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Why You Should Read Mahmoud Darwish

09/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When renowned novelist Ahdaf Soueif said that the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was "the last poet who could fill a football stadium," it wasn't hyperbole. A Darwish reading in Beirut earlier this year drew more than 25,000 people. His funeral two weeks ago, which garnered little attention here in the U.S., drew thousands more.

Who was Mahmoud Darwish? Many considered him to be the national poet of Palestine and saw his poetry as an expression of the struggle of the Palestinian people. He grew up as a refugee, his village was destroyed, and between 1961 and 1967 he was arrested by the Israelis five times, once for writing "Identity Card," a poem which became a rallying cry for the Palestinian movement. Here's an excerpt from the poem, which he aimed at an Israeli policeman:

Record!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards
of my ancestors
And the land
which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks...

Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper's flesh will be my food
Beware..
Beware..
Of my hunger

And my anger!

You can understand how this sort of poetry wouldn't sit well with Israelis. The former Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, in fact, once quoted from another of Darwish's poems, "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words", to the Israeli Parliament as proof that Palestinians were not willing to compromise. The poem reads: "Live anywhere but do not live among us... and do not die among us."

It would be a great disservice to Darwish, though, to remember him only at his most impassioned and (as he himself admitted) at his most angry. In reality, while he championed the Palestinian cause, he also spent much of his life trying to make sense of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world. He was hopeful that the two sides could be made to understand one another. Sasson Sommekh, an Israeli scholar at Tel Aviv university, said of Darwish's work: "it aims at dialogue: it's not talking about Israelis as criminals, but saying, 'why shouldn't they understand?' There's no sense that this man hates us." You can see this sentiment in an excerpt from his poem, "State of Seige":

"You there, by the threshold of our door
Come in, and sip with us our Arabic coffee
(you may even feel that you are human, just as we are)
you there, by the threshold of our door
take your rockets away from our mornings.
We may then feel secure
(and almost human)."

Darwish really shines when seeking to find reason in what could be easily dismissed as madness. He decried terrorism, but said of suicide bombing, "We have to understand - not justify - what gives rise to this tragedy. It's not because they're looking for beautiful virgins in heaven, as Orientalists portray it. Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope - a political solution - they'll stop killing themselves." You can see that viewpoint played out in this painful excerpt from his poem, "The Martyr":

I love life
On earth, among the pines and the fig trees
But I can't reach it, so I took aim
With the last thing that belonged to me.

Darwish once said: "Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down... I always humanize the other," and, poignantly, "I will continue to humanize even the enemy."

Darwish's poetry has been translated into more than twenty languages, but he hasn't received much acclaim here in the states (most of his work has yet to be translated into English). Thankfully, it looks like that may be starting to change. Shortly before his death, Darwish received the Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom, a $350,000 award here in the states, and the University of California Press will be publishing Darwish's new collection entitled Unfortunately, It Was Paradise this fall.

Mahmoud Darwish died on August 9th due to complications from heart surgery. You can read more of his poems here.