“How many times will it be over, father?” a Palestinian boy asks in Mahmoud Darwish’s recent collection of poems, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? The boy poses the question after learning about the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, but one wonders whether Darwish was asking himself the same question when he finished the book in the early 1990s, a period that was an especially turbulent one in the life of the writer long considered to be the Palestinian national poet. In 1993 Darwish resigned from the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization to protest the signing of the Oslo accords, which he rejected because they had failed to secure from Israel a clear commitment to withdraw from the occupied territories. It was those very accords, however, that established an autonomous Palestinian Authority, thereby enabling Darwish to settle in the West Bank town of Ramallah in 1996 after spending twenty-six years in exile. But even though Darwish was back in Palestine, his life was still an odyssey. He could not move to, or visit, his native village of Birweh, in Galilee, because it was among the more than 400 Palestinian towns occupied and razed by Israeli forces during the war and incorporated into the new Jewish state.
Darwish’s return to Palestine also brought with it new forms of confinement. While he was living in Haifa as an “internal refugee,” or a Palestinian citizen of Israel, in the late 1960s, Israeli military authorities routinely arrested him each time he published a collection of poems; between spells of imprisonment they placed him under house arrest. In the 1990s, however, Darwish’s jailers were not the Israeli military authorities but rather readers who reduced his poetry to a running commentary on the Palestinian national cause. “In my recent works, I have consciously and rigorously checked myself to prevent the reader from continuing to read me according to his habits,” Darwish explained in 1993 in an interview with Syrian literary critic Subhi Hadidi. By that time, Darwish had ceased writing overtly political poems modeled on the work of Pablo Neruda and Louis Aragon; his work had become introspective and mythical, and was stirred by a metaphysical hunger. Nevertheless, he told Hadidi, “it’s a losing effort since I have found myself yet again the prisoner of a political reading.” Similarly, in an interview in 1996 with a trio of Palestinian writers in Ramallah, Darwish stressed that he had tried repeatedly to demolish the myth of his poetry’s political relevance “because to inhabit the myth is like living in a prison, denied of any sudden flowering, of any intellectual enrichment.” Although the prison Darwish describes is metaphorical, the constriction of liberties he experiences when he senses the cell doors clanking shut is jarring and real.
To hear Darwish push back against the pressure of political relevance is no less jarring an experience because his remarks appear to contradict the oft-invoked idea of him as a “poet of resistance.” This phrase has shadowed him like a Homeric epithet, especially when his work is discussed in the United States, a country where poets have rarely experienced the kind of acclaim he has enjoyed for four decades. Thousands of people have been known to attend Darwish readings in the Middle East, and although the poet is always grateful for such enthusiasm he remains exasperated by what sometimes feeds it, “this obsession to always want to serve the cause by the way of poetry,” which, as he told Hadidi, “is useless. It serves neither poetry nor the Palestinian cause.”
No less intriguing than this position is Darwish’s manner of defending it, which echoes the youthful militant poems that first earned him the reputation of being a poet of resistance. The early poems ring with calls for defiance of Israeli efforts to uproot Palestinians from their land; Darwish’s opposition to the pressure of political relevance, which is a defense against being dispossessed of private imaginative terrain, strikes the same heroic note. Even when confronting his readers, Darwish cannot help but behave as a poet of resistance, a writer who defines himself, and finds himself somewhat confined, by rhetorical acts of defiance.