Lines of Resistance
"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.
This predicament isn't Darwish's alone. In 1967, on the first day of the Six-Day War, the poet Samih al-Qasim, an Israeli Arab and a member of the Israeli Communist Party, was arrested by Israeli forces and sent to Haifa's Al Damoun prison. The experience shook al-Qasim to the core. "In prison I discovered--when the Israelis were declaring, 'Sharm el-Sheikh is in our hands, Jerusalem is in our hands'--that I had to make one of two choices," al-Qasim told British journalist Roger Hardy in 1982: "either to find a cave in the mountains, isolated from mankind, or to find a higher stage in the struggle. I lost my belief in nationalistic big words." Al-Qasim had to extricate himself from nationalism's fastened-down ideological positions while also trying to remain samid, or steadfast, a phrase coined by Palestinians to describe someone who remains attached to his or her land and culture despite imposing obstacles. The thirty-two poems collected in Sadder Than Water, the first collection of al-Qasim's poems to be published in an English-language translation, suggest that the task has been arduous. Although al-Qasim has managed to escape from the prison of nationalism--"beware the rights of rhetoric dancing on blood," he warns in the volume's title poem--remaining samid has landed him in an open-air cell of sadness, melancholy and absurdity, one from which there appears to be no way out. As the escape artist of "The Tragedy of Houdini the Miraculous" explains, "And here's the knottiest problem of all:/Entry or exit?"
Samih al-Qasim was born in 1939 in Zarqa, a city in the British Mandate of Palestine, where his father was stationed as an officer in the British-sponsored Arab Legion. Members of the Druse sect, the al-Qasim clan had lived for centuries in Rama, a village in northern Palestine to which the infant Samih and his family returned at the outbreak of World War II. Rama was occupied by Israeli soldiers during the Arab-Israeli war; the al-Qasims remained in the village but lived under the Emergency Regulations, which restricted the movement of Palestinian citizens within the new Jewish state until 1966. Despite those regulations, al-Qasim and Darwish, who'd become close friends, traveled around the country during the late 1950s and read their work at poetry festivals in rural Arab villages. According to the late novelist Ghassan Kanafani, a poem of al-Qasim's about the massacre of forty-eight Palestinian villagers by Israeli border guards in the town of Kafr Qasim in October 1956 was "memorized throughout the whole Galilee."
Al-Qasim, in fact, wrote several poems about Kafr Qasim, one of which is included in Sadder Than Water. It begins, "There is no monument, no rose, no memorial--/neither a line of poetry to delight the murdered/Nor any curtain for the unveiling." The diction of these lines is characteristic of many poems in the volume. It is bardic and ceremonial, addressed to a public event and determined to maintain an air of rhetorical grandeur. Occasionally al-Qasim's sense of grandeur is inadvertently comic, as in "He Whispered Before He Took His Final Breaths." Thick with imperatives and exclamations--"Don't honor me with a monument/and song!...Do not pay your last respects/with laurel and a royal display!"--the poem has the ring of amplified petitions rather than whispered requests. Still, the experiences of indignity, humiliation, privation and misrepresentation evoked in "He Whispered Before He Took His Final Breaths" are the recurring subjects of Sadder Than Water, and al-Qasim explores them fruitfully when he treats them ironically, as in "Sadness" ("Sadness laughed at my joy/in Disneyland--/scolding me/as all the people looked at me!") and "End of a Talk With a Jailer":
From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
and rooftops crowded with my family.
And windows weeping and praying for me.
From the narrow window of my small cell--
I can see your big cell!
Equally striking are the poems in which al-Qasim forgoes irony and struggles directly with the paralysis induced by acute existential bewilderment. In "The Ugliest of Words," the speaker is baffled by a flurry of questions about a plot of land that is perhaps a symbol of Palestine itself: "What should I do with the narcissus?/The apricot?/The crowns of rugged trees?/What should I do with the finest/of my wildflowers? What?"