Under normal circumstances, Arabic literature of any kind passes virtually unnoticed in Israel, despite the fact that a few of the most well-known contemporary Arab writers are Israeli citizens. But the publication of “Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words,” a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet adopted by the Israeli “peace camp” as a “moderate” (and himself a former Israeli citizen), has sparked a furor across the entire political spectrum. That poetry has been turned into a lethal weapon may be the only sigh of comic relief and hope in an atmosphere where daily tragedies have taken on the sickening pall of life as usual: Acceptable reactions to Darwish’s poem seem to conclude that after the bombs and guns and stones, the natives have now had the audacity to attack “us” with words. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” no longer seems to hold true, at least when applied to the delicate sensibilities of Israeli liberals.

Even this poem initially aroused little interest. It first appeared in the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot in Smadar Peri’s translation on February 19, 1988. A month later Israel’s second largest daily, Ma’ariv, published a new translation by Shefi Gabbai. In an accompanying article, Gabbai maintained that Darwish’s poem saw the uprising as a way for the Palestinians to take “all of Palestine, from the sea to the Jordan river.” Darwish believes “Israel to be in a state of dissolution,” Gabbai went on. “He advises the Israelis to pack their bags and return to the Diaspora along with the coffins of their dead, since the Palestinians reject even any traces of the Jews.” This was more than enough to sound the alarm. The fact that none of these statements actually appeared in Darwish’s poem and that Gabbai’s translation itself was sprinkled with inaccuracies — as Matti Peled pointed out in a fine article — were minor details. By then the information and history-making machines were in full operation. Four months into the uprising, with the convergence of the world press and with the beginnings of a real anti-occupation protest movement developing within Israel, Darwish’s poem floated in like a weather balloon to test the atmosphere.

The scale of the reaction only attests to Darwish’s acute political/poetic intelligence, not the freedom of his emotions, as even some of those “supporting” the poet apologetically claimed: Only the slightest excuse was needed to reunite Israeli public opinion, to shore up any breaches in the consensus. Darwish’s poem proved precisely the thing to curb both the fear and the euphoria of those first months, to make everyone realize that the passage to any kind of resolution would be a long haul.

The press has had a field day with the poem, and everyone whose good intentions felt wounded had to put in their two cents. The Jerusalem Post featured headlines like “When the Moderate Turned Bitter,” and “Unrepentant Poet.” A columnist in Haaretz wrote: “If Darwish wants to expel us from here, we won’t be left with any choice but to expel him first.” Figures like Amos Kenan, Yoram Kaniuk and Natan Zach more or less read the eulogy, putting Darwish to rest as a potential partner in any Israeli-Palestinian “dialogue.” Haim Guri, a poet who himself was a hero in the Palmach (the military force whose 1947-1949 operations contributed to the destruction of over 350 villages and helped put Darwish and over 700,000 other Palestinians in the limbo they still find themselves in), masterfully and in true liberal fashion turned the issue on its head:

I fear that this poem by Darwish is liable to give the right the Knesset seats it needs for a possible majority in the elections; the poem returns us to the true demons, it speaks truth, poems do not lie…. And it was written by an Israeli Arab, close to Hebrew literature, who understands what this country has meant to us from the time of the covenant with Abraham. The future looks bleak and dangerous and Darwish’s poem only lends substance to this. Israelis will require much understanding, strength and patience to face up to the demons chasing within themselves — and to poems as these.

Beyond the liberal camp, comments on the poem came from all sides. Oddly enough, even those associated with the Israeli Communist Party expressed themselves in a vaguely apologetic fashion: After all, “it was a poem and not a political statement,” they said, or again, “given the gravity of the situation in the territories, it could only be expected that someone might lose their restraint.” The right, naturally, found the poem cause for celebration: It was discussed in the Knesset, mentioned by Shamir, spoken of on television. The most ironic aspect of the whole incident is the fact that Mahmoud Darwish, probably the most popular poet in the Arab world but virtually unknown outside of a tiny circle in Israel, had become a household word overnight. The power of poetry certainly works in mysterious ways…. What, though, is one to make of all this commotion and who, precisely, are the demons?

A well-known phenomenon seems at work here: The hysterical over-reaction to the poem simply serves as a remarkably accurate litmus test of the Israeli psyche, vividly illustrating the extent to which the concrete, brutal history that led to the fulfillment of the Zionist “dream” remains entirely suppressed on a collective level. Israelis are still unable to make even the vaguest gesture in the direction of Palestine, to acknowledge the expulsion of its inhabitants and the transformation of the country into an alien stronghold, truly hostile to the ecology and culture of its environment, not to mention its former population or any other “non-Western” elements. While the right tends to be a bit more honest in acknowledging some aspects of this past, liberal thought goes to great lengths to cover the tracks of the institutionalized brutality that is part and parcel of any power struggle. This is always done by attacking, from the standpoint of wounded justice, any expressions that seem to fall outside the bounds of some idealized sense of “fair play.” And here, too, the rhetorical maneuvers of Haim Guri are standard practice: It is the oppressor who needs “patience,” and “understanding;” the “demons” are not in me (I’m OK), they’re out there, objectified in the right, in Darwish and his poem.

This kind of position always collapses conflicts into two equal sides, where people on each side supposedly have the same “objective” space to move in and the same set of possibilities from which “choices” can be made. Without belaboring the obvious, major differences do remain between guerrilla warfare (whatever ugly forms it may take) and systematic violence carried out by a sovereign state (destruction of villages; bombing of civilian areas; seizure of land; limits on movement, expression and political activity; house demolition; crop destruction; arbitrary arrests and torture of prisoners; and the denial of family reunification and the right of return to one’s birthplace).

Yet the most intolerable aspect of being on the receiving end in these “battles of equals,” the most psychologically brutalizing fact, beyond the litany outlined above, may be the devastating feeling of not even having the right to your own memory, of being made to feel a complete alien in your own home, of seeing things you knew once one way slowly transformed, destroyed or vulgarized. These are the feelings that Darwish’s poem eloquently addresses. Besides glossing over this central theme in the carnival of simplicity attending the poem’s interpretation, none of the commentators thought to specifically refer the “fleeting words” of this poem (along with the ensuing ambiguities) to Darwish’s bitter lines directed at his own leaders in a work written after the evacuation of Beirut: “We have a country of words. Speak Speak so we may know the end of this travel.” The poem, like the Palestinian, remained caught in a one-dimensional limbo.

As any rabbi worth his or her salt will tell you, literal interpretations come at a very low stage of development and if one needs to seek “violent” texts, there is nothing closer to home than the Book of Books which says, among other things: “He dislodges many nations before you — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — you must doom them to destruction: Grant them no term and give them no quarter.” Such a text, in the hands of settlers or other ideological archaeologists with the apparatus of a state behind them, becomes much more than a stone: It becomes the blueprint for a colonialism sanctioned by the word of God. In this sense, Darwish’s poem touches a more tender nerve by both outlining and provoking the difference between the letter of the law and the principle under which the law can or will be enacted.

This subtle difference, it seems to me, lies at the heart of the rhetoric of Palestinian-Israeli relations: the Palestinian speaks of a homeland as an irrevocable and undeniable possibility without specifying its borders; the Israeli, while never actually defining the real borders of the state, insists on precisely measuring and parceling out the land acre by acre. As Darwish himself said in response to his critics in Israel: “The Israeli is the one who determines for the Palestinian their language and aim; why does the Israeli information apparatus need a poem like mine to test its brilliant ability to falsify and deny the humanity of the other?” This poem, perhaps more clearly than any of Darwish’s previous work, is an adamant refusal to accept the language of the occupier and the terms under which the land is defined. Unlike “the language of the Palestine within that guards its secret voice” once described by the Algerian writer Jamal Eddine Ben Cheikh, the language of Darwish has come out of the interior here, with new confidence, into the full light of day.

To quote an Algerian writer, though, is to simply confuse most of the Israeli intelligentsia even further. Here, as in politics, Israeli writers find themselves most at home with writers whose work emerges from dominant cultural modes: To fully comprehend the work of Darwish, who comes from the tradition of political exile embodied by poets like Cesar Vallejo, Nazim Hikmet or Yannis Ritsos (and not Joseph Brodsky), is truly an effort for those weaned on bourgeois Anglo-American and European literature. For such exiles, there is no such thing as a pure, objectified art; no “engaged” or “disengaged” writing: Their work is simply one part of the very condition of those who do not rest on some vague laurels or operate within the apparatus of assumptions that power, in the larger sense, can provide.

One of the few sane voices to be heard in the Darwish fiasco was that of Yossi Shiloah, an actor and member of the Oriental Front. Shiloah had recently staged a one-man show called The Voyage, based on the texts of Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi and other Palestinian writers — the first production of its kind. As someone who has fought his own cultural battles, Shiloah’s authority on this issue was genuine: His disappointment was not with Darwish, but with the Israeli left “which laid bare the little racist hidden within each of them.” He went on to say:

If Mahmoud Darwish hadn’t written this poem, would tens of Palestinians not have been killed? Would the houses of Bayta not have been destroyed? They treat Darwish just the way they treat Palestinian children. It’s all very nice to pat a Palestinian kid on the head and say how unfortunate he is. But if that same kid picks up a stone to fight for his freedom, he suddenly becomes the enemy.

The deeper difference between Shiloah’s reaction and most others — even some of those defending Darwish — is that Shiloah identifies himself emotionally and culturally with the “enemy.” As he stated regarding his own work:

I am in search of my roots, my identity, and I cannot find it within Israeli culture; if I do, then it is only negatively. I went to Palestinian Arabic literature in search of my culture and, being Oriental, found that I feel much closer to certain Palestinian poets than Israeli writers. Since the beginning of the conflict, no initiative has been taken in Israel, neither in the theater nor in the educational system, to bring the cultural and spiritual dimension of the Palestinian people to light. I reject the common idea that the two peoples are “condemned” to live together. This is a coercive, negative concept. There is nothing negative or coercive about life in common. On the contrary, one contributes to the equilibrium of the other.

Like any literary text, Darwish’s poem puts its cards on the table. Like dream-work, the analysand must read his or her own life back into the signs provided by the dream and struggle to accept responsibility for the acts the dream refers to: is it enough to just read back mechanically the, usual fears and traumas, to point to the demons out there without specifying the very real consequences of their existence? Again, one must go back and state the obvious: Those Israelis sincerely seeking a political statement from Darwish need only turn to the PLO and its official statements — they certainly do not need to stumble into facile interpretations of his very complex work which, in any case, is derived from a tradition too unfamiliar to them to speak of intelligently. The attack on Darwish is just one aspect of the official contempt for any kind of political/human recognition and acknowledgement of the other, the specifically Palestinian Arab other, expressed more and more in the “lynch now, ask questions later” atmosphere whose logical conclusions are indeed much more terrifying than any poem could ever hope to be.

How to cite this article:

Ammiel Alcalay "Who’s Afraid of Mahmoud Darwish?," Middle East Report 154 (September/October 1988).

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