Poetic Justice: Mahmoud Darwish's Vision of Palestinian-Israeli Coexistence in the Holy Land

To many Palestinians and members of the Arab diaspora around the world, the poet Mahmoud Darwish (March 13, 1942-August 9, 2000) was a larger-than-life icon, a literary rock star who read his work to football stadiums filled with tens of thousands of people. Darwish’s works, which focused on themes of exile and protest, reflected and shaped the development of Palestinian identity after the 1948 Palestine War. One of Darwish’s most popular poems, “Identity Card,” is a cry of defiance written soon after that war’s end. The poem eventually spread throughout Palestine and even the larger Arab diaspora as a protest anthem. Yet Darwish was a diplomat as well as a protester—his work sought not only to empower Palestinians, but also to “reach out to the other side” and to empathize with Israelis in the hope that they might empathize in return. Darwish arranged meetings between Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals, and published essays on their discussions. He was optimistic that, through mutual understanding, the two sides could eventually reconcile. “I do not despair,” he explained to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “I am patient and am waiting for a profound revolution in the consciousness of the Israelis. The Arabs are ready to accept a strong Israel...all it has to do is open the gates of its fortress and make peace.”

In his poetry, Darwish often alluded to Andalus, a region in the southern parts of Spain and Portugal where Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted for centuries during medieval times. Classical Arab poets wrote of Andalus as a symbol of lost Paradise, and Darwish’s contemporary poets o en used Andalus as a metaphor for Palestine—another lost paradise of the past. “That’s not my view,” Darwish said when asked about the meaning of Andalus in his own poetry. “I have always said: Andalus may return.” Palestine was and could be again “a meeting place of all strangers in the project of constructing human culture.”

This essay will explore the evolving ways in which Darwish’s poetry sought to metaphorically return to Andalus, or to create a vision for Palestinian-Israeli coexistence in Palestine. The first section provides context by exploring Darwish’s formative years. It will discuss the Palestinian literary tradition and the environment he was born into, as well as the personal influences on his writing. The section will focus on how his early immersion in Hebrew literature and his close relationships with Jewish Israelis allowed him to empathize with their own story of exile. The second section will analyze the portrayals—both empathic and critical—of Israeli characters in his poems. The third section shows how his later poetry evolved from a criticism of the conflict to a narrative that enabled both peoples to ‘call Palestine home.' This essay argues that Darwish’s poetry was, in part, a quest to create a story of a Palestinian Andalus where both Jews and Arabs could peacefully, if not perfectly, coexist. It draws directly upon Darwish’s poetry, previous scholarly discourses on his writings and life, news articles, and interviews with the poet. It must be noted that any analysis of his poems is based entirely on translation from the Arabic. Although multiple translations of his poetry have been consulted to ensure a well-rounded sense of his works, some of the meaning and power has inevitably been lost in translation.

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Image courtesy of Mahmoud Darwish Foundation, http://mahmouddarwish.ps/


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