Mahmoud Darwish, A Poet’s Complex Trajectory

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

Gayatri Kumar

Mahmoud Darwish:
The Poet’s Art and His Nation
By Khaled Mattawa
Syracuse University Press, 2014. 196 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

MAHMOUD DARWISH: THE Poet’s Art and His Nation is a difficult book to categorize. Part biography, part literary criticism, and part reception study, it is perhaps best described as an interpretive overview of the life and work of Palestine’s iconic national poet Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008).

Khaled Mattawa, a well-established poet and translator in his own right, takes on the monumental task of charting the evolution of Darwish’s oeuvre: 25 books of poetry, five books of what Mattawa terms “experimental writing” (16), and many collections of essays. As such, Mattawa’s work is less a departure from arguments that have gone before, and more of a synthesis.

The central preoccupation that drives Mattawa’s book is an inquiry into Darwish’s “career as a major search for poetic agency” (12), looking at the ways in which the poet addressed the tension between poetry as a record of the political contingencies of his people, and as a lyrical expression of universal human themes.

Mattawa argues at the outset that the “tension between being a spokesman for his people and a private lyrical poet began to preoccupy Darwish very early in his career.” (2) Drawing on Darwish’s own writing as well as secondary sources in both Arabic and English, Mattawa attempts to provide a timeline of the poet’s evolving approaches to poetry, and the political circumstances surrounding them.

To this end, Mattawa’s narrative is divided into five periods, aligning with changes in Darwish’s life and/or Palestine’s political history: 1948-1964, 1964-1971, 1971-1986, 1986-1993 and finally 1995-2008.

For each period, Mattawa begins by outlining the political-cultural context surrounding Darwish, and its ostensible influence on his poetry. Mattawa then seeks to bolster his argument through his close readings of a few representative poems from each period, citing large chunks of the texts (his own English translations of the Arabic) and analyzing them in terms of imagery, structure, voice, and metaphor.

The Evolution of a Poet

Darwish’s early work aimed to create a consensus among the Palestinian collective, and instill a sense of heroism among the people. Mattawa argues that Darwish’s poems between 1964 and 1971 — the time of his own Communist affiliations — displayed a “combination of instruction, seriousness, and simplicity” (31) in accordance with the tenets of “adab al-iltizam,” or literature of commitment.

This period features some of the most recognizable elements of his poetry, such as the transformation of the love motif to portray Palestine as the beloved, and his insistence on humanizing the Israeli occupier. This genre of politically-oriented writing, influenced by socialist realism and Sartre’s views on engagement, was propounded by Egyptian and Lebanese critics in the 1950s; it aimed to depict social and political realities in the language of the common people, fostering heroism and a collective political consciousness among the masses.

Mattawa does not explicitly state whether Darwish himself saw his work as adhering to the tenets of adab al-iltizam, but this is nevertheless an interesting (and convincing) hermeneutic move, placing the poet in dialogue with political writing in Arabic. (It is important to note here that Mattawa also reads Palestinian literary production within Israel as a “minor literature,” as per Deleuze and Guattari’s famous formulation, but chooses to read Darwish’s work using a framework particular to Arabic writing.)

The rest of the book in many ways details Darwish’s negotiation of the parameters of a politically committed poetry. In Beirut, under the PLO’s auspices, Darwish writes what Mattawa describes as “resistance literature” in accordance with Barbara Harlow’s famous formulation, penning grand lyric epics commemorating the massacres of Palestinians in refugee camps at Tel al-Za‘tar (1976) and Sabra and Shatila (1982), followed by the more somber prose memoir Memory for Forgetfulness.

In this period especially, Darwish is a poet of the establishment, caught between his desire to critique the failure of Arab solidarity with Palestine and produce the commemorative poems befitting his station as the poet-symbol of Palestine.

Between 1986 and 1993, Darwish seems to turn to a more universal audience, striving to make his work accessible to those without a grounding in the cultural universe of his previous work.

He publishes Wardun Aqall (Lesser Roses), a collection differing markedly from the poet’s anthem-like epics, seeking to present the plight of the Palestinians to a more universal reader. At the same time, he aims to rewrite Palestinian history in mythic terms to combat the claims made by Zionist historiography.

In the years following the 1993 Oslo accords that promised so much and delivered less than nothing, Darwish refuses to let the Israeli occupation define the contours of his poetic practice, asserting that poetry must go beyond the specificities of any one political moment.

Mattawa notes that some Palestinian critics viewed this as Darwish having earned some poetic leeway after his years of service to the nation. Looking back at his earlier works, Darwish critiques the production of what he terms “ a literature of provocation,” arguing that art must transcend the restrictions imposed by the occupation and focus on aesthetic achievement, in keeping with global literary standards.

Mattawa is both vastly knowledgeable and deeply passionate about Darwish’s work, but stumbles when it comes to organizing the wealth of information his project demands. The scope of Mattawa’s project is simply too big — the entirety of Darwish’s rich and varied career — and ultimately, the work falls victim to its own ambition.

Mattawa is simply trying to cover too much material. A survey of such scope — punctuated by Mattawa’s own emphases and theoretical framings — can only offer a whirlwind package tour through Darwish’s poetic and personal landscapes.

The author’s insistence on imposing order through a linear periodization of Darwish’s poetry also sits awkwardly atop the material he tries to fit into neat categories.

Mattawa’s rationale seems to be the observation, made early on, that “Darwish’s poetry kept up with his various personal displacements and political affiliations.” (13) While this seems plausible enough, it is hard to read Darwish’s entire poetic oeuvre, spanning close to fifty years, as a cogent and linearly evolving poetic project.

One can indeed argue that Darwish’s successive moves to Cairo and then Beirut, as well as the different political pressures exerted upon him, influenced his poetry. It is difficult, however, to convincingly argue a direct correlation as implied by Mattawa’s periodization, often leading to such awkward juxtapositions as Mattawa’s contention that Darwish writes both the “deep present” and the “deep past” between the years 1986 and 1993.

During this period, Darwish publishes the collection Wardun Aqall (Lesser Roses), a departure from his longer epic poems during the Israeli siege of Beirut, and ostensibly aimed at a more universal reader. However, in the late 1980s Darwish also sets out to counter the mythmaking of the Israeli establishment and its secularization of the Hebrew Bible as the basis for claims to the land.

While both impulses may have arisen in the aftermath of the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Beirut, the bracketing together of these poems does not necessarily enhance our understanding of either. Each chapter often feels like it is being pulled in different directions as Mattawa tries to fit historical context, literary theory, an argument about the generic division of labor between prose and poetry, and a commentary on poetic intention into one tenuous argument.

Throughout the book, it is hard to shake the sense that Darwish’s work is not so much a linear progression as a series of returns to a set of preoccupations. Darwish, as Mattawa himself notes at several points, is a poet who often revisits his older poems, incorporating and reworking the imagery to new poetic and political ends.

It is not so much that Mattawa fails to notice these connections as the fact that the book’s organization hinders their articulation in a coherent manner.

For instance, Darwish’s early interest in using figures from the Hebrew Bible returns later in his poems in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as mentioned above; he sets out to counter the Israeli mythmaking and historiography that have built a claim to Palestinian land by creating alternative myths for his own people.

One could conceivably produce a synchronic study on the changing uses of Biblical and Qur’anic myths in Darwish’s poetry; in fact, several of the secondary sources Mattawa cites are collections of essays on Darwish’s work organized in just this way.

Unfortunately, these connections between Darwish’s recurring themes are sometimes lost in Mattawa’s schematic linear rendering of the poet’s work. When they do make an appearance, such as in the last section in which he analyzes Darwish’s State of Siege and its commentary on his previous work, they seem abrupt and removed from the preceding material.

The Establishment Poet

What is most interesting about Mattawa’s work is not the broad survey of Darwish’s poetic techniques, too numerous to detail here, but rather the insight it offers into Darwish as a complex, sometimes contradictory, and deeply human poet.

Mattawa’s work humanizes an icon of Palestinian poetry, outlining not only his successes but also his limitations as a poet of consensus, an artist whose popular reception had affected his self-perception. As Mattawa himself admits in the book’s postscript, “Darwish’s championing of poets of his own generation was not generous; he did like being the prince of Palestinian poets.” (173)

Sometimes the biographical detail is delivered in a small anecdote: When Darwish arrives in Beirut and starts working for the PLO, the organization already has an unofficial poet-spokesperson in Mu’imm Bissisu. Mattawa writes that Yaser Arafat pitted the poets against each other constantly, and we find out that the poets frequently butted heads, with each accusing the other of being Arafat’s mouthpiece. This is a side of Darwish not often seen, and the pressures of being a national spokesperson are evident.

Furthermore, Mattawa notes that Darwish, a figure (rightfully) associated with resistance, was in many ways a poet who worked from “inside the system of his community’s cultural and political machinations.”

“Even when assessing his later poems,” writes Mattawa, “one cannot say that Darwish directly challenged his culture or was willing to see himself as speaking outside the fold of the We — both Palestinian and Arab.” (171)

Palestinian poets like Ghassan Zaqtan, and luminaries of Arabic poetry like Adonis, did not necessarily support Darwish’s toeing of the PLO party line. In one particularly captivating snippet taken from an interview, Ghassan Zaqtan criticizes Darwish for giving his readers exactly what they wanted in “familiar subject matter and tone” (78) during his time in Beirut.

Darwish only replies that his poetry “stumbled” during this period, a moment of self-doubt and reflection on the poet’s part that is deeply moving.

Given his generally laudatory tone, it is significant that Mattawa devotes some final lines to critiquing Darwish’s approaches and his reluctance to comment on certain cultural and political elements. For instance, Mattawa notes that the feminization of the nation is a recurring trope in Darwish’s early work, allowing him to introduce romantic love as a metaphor for ties to the land.

Although Mattawa acknowledges in passing that the Palestinian subjectivity Darwish tries to awaken through his poems has “a masculine tone” (37), he neglects to engage further with the reception of critiques of gendered nationalist discourse.

However, Mattawa’s gesturing toward some of Darwish’s limitations in the book’s postscript points to an important question for supporters of Palestinian independence and self-determination: How do we mount a critique of the problems with nationalism and the idea of a putative national culture while simultaneously supporting a nation’s right to self-determination? How do we account for our positionalities and relations of power when venturing such a critique?

Here the glimpses Mattawa offers of all that lies in Darwish’s shadow — younger poets struggling to gain a foothold, subjectivities not addressed in his work — serve as an apt reminder of the need on the left to constantly interrogate, unmake, and remake our own radical politics for a more inclusive future.

March-April 2016, ATC 181