Mahmoud Darwish—“national poet of Palestine,” “voice of the Palestinian people,” cultural icon for millions of Arabs—died four years ago this summer, on 9 August 2008, at the age of 67 following heart surgery. As befitted a man whose poetry readings filled sports stadiums and whose poems set to music became anthems across the Arab world, he was given the equivalent of a state funeral in Ramallah, his last abode, with a eulogy by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and three days of official mourning.
A political as well as a cultural figure, Darwish was among the principal drafters of the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence. His poetry, especially during the first period of his career, memorializes the Palestinian experience from 1948 onward, not only the broad sweep of it, but also specific events such as Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Tal Za’tar and Sabra and Shatila massacres, the first intifada, and so on. Under Israeli siege and bombardment in 1982, he wrote an autobiographical memoir of his ten-year exile in Beirut titled Memory for Forgetfulness, frequently referred to in the interview that follows.
Darwish’s poetry was always a mix of the political/collective and the personal/individual. But while it was the first that predominated through the 1980s, his poetry thereafter became increasingly personal. His 1995 collection Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?—also referred to in this interview—is seen by many as a turning point, the first of his some thirty books of poetry (translated into more than twenty languages) to be almost exclusively personal. The increasing emphasis on the personal could reflect, at least partly, a certain political disengagement after the 1993 signing of the Oslo agreement. It was then that he resigned from the PLO Executive Committee to protest its unequal terms, though it is worth noting that he never repudiated either the PLO or the agreement itself. But whether political/collective or personal/individual, all Darwish’s poetry embodies at multiple levels the themes of identity and exile, reflecting not only his personal itinerary (which took him from Galilee to Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Paris, Amman, and Ramallah) but also—and especially—a state of mind.
These themes are explored in depth in a long interview conducted in Hebrew by the Israeli poet and literary critic Helit Yeshurun. The interview took place on 7 February 1996 in Amman, Jordan, where Darwish was awaiting Israeli permission to take up residence in Ramallah. The interview was first published in the spring 1996 issue of the Israeli cultural journal Hadarim (founded and edited by Yeshurun). It was almost immediately translated into French by Simone Bitton, and published in the autumn 1996 issue of JPS’s sister publication, Revue d’études palestiniennes. It was also published in a volume of Darwish’s interviews titled La Palestine comme métaphore (1998), edited and translated by Elias Sanbar and Simone Bitton.
Darwish, whose rock-star status never flagged, was interviewed hundreds of times. What makes this interview worth publishing sixteen years after it was recorded and four years after his death is not simply its length (the current excerpts constitute only half of the original), but the peculiar interaction between Darwish and his interviewer, a fellow poet intimately familiar with his work who is also an Israeli Zionist (however liberal). The amity, commonalities, shared interests, and connections combined with often-conflicting worldviews imbued the interview with the bracing tension of friendly adversaries; the probing questions pushed Darwish to formulate his thoughts or explain himself on various issues that would perhaps be taken for granted and therefore not be broached or explored by an Arab interviewer. The interview also delves at greater length than elsewhere into Darwish’s relationship to the Hebrew language as well as his attitudes toward Israel and Israelis. Such exchanges, revelatory of the richness and complexity of the man, also bring home the humanism, breadth of vision, and inclusiveness that were always hallmarks of his outlook and poetry.
The interview in its entirety was translated from Hebrew into English for the first time by Adam Yale Stern, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the study of religion at Harvard University, as a part of a larger project. The end notes are also his. The Journal of Palestine Studies is grateful to him for allowing us to publish these long selections from his translation.