Monday, August 18, 2008

Death of a Poet

It is hard to recall when I first saw the name Mahmoud Darwish. It could be that the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz had translated one of his poems from Arabic and is included in Faiz's nusxa hai wafa. It is equally possible that when I accidentally laid my hands, in late 80s, on a special issue of a literary magazine called East (I could be misremembering the title) which was dedicated to Faiz, Mahmoud, Nazim Hikmat, Neruda and two others. From that point on I was always on the lookout for his works either in second hand bookstores, San Fracisco State's J. Paul Leonard library or San Francisco Public Library's Main Branch. Now when I look back I realize that my own education regarding dispossession of the Palestinian people began, in parts, due to Darwish. Other figures, such as Said, and friends, like Anthony Costa, will enter the picture later. While browsing Monthly Review's online version for an article I wanted to forward to a friend, I also chanced upon the following: A poet of exile par excellence, Darwish died in exile. The village of his birth in western Galilee, al-Birwa (whose Arabic name is said to have been first recorded in Persian poet and traveler Nasser Khosro's Safarnameh had been demolished, in whose place Moshav Ahihud was built in 1950. His most famous poem Identity Card was published in 1964.

It was a shocking revelation to me to hear an Israeli peacenik many years ago speaking into the tiny loudspeaker held in his hand to a small crowd on a windy day at the Civic Center's UN Plaza, by the Main Library and Bart Station, the revelation that Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was designed to crush PLO precisely because PLO had been reaching out, through diplomatic channels, for a peace deal. Many years later, then, Norman Finkelstein would take on Ben-Ami, Israeli ex-Foreign Minister, on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now and had this to say: Come 1981, as pressure builds on Israel to reach a diplomatic settlement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, they decide to invade Lebanon in order to crush the P.L.O., because the P.L.O. was on record supporting a two-state settlement. As Dr. Ben-Ami's colleague, Avner Yaniv, put it in a very excellent book, Dilemmas of Security, he said, “The main problem for Israel was,” and now I'm quoting him, "the P.L.O.'s peace offensive. They wanted a two-state settlement. Israel did not.” And so Israel decides to crush the P.L.O. in Lebanon. It successfully did so.
The P.L.O. goes into exile.

Norman Finkelstein's name now suddenly reminded me (due to University of California Press, Berkeley, connetion) of a wonderful book they had published in 1995, a translation of Mahmoud Darwish's Memory For Forgetfulness. My fingers grew restless, eyes agitated, flipping through pages, trying to find where the poet of exile mentions another poet of exile. Here: Patience, intellectuals! For the question of life and death which is now supreme, the question of a will committing all its weapons to the battlefield, the question of an existence taking its divine and material shape - these are more important than ethical questions about the role of poetry and the poet. And it is fitting that we should honor the awe which these hours unfold, the hours of the transfer of human existence from one shore to another and from one state of being to another. It is fitting also that traditional poetry should know how to hold its humble silence in the presence of this newborn. And if it becomes necessary for intellectuals to turn into snipers, then let them snipe at their old concepts, their old questions, and their old ethics. We are not now to describe, as much as we are to be described. We're being born totally, or else dying totally. <>Yet our great friend from Pakistan, Fayiz Ahmad Fayiz, is busy with another question: "Where are the artists?"
"Which artists, Fayiz?" I ask. "The artists of Beirut." "What do you want from them?" "To draw this war on the walls of the city." "What's come over you?" I exclaim. "Don't you see the walls crumbling?"

Simone Bitton's 1997 documentary film Mahmoud Darwich: As the Land Is the Language traces some of the paths of Darwish's exile.

Rachel Donadio writes in New York Times Book Review (pg 27) about a reprint - by Ibis - of a controversial novel Khirbet Khizeh (1949) by S. Yizhar about displacement of Palestinians. The author was born in 1916 and served as an intelligence officer in 1948 war. Ms Donado writes, "[T]he book tells of the violent evacuation of a Palestinian village by a Jewish unit in the 1948 war of independence. " No one knows how to wait like soldiers, Yizhar writer, There is the ruthlessly long waiting, the nervous anxious waiting . . . the tedious waiting, that consumes and burns everything." Ms Donado adds: When the order comes, the unit begins shelling. The villagers flee. The narrator speaks, "This is what exile looked like . . . I have never been in diaspora. I had never known what it was like, but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction . . . exile . . . What, in fact, had we perpatrated her today?"
Noted Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua called the novel, "a little bit naive, simple . . ." and, according to Ms. Donaldo, Mr. Yehoshua thinks "Other Israeli writers have treated 'the Palestinian problem' with far more sophistication."
That reminds me of what Toni Morrison once wrote: Silences from and about the subject was the order of the day. Some of the silences were broken, and some were maintained by authors who lived with and within the policing strategies. What I am interested in are the strategies for breaking it.
(from Playing in the Dark)
Author Yehoshua add, "From 1948 onward, Israel hasn't been 'taking innocent citizens' and trying to do harm to them . . . It's a war between two peoples about the land . . . [Palestinians] don't want us for their own reasons, and we have to be there because we don't have another place. This is the tragedy." He elaborates, "Even if the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are 'evil,' we cannot say that the other side doesn't want to push us to the sea."
This level of intellectual dishonesty from a major author is appalling. Mr. Yehoshua not only justifies occupation, colonialism and apartheid but also obfuscates criticism of such practices. What took place in Palestine was not out of the ordinary during colonialism emanating out of racist Europe, it was normal practice to displace colonized people. The displacement of Masaai people of Kenya, 1904, by the British, forcing them off their rich land to make way for British settlements is a similar story of dispossession. The displacement was not always physical, it involved knowledge of literature and history as well. Finally, TLS in its August 15, 2008, issue exhibits a racist way of honoring Mahmoud Darwish by quoting from an old review of poems (1974): Poets cannot live by sympatyhy alone, and it well that Darwish has the technical expertise to achieve effects that do not depend on biographical information . . ." If he is a major poet, extremely popular, worthy of translation, then, why wouldn't he have technical expertise? Would TLS employ such snobish language about a poet expressing similar feelings about Holocaust? Shame on TLS!