Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008) was a respected Palestinian poet and author who won numerous awards for his literary output and was regarded as the Palestinian national poet. In his work, Palestine became a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection, and the anguish of dispossession and exile. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye has commented about Darwish’s work,
“Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging….”
Darwish was born in the village of al-Birwa in the Western Galilee. He was the second child of Salim and Houreyyah Darwish. His father was a Muslim landowner. His mother was illiterate, but his grandfather taught him to read. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the family fled to Lebanon first in Jezzin and then in Damour. A year later, they returned to the Acre area, which was now part of Israel, and settled in Deir al-Asad. Darwish attended high school in Kafr Yasif, two kilometers north of Jadeidi. He eventually moved to Haifa. He published his first book of poetry, Asafir bila ajniha, at the age of nineteen. Darwish left Palestine in the early 1970s to study in the USSR. He attended the University of Moscow for one year, before moving to Egypt and Lebanon. When he joined the PLO in 1973, he was banned from reentering Palestine. In 1995, he returned to attend the funeral of his colleague, Emile Habibi. During the visit, he received a permit from the Israeli authorities to remain in Israel for 4 days. Darwish was finally allowed to return to live in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1995. Darwish was twice married and divorced. His first wife was the writer Rana Kabbani. In the mid-1980s, he married an Egyptian translator, Hayat Heeni. He had no children. Darwish had a history of heart problems: After a heart attack in 1984, he underwent heart surgery. In 1998, he was operated on again. His last return visit to Palestine was on 15 July 2007 to attend a poetry recital at Mt. Carmel Auditorium, in which he criticized the factional violence between Fatah and Hamas as a “suicide attempt in the streets”.
Darwish published over thirty volumes of poetry and eight books of prose. He was editor of Al-Jadid, Al-Fajr, Shu’un Filistiniyya and Al-Karmel (1981). His first poetry collection to be published “Leaves of Olives” included the poem “Identity Card”, written in 1964:
Record! I am an Arab/ And my identity card is number fifty thousand/ I have eight children/ And the ninth is coming after a summer/ Will you be angry?/ Record!/ I am an Arab/ I have a name without a title/ Patient in a country/ Where people are enraged . . . 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!
The accusation is that I hate Jews. It’s not comfortable that they show me as a devil and an enemy of Israel. I am not a lover of Israel, of course. I have no reason to be. But I don’t hate Jews.
His work won numerous awards, and has been published in 20 languages. 
Darwish was impressed by the Arab poets Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. He cited Rimbaud and Ginsberg as literary influences. Darwish admired the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, but described his poetry as a “challenge to me, because we write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes it better?”
In March 2000, Yossi Sarid, the Israeli education minister, proposed that some of Darwish’s poems be included in the Israeli high school curriculum. Prime Minister Ehud Barak rejected the proposal on the grounds that Israel was “not ready.” It has been suggested that the incident had more to do with internal Israeli politics in trying to damage Prime Minister Ehud Barak‘s government than poetry. With the death of Darwish the debate about including his poetry in the Israeli school curriculum has been re-opened.
Darwish was a member of Rakah, the Israeli communist party, before joining the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut. He was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for leaving Haifa without a permit. In 1970 he left for Moscow and was stripped of his Israeli citizenship. Later, he moved to Cairo in 1971 where he worked for al-Ahram daily newspaper. In Beirut, in 1973, he edited the monthly Shu’un Filistiniyya (Palestinian Affairs) and worked as a director in the Palestinian Research Center of the PLO and joined the organisation. In the wake of the Lebanon War, Darwish wrote the political poems Qasidat Bayrut (1982) and Madih al-zill al’ali(1983). Darwish was elected to the PLO Executive Committee in 1987. In 1988 he wrote a manifesto intended as the Palestinian people’s declaration of independence. In 1993, after the Oslo accords, Darwish resigned from the PLO Executive Committee. Darwish has consistently demanded a “tough and fair” stand in negotiations with Israel.
In 1988, one of his poems, Passers Between the Passing Words, was cited in the Knesset by Yitzhak Shamir. He was accused of demanding that the Jews leave Israel, although he claimed he meant the West Bank and Gaza: “So leave our land/Our shore, our sea/Our wheat, our salt, our wound.” A specialist on Darwish’s poetry Adel Usta, said the poem was misunderstood and mistranslated, while poet and translator Ammiel Alcalay wrote that “the hysterical overreaction to the poem simply serves as a remarkably accurate litmus test of the Israeli psyche … (the poem) is an adamant refusal to accept the language of the occupation and the terms under which the land is defined”.
Despite his criticism of both Israel and the Palestinian leadership, Darwish believed that peace was attainable. “I do not despair,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “I am patient and am waiting for a profound revolution in the consciousness of the Israelis. The Arabs are ready to accept a strong Israel with nuclear arms – all it has to do is open the gates of its fortress and make peace.”
In July 2007, Darwish returned to Ramallah and visited Haifa for a festive event held in his honor sponsored by Masharaf magazine and the Israeli Hadash party. To a crowd of some 2,000 people who turned out for the event, he voiced his criticism of the Hamas takeover:
“We woke up from a coma to see a monocolored flag (of Hamas) do away with the four-color flag (of Palestine).”
Many of Darwish’s poems were set to music most notably Rita, Birds of Galilee and I Yearn for my Mother’s Bread and have become anthems for at least two generations of Arabs, by Arab composers, among them Marcel Khalife, Majida El Roumi and Ahmad Qa’abour. In the 1980s, Sabreen, a Palestinian group in Israel, recorded an album including versions of Darwish’s poems “On Man” and “On Wishes”. Khalife was accused of blasphemy and insulting religious values because a song entitled I am Yusuf, oh my father based on Darwish’s lyrics, cited a verse from the Qur’an. In this poem, Darwish shared the pain of Yusuf (Joseph) who was rejected by his brothers, who fear him because he is too handsome and kind. “Oh my father, I am Yusuf / Oh father, my brothers neither love me nor want me in their midst”. The story of Joseph is an allegory for the rejection of the Palestinians.
Tamar Muskal, an Israeli-American composer incorporated Dawish’s “I Am From There” into her composition “The Yellow Wind,” which combines a full orchestra, Arabic flute, Arab and Israeli poetry, and themes from David Grossman‘s book The Yellow Wind.
- The Lotus Prize (1969; from the Union of Afro-Asian Writers)
- Lenin Peace Prize (1983; from the USSR)
- The Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (1993; from France)
- The Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom (2001)
- Prince Claus Awards (2004)
- “Bosnian stećak” (2007)
- Golden Wreath of Struga Poetry Evenings (2007)
Mahmoud Darwish died on August 9, 2008 at the age of 67, three days after heart surgery at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas. Early reports of his death in the Arabic press indicate that Darwish asked in his will to be buried in Palestine. Three locations were originally suggested; his home village of al-Birwa, the neighboring village Jadeida, where some of Darwish’s family still resides or in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ramallah Mayor Janet Mikhail announced later that Darwish is to be buried next to Ramallah’s Cultural Palace, and a shrine is to be erected in his honor. However Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is quoted as saying that the PA may ask Israel for permission to bury Darwish near his home village in the Galilee. Darwish’s brother, Ahmed, expected the burial to take place on Tuesday, August 12, in Ramallah, but arrangements for flying the body in from Texas delayed the funeral.
Before surgery, Darwish signed a document asking not to be resuscitated in the event of brain death.
Ahmed Darwish made the comment that:
“Mahmoud doesn’t just belong to a family or a town, but to all the Palestinians, and he should be buried in a place where all Palestinians can come and visit him,”
Darwish’s body was flown from Amman Jordan for the burial in Ramallah. The first eulogy was delivered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to an orderly gathering of thousands. Several left-wing Knessest members attended the official ceremony; Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List–Ta’al) stood with the family, and Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad) were in the hall at the Mukataa. Also present was the former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin.
- Asafir bila ajniha (Wingless birds), 1960
- Awraq Al-Zaytun (Leaves of olives), 1964
- Ashiq min filastin (A lover from Palestine), 1966
- Akhir al-layl (The end of the night), 1967
- Yawmiyyat jurh filastini (Diary of a Palestinian wound), 1969
- Habibati tanhad min nawmiha (My beloved awakens), 1969
- al-Kitabah ‘ala dhaw’e al-bonduqiyah (Writing in the light of the gun), 1970
- al-‘Asafir tamut fi al-jalil (Birds are Dying in Galilee), 1970
- Mahmoud Darwish works, 1971. Two volumes
- Mattar na’em fi kharif ba’eed (Light rain in a distant autumn) 1971
- Uhibbuki aw la uhibbuki (I love you, I love you not), 1972
- Jondiyyun yahlum bi-al-zanabiq al-baidaa’ (A soldier dreaming of white lilies), 1973
- Complete Works, 1973. Now al-A’amal al-jadida (2004) and al-A’amal al-oula (2005).
- Muhawalah raqm 7 (Attempt number 7), 1974
- Tilka suratuha wa-hadha intihar al-ashiq (That’s her image, and that’s the suicide of her lover), 1975
- Ahmad al-za’tar, 1976
- A’ras (Weddings), 1977
- al-Nasheed al-jasadi (The music of human flesh), 1980. Joint work
- Qasidat Bayrut (Ode to Beirut), 1982
- Madih al-zill al-‘ali (A eulogy for the tall shadow), 1983
- Hissar li-mada’eh al-bahr, 1984
- Sand and Other Poems, 1986
- Hiya ughniyah, hiya ughniyah (It’s a song, it’s a song), 1985
- Ward aqal (Fewer roses), 1985
- Ma’asat al-narjis, malhat al-fidda (Tragedy of daffodils, comedy of silver), 1989
- Ara ma oreed (I see what I want), 1990
- Ahad ‘asher kaukaban (Eleven planets), 1992
- Limaza tarakt al-hissan wahidan (Why did you leave the horse alone?), 1995. English translation 2006 by Jeffrey Sacks (ISBN 0976395010)
- Psalms, 1995. A selection from Uhibbuki aw la uhibbuki, translation by Ben Bennani
- Sareer El-Ghariba (Bed of a stranger), 1998
- Then Palestine, 1999 (with Larry Towell, photographer, and Rene Backmann)
- Jidariyya (Mural), 2000
- The Adam of Two Edens: Selected Poems, 2001
- Halat Hissar (State of siege), 2002
- La ta’tazer ‘amma fa’alt (Don’t apologize for what you did), 2003
- Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, 2003. Translations by Munir Akash, Caroyln Forché and others
- al-A’amal al-jadida (The new works), 2004. A selection of Darwish’s recent works
- al-A’amal al-oula (The early works), 2005. Three volumes, a selection of Darwish’s early works
- Ka-zahr el-lawz aw ab’ad (Same as almond flowers or farther), 2005
- Shai’on ‘an al-wattan (Something about the homeland), 1971
- Wada’an ayatuha al-harb, wada’an ayuha al-salaam (Farwell, war, farwell, peace), 1974
- Yawmiyyat al-hozn al-‘aadi (Diary of the usual sadness), 1973
- Dhakirah li-al-nisyan (Memory for Forgetfulness), 1987. English translation 1995 by Ibrahim Muhawi
- Fi wasf halatina (Describing our condition), 1987
- al-Rasa’il (The Letters), 1990. Joint work with Samih al-Qasim
- Aabiroon fi kalamen ‘aaber (Bypassers in bypassing words), 1991
- Fi hadrat al-ghiyab (In the presence of absence), 2006