Mahmoud Darwish returned in May 1996 to Haifa, his first home in Palestine, to sip his mother’s coffee, and to touch the bread wrought by her hands. He is, judging by his biography, a son who expresses more eloquently than most the Palestinian odyssey – with its ships that attempt to cast their anchors on the shores of those who await; does his “symbolic” return therefore signal the realization of an event which has hitherto been mythical, the emergence of a rock from an idea, and the possibility of the return of that idea to the rock?
This dialogue, or interview with Darwish, conducted over the telephone soon after his visit, had no preparation beforehand. It was a conversation in which one friend was asking another about his news on the basis of a friendship rooted in the common ground of poetry and the intellect, recognizing his right to affirm his physical presence on the land, first as an Arab and second as a Palestinian, and as a poet who combines both identities and enhances them with a human existence that is receptive to the soil and air of the whole world.
Darwish returned home. He offered no political concessions that would have created a rift between his consciousness and his conscience. He returned for only a few hours to discover while he was there that he was both a symbol and a child, and that the land was physically more poetic than poetry itself, and that its people when greeted had more life than in pictures.
Here is the text of the dialogue:
Who are you after that fleeting, unexpected surprise return to the first street of your village in Palestine? Who are you after that almost dreamlike journey? Who were you before it, and has anything changed after it?
I am still wondering whether I am who I had been, or has something happened. Certainly, something did happen. Who am I? But that fleeting visit took me back to whom I had been 50 years before, it took me back to being a child playing there, running behind the flower beds, picking flowers and asking his first questions. I am still in the throes of the ecstasy of finding the child that I was a long time ago. Yes, I am now who I was, and what I am becoming.
Those who lined both sides of the street carrying flowers and profound emotions towards you, which Mahmoud were they searching for as they looked towards you? As you sat with many of them in your village, who were you to them? The Mahmoud of “Write Down, I am an Arab”; or the Mahmoud of “To Love You, or Not to Love You”; or the Mahmoud of “O What Rain”?
I think that the origins of the search were intertwined. Each person was searching for one Mahmoud or another, but what exhausted me most was that they were searching for Mahmoud the symbol, whereas I do not want my person to be endowed with such a symbolic dimension. Something else made me happy, which was that many of them were searching for that child which they had known, for that young man who had left them, whose youth they had witnessed and whose voice they had also received.
You cannot avoid being a symbol to those for whom you have constituted and continue to constitute a symbol. Your biography has turned you into a cultural conscience for your people, and therein lies the dilemma. Is that how you see it?
It seems, actually, that I cannot (avoid being a symbol). But I must try not to be one as I explain my relationship with people. I felt the ecstasy of a person who had not emigrated. I felt as though I had not emigrated, and that the time and geographical spans that had separated me from my family, friends and people had been metaphorical, because I had always been there, for even when I had visited far-flung corners of the earth, my point of reference had always been there, my heart had been there, and so had my first language.
Perhaps my family, who took me to their bosom, were searching for me at several levels within the context of their son who had returned at last. No one reproached me at all for having emigrated, perhaps because they felt and knew that I had not emigrated. They were watching their voice, that voice which had sprung up amongst them, and gone off to distant horizons without abandoning its first spring. That is one feeling. The second is a feeling of responsibility, that I have to develop a sense of responsibility towards their needs. I have always been a poet on whom “demands” are made, and I used to complain about being such a poet, but this time, it was my conscience that was determining my response to their demand, which was that I should be amongst them. When they asked me to speak amongst the thousands who had gathered at the football pitch, I said that speech had been my career for 40 years, but, at that moment, I could find no speech that would suit such a moment other than to express to everyone the paradox that I had rarely been absent despite my long absence, and to say “I promise that I shall remain here, with you.”
You said when you felt the reality of your arrival “I am happy to the extent that I am jealous of myself.” What sort of joyous feeling created those words?
I experienced a strength of morale which I did not know how to use. And now, after that visit, I am not who I was a month ago. I feel that I am approaching life anew, that I can rearrange the progression of my life once again because I have actually just been born, and am going through life as though I were seeing it for the first time, because the magic of the place there and the beauty of the people overwhelmed me with the sensation of immediately coming to this life once again. And so, I had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with my birth. I had not been given such an opportunity before!
You also said – and here perhaps, lies the poet’s own confusion at himself when he discovers within himself another thread which had been invisibly there and which he now wants to pull out of the fabric and take farther out into the light – you said that in your poetry, you will focus on the simple, marginal, timid human being, not on the mythical hero. The obsession with the return (fleeting as it may be) to the actual land, which had almost become an impossible dream, creates within you a desire for what is more “human” and less “mythical,” but how can this take place in poetry?
This remark draws on two levels. The first is that poetry and language have returned to their beginnings, as though I were primitive a man who sees the earth for the first time with the perception and sight of a human being who has come at that moment from nothingness into existence. That is my feeling at the human level, and I must hence tell the tale of that first encounter by primitive man with his first existence. Such a meeting provides a sense of wonder that is necessary to poetry, for there is no poetry without a beginning. When poetry diverges from language, it turns into thought and ceases to be poetry.
The second level is that the historical conditions through which we are living necessitate that we return to our humanity and tell the tale of our simple life without resorting to myths, because the myth – not only in our poetry, but in the poetry of the whole world – has reached its zenith. Now it is the simple, marginal person who creates the moment in literature. There is no longer any heroism in the classical sense. The new hero is the human being who searches for the instruments that enable him to exist and satisfy his needs, and who is taken up with his own human preoccupations.
How did you enter your home? Did you say “In the name of God”, and what was your first memory as you stepped over the doorstep?
I was not aware of whether I entered on my own two feet, but my heart was jumping like a mischievous sparrow. I was taken up with all the hugging, and I forgot. The only words I had were tears, and all I remember of what I said is “Thank God.”
Did you drink coffee at home? How much coffee did you drink, and who made it: you or your mother, Hourieh?
Yes, I drank my mother’s coffee in her room without paying attention to who had brewed the coffee – myself, her or one of her pretty granddaughters. This time, the aroma of coffee did not transport me somewhere else as it used to do, but it took me back to another time far away. My mother accompanied me to my old study which was still the same, full of my first books, my first pictures and my late father’s pictures, and then she took me to his grave in the evening to recite Al-Fatiha. I did not spend much time with her because of the many guests, and she, for her part, did not try to monopolize me. From her far corner, she was a witness of her son’s return, as though she were admitting to people that he was not her son alone. This explains her unabashed ululations when I arrived in the courtyard. Those ululations did not address me by my first name, but by my full, official name, Mahmoud Darwish, as though she were addressing her gift to people.
Thousands of Arab young men and women who are away from home send messages to their mothers on the radio using your words, your song, “I yearn for my mother’s bread, my mother’s coffee and my mother’s touch.” Did you ask her whether she had known that her coffee was the one that was being referred to whenever that song was played?
Unfortunately, I was not able to do so, because the song returned to its original elements, and I became sensations melting into sensations. So why nostalgia, why words, and why the poem? I felt the lightness of my liberation, to a small or great extent, from literature, and the person was liberated from the text, and so I asked her another question: Why did you use to hit me when I was little?
Legally, you will not be able to be there in your home, on your first street in Al-Karmel, except within certain conditions. The Israelis have conditions, and you have conditions, and they are most probably incompatible. How will you resolve this complication?
Away, now, from these legal and political conditions, because I am still speaking under the pressure of emotional and metaphorical strength. I still feel at this moment as though I had not left, and will stay. That is as far as the relationship between me and myself goes, and between myself and my language, and between myself and my senses. However, that domain is not free to such an extent except in a poetic work. When we move to the realistic domain, your question becomes legitimate, for I did not return officially, or legally or in actual fact. That was a moral return, substantiated by a practical measure that lasted a few hours. As for an actual return, it has not been achieved up till now, and there has been no discussion of it.
And now, how are you contemplating this issue?
It seems that the joy which has overwhelmed me is prompting me to postpone examining the political and legal conditions for returning. However, I admit that I am, for the first time in many years, full of hope. That hope threatens me with disappointment, because I feel that a new world is opening up before us, and my constant work on the past has now become a premonition of the future. However, when the Israelis set conditions, it is my right to examine them, and to either accept or reject them. I do not at present have any ideas concerning such a scenario. The strength of joy, as I have said, is what is moving me now and opening the doors of that scene onto the most infinite of spaces.
Did any old friends or acquaintances from “Rita’s Folk” try to contact you during that visit to congratulate you on that “return”?
Yes, that did occur. You know that I went for one purpose, and found myself in the midst of something else. I had gone to meet with Emile Habibi, and I owed that visit to Emile, who exerted many efforts to bring about a meeting between us in Haifa, in the house in which I used to live on Mount Karmel as part of a film that was being made about his life and creativity. He made the completion of filming conditional upon my crossing so that a conversation between us could be filmed. I went to meet with him and found myself bidding him farewell and mourning him. Around the body of Emile Habibi, an elite group from the political cultural Arab and Jewish circles met, and I met old friends there from both sides, particularly members of the intelligentsia, writers and poets, and even politicians. There were many handshakes, but there were no official meetings with anyone. The (Israeli) minister Yossi Sarid, whom I did not know, contacted me with the intention of paying a courtesy call, and we met. Our conversation dealt with general issues that did not touch on the issue of my return at all.
There is a call in America these days to convene a conference for the Palestinian diaspora. I became acquainted with it through the intellectual Hisham Sharabi, who gave me the details. The aim is to convene a conference that will seek to exert pressure on the Arab and Palestinian negotiators to preserve the rights of 4.5 million Palestinians who are exiled throughout the world, because they believe that those rights are being threatened by the current peace process. Those who are calling for this are hoping that all Palestinians, wherever they may be, will be represented at such a conference. What do you think of this?
There is no doubt that the Palestinian diaspora must reformulate its political argument to preserve a unified representation of the Palestinian people, because there is a real danger of fragmenting Palestinian land, the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people into different entities for each of which there is a solution not connected to the others. Hence, any thought by the diaspora Palestinians of their fate and their place in the overall Palestinian cause is very necessary without resorting to the discussion of new frameworks, because the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) officially remains the representative of all Palestinians and the body that carries the larger portfolio of the Palestinian cause.
Even after dropping basic articles from its charter?
Even after having done so, because up till now, there is no new forum, and there is no new title of representation for the Palestinians. It is an intellectual, national and ethical necessity for the Palestinian diaspora to engage in thought about itself and its relationship with the whole of Palestinian society, the Palestinian cause and Palestinian land. As far as I am concerned, I have read about this issue (the proposed conference) in the press, and I believe it is urgent, but it must be honest, and it must not exclude any colors or shades that make up the Palestinian rainbow. We must not enter into a new clique mentality. Regrettably, no one has spoken to me about this subject to date. I have merely followed it in the press. However, I consider it to be necessary and essential, especially if it is meant to support the Palestinian negotiator, because up to now, we have not arrived at any genuine peace highway; we are still wandering the small by-ways.
The major issues in the Palestinian portfolio have still not been put forward for discussion. The whole issue, since the previous stage, consists of gaining a Palestinian foothold on what I call “the homeland’s back yard,” that is, gaining a foothold in the homeland. As for the major issues, such as the right of return, the issue of refugees, Jerusalem and the settlements, they have not been put forward to date. Therefore, the Palestinians must completely rally around these points in a representational sense on the one hand, and the Palestinian peace process must be linked once again with the Arab-Israeli peace process on the other hand, because without Arab support, without such a link, the Palestinians will be susceptible to greater blackmail by the Israelis. Such a linkage is not dangerous, because we usually speak of Arab unity! Once more, linking the Palestinian process with the Arab process seems to me to be a necessary and urgent issue at this time.
Do you think that the intelligentsia in the diaspora at present is moving to form itself as a reaction to the way in which the Palestinian negotiators are operating, and also perhaps as a reaction to the exclusion of certain powers which represent the diaspora, or are trying to represent it, thus prompting the intelligentsia in the diaspora to form new frameworks that are not necessarily beneath the umbrella of the P.L.O.?
This issue or movement was first thought of in the diaspora as a result of a feeling on the part of the Palestinians outside Palestine that this solution does not include them. Hence, thoughts turned to formulating their own political argument. However, there must be dialogue in the initial phase with the P.L.O. before breaking with it. Such dialogue must precede any thought of forming any other framework. Moreover, my view is that during the present phase, such a move should have more of an intellectual aspect than an organizational one, because the Palestinian situation is too fragile to tolerate antagonistic frameworks.
And what do you say to Yasser Arafat, who took you by the hand and walked in with you to a meeting of the Palestinian National Authority a few days ago?
I say to him “May God help you and give you the strength to face the final status negotiations.” The first phase has ended with gaining a foothold on the ground. This is the beginning of the phase of building an image for the future and tackling the main difficult issues, which require mythical patience, creativity and an overriding and vast political imagination.
What is your opinion of Edward Said’s position on the peace process? It is a position which, to some, appears as poetic, visionary and courageous as that of a poet.
We are in need of daring intellectual positions like that of Edward Said, because those who are cultured should always remain guardians of principles, and should not subscribe to pragmatism or political realism that is devoid of principles. Edward Said’s stand is critical, basic and important to the Palestinian consciousness and to Palestinian society, and hence, I salute it. Intellectuals should always have the attributes of dreamers and of visionaries, and they should not be pragmatic, without principles and dreams.
But at the other end of that same spectrum, you said that we have changed, and that the time of conquerors has ended, and that what is left for us is to protect ourselves from an antagonistic conquest. Is it the strength of human feelings which, in the end, decides the outcome of this contradiction, or this comparison?
The contemporary problem is that we have not been conquerors, even though we speak their language. But the swords of conquest were carried by the other side.
Did you detect differences in the thought of Palestinian intellectuals in the 1948 areas and the intellectuals of the other segment of their people who are increasingly congregating in the national areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank? What do they have in common, and what is the difference between the two groups?
As a matter of fact, neither the cultural issue, nor the nationalist issue is of any use when it comes to discussion of differences. During my visit, I met with more than one hundred Palestinian intellectuals and we held long profound dialogues. What caught my attention was that all of those dialogues, in spite of the different forms of expression, revolved around one question: “What shall we write from now on?” I was hesitant before this question. I said that we must write, continue our writing and carry on the course of literature, which is to relate the tale of man, his existence, his world and his practical and metaphysical questions. At any political turning point, we Arabs usually ask, “What is the future of our literature?” That question reflects a limitation in the consciousness of writing and its nature, because there is no other people which has asked, “What shall we do now that we have arrived at peace or war.” Of course it is possible for a different language to exist, and treatment may differ, but literature shall continue to tell the story of life.
Nevertheless, I shall ask this question more specifically: What are you writing now, and what will you continue to write from now on? It is clear that the visit has given you a big shock.
For a long time, I have been busy developing my poetic project, without linking such a process mechanically to the political developments of the Palestinian cause. I feel that my language has become liberated from such a mechanical bond, and I am continuously trying to liberate myself from current daily pressures. If you want to know what I am writing now, I say that you know that I am writing a book about love.
That is true, but my knowledge goes no further than the title, and all I have to do is await the text.
I am writing it.
You spoke of your language being liberated from daily pressures. Throughout this aesthetic liberation process, the theme of exile ran through like a thread, forming several links that brought together the subjects in your life and your writings.
I cannot make any complaints about exile. Exile has been very generous and educational, providing culture, enlarging my human scope and the scope of my language and enabling my poetic phrases to include dialogue between peoples and cultures. I cannot abandon that exile, because it is one of my basic constituents. Even if I return to Haifa and Acre and live there, the exile within me, which can be considered a large human exile, will be my overriding human condition. Exile is, ultimately, to me a relative concept as well, because exile may be found “there” in the homeland, to a greater extent than outside of it.
If we were to imagine that you were holding the proofs of the 50th issue of Al-Karmel , wherever it is that it will be republished, and let us assume that it is the place to which you have always dreamed of returning, what would be added to the original project of Al-Karmel? What questions would motivate that project once again?
The most important thing is for the magazine to preserve a sense of cumulative continuity, and to continue its heritage as a bridge for dialogue and interaction between Arabic literature and the literature of the world, while listening more closely to the new questions that are being posed by the current Palestinian situation, and concentrating to a greater extent on the language being produced by that land. As for the project’s general shape, it will remain a revolutionary and creative project in the literary sense of those words.
Has anything new been added to your monitoring of the literary creativity of what is produced within Palestine?
The short time during which I was present within the Palestinian fabric over there did not give me the opportunity to become properly aware of the additions that occurred in Palestinian literature. The most important thing for which I was searching was the nature of man's relationship with his homeland. I believe that those who are creative should write about that relationship in a language that is not patriotic in the classical sense of that word, which implies the concept of struggle. I am very attentive to the voices which follow that tendency both in the homeland and in the diaspora. The older writers and poets have spared the new generation the need to deal with a larger historical area and with larger topics, which were historically necessary to strengthen the Palestinian national and cultural identity. The new generation today can go to areas that are both more intimate and more human because their predecessors did their "patriotic duty" in literature.
What did you not do in Palestine, and what do you regret not having done?
I was not able to visit my first village, Al-Birah, and to sit at the edge of the old well, nor was I able to visit my old school. I was also unable to visit the alleys and streets and the scenes which formed the reference of my images.
As you returned from Haifa, did you feel that you needed a certain woman to tell her things about Palestine that could only be said to her?
I never felt such a need as I do now. How I need that woman.
"I pass by your name when with myself I am alone
As a Damascene by Andalussia does pass . . ."
What would you add to such a simile in a way that leaves no ray of nostalgia that would imprison your voice? How can we remake the Damascene spring within us?
I wish I could say, "Within your name I sleep" because I need to sleep within a name, or within the warmth left on a pillow or a cover by the name and the named. That formulation is the business of the poet who is preoccupied with documenting absence.
Do you feel after returning from your home in Palestine to where you now are in Jordan that it is a human miracle that has kept your people there?
It is truly a miracle and its sources are human, and are represented by the ability of the people to preserve the land, history and memory. However, I cannot but acknowledge that what protected that people from extinction was the Arab dimension in its cultural and civilizational aspects. The fact that the Palestinians are part of a large, deep-rooted nation that is widely spread through more than one continent has protected the Palestinian people from cultural extermination.
Translated from the Arabic by Samira Kawar.
This article appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 3, No. 19, June 1997.
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