Killing the poets 

Reading Mahmoud Darwish in wartime 

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‘DON’T KILL THE poets,’ said historian David Blight. He was referring to an old Irish proverb about rules in wartime. ‘Don’t kill the poets, because the poets had to be left to tell the story.’ 

I’VE BEEN AT a loss. The story of occupied Palestine, which has been reiterated and redoubled over decades, comes to me now indescribable. There descends upon me a desire to make returns. This is the longing at the heart of the struggle over Palestine. It is an ancient and supernatural longing; it was the longing of Moses. Since I cannot return to the land where my father was born, and where his father was born six years before the creation of Israel, and where the prophets communicated with God, I have sought pilgrimage by other means. 

‘My dear brother – please forgive me,’ Samih al-Qasim wrote to Mahmoud Darwish in 1986. ‘I will not engrave our two names on [your childhood tree in al-Birweh]… But [I can] engrave our names on the wind. I can etch the wind into the homeland. I can inscribe the homeland on my flesh. I can scatter my flesh in the poem.’ 

Darwish (1941–2008), renowned ‘national poet’ of Palestine, died of natural causes in exile, in Texas. His friend al-Qasim’s idea of the continuously transforming – and therefore unconquerable – realm of language ran deep in Darwish’s writings, including in his final collection, A River Dies of Thirst. ‘Did somebody once say that the master of words is the master of place?’ writes Darwish in this collection. To master poetry, he continues, is to defend one’s existence, one’s home, and the ‘stability of place in a language which is vowelised and therefore mobile’. 

I mobilise Darwish’s poetry into my heart and into this piece, and, with it, the story of Palestine. I make returns to understand what we are living, and to understand what we lose every day another poet is killed. 

A river was here
And it had two banks
And a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds
A small river moving slowly
Descending from the mountain peaks
Visiting villages and tents like a charming lively guest
But they kidnapped its mother
So it ran short of water
And died, slowly, of thirst.

This is the eponymous poem of A River Dies of Thirst. The most astounding – and crushing – aspect of this collection is its prescience. 

‘The scene is the same as ever,’ Darwish seems to prophesise. ‘And today is better than tomorrow. [The dead] are born every day.’ He describes survivors who have no time to perform funeral rites as more corpses arrive ‘at speed from other raids, individually or in groups, or a whole family… The sky is leaden grey and the sea blue grey, but the colour of blood is hidden from the camera by swarms of green flies.’ An Al Jazeera headline from 3 November 2023 reads: ‘Mass graves, rushed burials: Funeral rites bypass Gaza dead.’ That headline could be the title of Darwish’s fifteen-year-old poem, but his description is not prophecy. Darwish was recording what he had witnessed during the 1948 Nakba, the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, the First Intifada, the Second Intifada… 

As the number of Palestinians killed since 7 October passes 11,000, and as we hear pleas for the protection of hospitals and calls for an immediate ceasefire reiterated fruitlessly and with growing desperation by the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and Doctors Without Borders, I see a video of a boy screaming with the pain of grief, kneeling over his brother who lies dead atop the rubble of Jabaliya refugee camp. This death is irreversible. ‘Have we come to wisdom too late?’ asks Darwish. ‘What is the use of achieving anything too late, even if there is someone…inviting us to offer up a prayer of thanksgiving because we have arrived…neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but too late?’ 

A RIVER DIES of Thirst tells more than the story of Palestinian grief. It is also a testament to Palestinian wit, which is wry and coloured by the absurdity of life under military occupation. In my favourite poem, ‘Life to the Last Drop’, Darwish muses, ‘Supposing you were to die tomorrow, what would you do?… If I was reading, I would skip a few pages.’ Darwish pokes fun at Western discourse on Palestine, which notoriously comprises hot-air op-eds from every Tom, Dick and Harry who isn’t Palestinian. ‘Luckily or unluckily for us,’ he reports, ‘foreign historians, experts on our destinies and our oral history, were not here, so we don’t know what happened to us!’ 

From the harsher cities of irony and bereavement, Darwish detours into the rolling fields of love. One dizzying sonnet, entitled, ‘I Am Jealous of Everything Around You’, might prove that Palestinian men, many of whom live in internal or external exile, are more masterful in the art of longing than most. Another poem echoes Emily Dickinson’s most startling and euphemistic verses, ‘All the Letters I Can Write’, wherein she describes a red rose in ‘Syllables of Velvet’. Darwish picks up her melody: ‘All this so I can say: the red rose is visible music, and jasmine is a message of longing from nobody to nobody.’ 

Hope and dignity, too, blaze throughout his collection. Darwish describes two women, one from the past and one from the present, both ‘fleeing from a cramped war zone to a non-existent refuge’, an image reminiscent of the million Gazans currently forced to flee the north only to be bombed in the south. In the same poem, Darwish counters despair with an image of a girl flying like a successful Icarus, who can ‘perhaps earn the admiration of the viewers and disappoint the snipers… It’s time for us to move on, if we can, from a subject that makes people pity us to one that makes them envy us.’ This is the poet’s gift, to conjure an image of triumphant hope for his people. This is the necessity of keeping the poet alive. 

IS THERE A person alive who does not have the right to exist?  

The perennial rhetoric around the rights of Palestinians and Israelis to exist casts strategic doubt on the obvious answer to the question. It requires a redefinition of who counts as a ‘person’. People have the right to exist – but what if Palestinians are ‘human animals’?  And what is the effect on a person’s – a nation’s – psyche, to have their existence constantly undermined? 

One effect is cognitive dissonance, which is perhaps the most persistent motif in Darwish’s collection. In some poems, Darwish refers to himself as a ghost: ‘You live by halves / … Where is “I” in the darkness of resemblance?… / [I] catch up with the ghost / and it shouted as it disappeared: / “Watch out, my other self!”’ In others, he is simply an absence: ‘This is what the text demands: someone has to be absent to lighten the burden of the place.’ 

Many of his poems feature characters hounded by a certainty that they are fatally ill, though they can produce no bodily evidence to support this conviction. In one, a poet wakes up surprised that he is not dead – and is further shocked to hear there were no overnight killings in Iraq, Gaza or Afghanistan. He looks in the mirror and is delighted to recognise himself. ‘His delight led him to the writing desk, with one line in his head: “I’m alive even though I feel no pain.”’ As soon as he reaches his desk, a new conviction befalls him: he must be dreaming. 

War is a constant spectre for Darwish; it’s an undercurrent to his joy. In a Parisian café, as he savours a hot coffee with bread, this simple pleasure ‘[awakens] in me the desire for a fresh life, a life just beginning, and a spontaneous peace with small things’. He stares at the ceiling, awaiting inspiration, and suddenly, ‘I was sure I would live until tomorrow… I was nothing in the presence of nothing, and I was calm, trusting, confident. For how lovely it is for a person to be nothing, only once, no more!’ 

Despite the accumulating Israeli war crimes, despite the apartheid, despite the fifteen years of illegal blockade, Palestinians are not calling for revenge. They insist most of all on their desire to live. Mondoweiss Gaza correspondent Tareq S Hajjaj recently wrote, ‘Remember that I wanted a normal life, a small home full of my children’s laughter and the smell of my wife’s cooking. Remember that the world that pretended to be the savior of humanity participated in killing such a small dream.’ 

‘Such a small dream’ is what I think when I think of Besan Helasa, a medical student killed in her home last month by Israeli airstrikes. Her last post on X read, ‘I have dreams that I have not yet achieved. I have a life I have not yet-fully lived.’ Palestine’s top-scoring high-school graduate of 2023, Al-Shaima Saidam, has also been killed, despite how long and hard she studied, despite all the sacrifices she made for the ambitions of her mind – for what? Roshdi Sarraj, a Palestinian journalist, was killed on 22 October, shielding his wife and daughter from shrapnel. His best friend and colleague, Yaser Murtaja, was killed, while wearing his press vest, by Israeli security forces five years ago in the 2018 March of Return. There is an old video of Yaser and Roshdi swimming on the Gaza beach. Instead of ‘Good morning!’ they wish their friends ‘Sea morning! Morning of love!’ In this moment, were they not poets? Was there not the instrument of poetry in their friendship, in their souls? 

When asked in an interview what he feared most during this war, Palestinian writer Khalil Abu Yahia responded, ‘I fear that I will die without achieving my dreams. I want to complete my PhD. I want to rebuild my family’s house… And [my] biggest dream – to meet my [international] friends in person, to shake hands, to hug them. It sounds very simple, but colonialism disconnects people from the rest of the world.’ His friends at Jewish Currents describe how ‘during previous Israeli attacks, Khalil would sit on [his] roof…watching the rockets in the sky and sending us messages with snippets of poetry’. During the Great March of Return, Khalil communicated via telephone with Israeli comrades on the ‘opposite side of the apartheid fence’ to thank them for supporting Palestinian resistance and collective liberation. On 30 October 2023, alongside his wife, daughters, mother and brothers, he was killed by an Israeli airstrike. 

We have no idea what we are losing. There are 11,000 more names. These people’s souls fed the river of Palestine. If given the freedom, this river would have visited the gifts of justice, poetry, medicine, academia, law, biochemistry, documentary and architecture upon us. The last seawater desalination plant in Gaza has shut down. As the illegal blockade on fuel and water into Gaza continues, Palestinians are literally, as Darwish predicted, beginning to die of thirst

WE ARE WITNESSING the consequences of not heeding Darwish’s word from the past. We are witnessing the continual annihilation of those who could have written to warn the future. Every Palestinian who was killed today would be alive if there had been a ceasefire yesterday. Palestinians need more than a ceasefire; they need freedom, justice and an end to this inhumane occupation that destroys the soul of the oppressor as unsparingly as it brutalises the oppressed. But in order for Palestinians to be freed, they must stay alive. 

I’m at a loss to continue. To end, I will lean on a few lines from young award-winning poet Hiba Abu Nada: 

I grant the father refuge, 
the little ones’ father who holds the house upright 
when it tilts after the bombs. 
He implores the moment of death: 
‘Have mercy. Spare me a little while. 
For their sake, I’ve learned to love my life. 
Grant them a death 
as beautiful as they are.’ 

This poem is titled ‘I Grant You Refuge’. It was written in Gaza on 10 October 2023, ten days before an airstrike killed Abu Nada in her home. 

15 November 2023 

Excerpts of Mahmoud Darwish’s collection A River Dies of Thirst, translated by Catherine Cobham, are reprinted here with generous permission from Archipelago Books and the Mahmoud Darwish Foundation. 

An excerpt of Hiba Abu Nada’s poem ‘I Grant You Refuge’, translated by Huda Fakhreddine, is reprinted here with generous permission from Protean magazine. 

Legal disclaimer: This essay represents only the author’s own views as a private citizen, and not necessarily the views of the author’s employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual. 

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