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Mahmoud Darwish once said that he considered himself to be a Trojan poet recollecting and reconstructing the voices of the defeated: “The Trojans would have expressed a different narrative than that of Homer, but their voices are forever lost. I am in search of those voices.” Darwish conducted his search as he roamed over a “map of absence,” as he called his homeland of Palestine. On August 9 his odyssey ended when he died after complications from open heart surgery in Houston. Four days later, thousands of Palestinians flocked to Ramallah to bid him farewell at a state funeral, and countless others across the Arab world and elsewhere mourned his passing.
For nearly half a century, Darwish’s heart, and the heart of his poetry, had been public spaces. In the Arab world, it was not uncommon for Darwish readings to draw thousands of people; many thousands more bought his books and listened to his poems as they were set to music. But Darwish was more than a “Trojan poet”: his poetic odyssey included explorations of physical frailty, spiritual bewilderment, erotic love and metaphysical hunger. Darwish may very well have been one of the last great world poets. It is difficult to imagine another poet who enjoyed such immense popularity and endured such political scrutiny, one whose work embodies the collective memory of millions yet also has a universal orbit. Darwish truly contained multitudes. He was many poets at once; his work stubbornly resists categorization.
Darwish was born in 1941 in al-Birwi, a village in the Galilee in Palestine. In 1948 al-Birwi was occupied by Israeli forces, and his family fled to Lebanon; they snuck back a year later, but their village, like hundreds of others, had been destroyed and incorporated into Israel. All that remained of al-Birwi was the village cemetery. The Darwishes settled in another village and were categorized as “present absentees.” Young Mahmoud witnessed and survived the obliteration, displacement and internal exile that would mark the Palestinian tragedy and become central themes in his poetry.
Darwish discovered the power of words early on and wrote fierce poems of resistance and love of land. He was imprisoned five times and placed under house arrest by the Israeli military authorities. Darwish’s poem “Identity Card” (1964), with its unforgettable refrain “Write down, I’m an Arab!” crystallized Palestinian resistance against Israeli attempts to erase Palestinian identity and history. Darwish later joined the Israeli Communist Party, the only Israeli party at the time that admitted Arabs, and worked as a journalist and editor. In 1971, while on a scholarship to Moscow, he made the monumental decision not to return to Israel. He went to Cairo instead and then, in 1972, to Beirut, where he joined the PLO and stayed for a decade. He later lived in exile in Tunis, Paris and Amman.