Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Voice of Palestinian hope is buried in Ramallah

"I have learned the words of blood-stained courts in order to break the rules.
I have learned and dismantled all the words to construct a single one:Home"

"I Come From There"

Landing in the presence of mourners numbered in their thousands around the streets of Ramallah, a helicopter carrying the body of the Arab world's best loved poet Mahmoud Darwish arrives for the first state funeral to take place in the West Bank capital since Yasser Arafat's in 2004. His coffin, mantled in the Palestinian flag and olive branches, was soon driven through streets overlooked by gatherers on a hilltop that will shortly be named after him, near the Ramallah Cultural Palace.

While the faces of the city were filled with tears, the poems - bursting from loudspeakers - were filled with both isolation and ambition. Later, after the burial, commenced the sound of 21 gunshots and the eulogising words of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, "master of the word and wisdom, the symbol who expressed our national feeling, our human constitution, our declaration of independence”.

Darwish was born in the city of al-Birweh 7 years before the Nakbah in 1948. In the 1960's he achieved prominence for his poems in leftist publications critical of the Israeli occupation. In the years between 1961-1967 he spent 5 occasions in jail before exiling himself, firstly to the Soviet Union, then Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Paris, and then back to the West Bank in 1996. Exile would prove to be a staple of Mahmoud's work, ensuring his canonical status amongst those who, too, felt the full weight of his words in the occupied lands.

His politicisation began when he returned illegally back to the city of his birth a year after it had been occupied. He joined the Israeli Communist Party and later the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) where he was on the executive committee before resigning in protest at the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Preferring to focus more on his literary work, he brought back from obscurity the journal Al Karmel which had been pushed aside by the Israeli invasion of Beirut a year after its original founding in 1981. Efforts were then taken by Darwish to promote the poetic voices of other Palestinians who were exiles in their own country.

In 2000, an Israeli Minister proposed including Darwishs' poems into the national curriculum, spurring outrage from rightwingers who subsequently went on an offensive to oust the Ehud Barak government through a non-confidence vote. The following year Barak, now Minister of Defence, was defeated by Ariel Sharon's Likud Party. The topic of Darwishs's poetry in schools is still an area of debate, recently former Education Ministry director-general Zevulun Orlev told The Jerusalem Post that the poetry 'would arouse sentiments against Zionism, Judaism and the country.' Dismissing this, former Education Minister Yossi Sarid stressed the benefits of teaching arab students about Israel's national poet Haim Nahman Bialik, so why not the Israeli students about Darwish.

Last year, in a momentary return to the political stage, Darwish condemned Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza, following that statehood would only be effected by unity. A pity it is that he won't be able to cast opinion on Israel's proposal to withdraw from 93% of the West Bank, as reported on Tuesday from Israel's leftist news source Haaretz.

In April of 2002, away at a poetry reading, Darwish was informed that the office where he edited Al Karmel had been turned over during a series of Israeli army operations to uproot suicide bombers. Regarding the viciousness of the attack, Darwish was quoted as saying "I took the message personally. I know they're strong and can invade and kill anyone. But they can't break or occupy my words." This last sentiment rings especially true, as the volume of people who took to the streets to observe his coffin would seem to suggest.

For those who mourn the poet as someone who shared in their sense of being ostracised, the struggle continues, but, hope shall too remain.

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