish said. Or as he wrote in “A Rhyme for the Odes”:
Man possesses the kingdom of
dust and its crown. My language
will triumph over time—the
enemy, over my progeny,
over me, over my father, and over
an end that doesn’t end
This is my language and my
miracle. My magic disobeys.
An earlier version of this article stated that fighting broke out between Israel and the armies of neighboring Arab states after the UN passed a resolution in 1947 calling for the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the creation of an Israeli and a Palestinian state; the fighting broke out after the founding of the Israeli state in 1948.