Far from accentuating the glorification that is synonymous with Mahmoud Darwish and his beautiful poetry, the new biography “Mahmoud Darwish: literature and the politics of Palestinian identity” by Muna Abu Eid (I.B. Tauris, 2016) is a competent exercise in revealing the intricacies of Palestinian collective memory combined with the complex persona of the man himself. Yet, within these contrasts, the essence of Darwish remains intact.
Abu Eid has availed herself of theory, primary sources and the Palestinian struggle to enact a narration of Darwish as a man who, despite the contradictions between his political and literary career, managed to carve a niche in which realism and expression were skilfully separated. As an intellectual who experienced the ramifications of the Nakba and subsequent return first-hand, authenticity in relation to the Palestinian identity and anti-colonial struggle was a multi-faceted task; one that contained personal, political and collective expression. On the role of intellectuals in society, Abu Eid does not confine it to a necessity for “the creation of nationalism, but also because they are perceived as central players in any cultural and ethnic development.”
Indeed, Darwish’s role as a literary intellectual in Palestinian society is also a direct form of struggle against Zionism as regards the shaping of collective memory and “to prevent those who had colonised the land from [also] colonising memory.”
Against the backdrop of Palestinian history, including the Nakba, Arab betrayal of Palestine and subsequent diplomatic failures epitomised by the Oslo Accords, Darwish is portrayed as someone whose loyalty towards memory and poetic expression remains separate from 30 years of political activity in which there was no adherence to any particular political struggle. This reveals Darwish’s pragmatic character in stark contrast to the essence of his literature, which is a more authentic expression of Palestinian memory.
The biography shows us how Darwish’s concept of exile, immortalised in his poetry, fluctuated within a spectrum marked by specific occurrences in his life. His identity, like that of many other Palestinians, was imbued with exile as both a reality and a metaphor; a perpetually present and tangible experience that is not easily defined. It is through historical timeframes that Abu Eid portrays the different stages between the “internal exile”; the “external exile”; the identity crisis “between exile and return” due to the infiltrator status; the sense of nostalgia for the homeland; the external exile after the Oslo Accords upon his return to the PA; and, again, the ramifications of internal and national exile within the PA.
The identity of the exile, in Darwish’s case, became the means through which to challenge the subjugation enforced by Israeli colonisation. However, Abu Eid emphasises the fact that Darwish opposed the concept of resistance literature, a term coined by Ghassan Kanafani. The poet remained synonymous with cultural unity and it is primarily through that tenacity towards history and culture that Palestinian collective memory has been shaped and preserved in his literary works. In Darwish’s words, as quoted by Abu Eid: “Anyone who writes the story first will also gain the soil of the story.” While metaphorical and elusive, this statement also emphasises the importance of preserving Palestinian memory against Israeli oblivion. It also reflects resistance against the Zionist narrative, which seeks to annihilate the entire existence of Palestine and Palestinians.
Politically, Darwish separated memory from diplomacy. Given the divergences between his literary writing and political contribution, it is no surprise that the concept of betrayal was pondered upon. In literature, as explained in detail throughout the book, Darwish delved into historical ramifications from well before the Nakba which demonstrated his historical connection to the land. Such depth, in fact, is also a direct challenge to the fabricated colonial narrative that seeks to convince the world of historical ties. For Darwish, the connection to land and, therefore, Palestinian identity, is multifaceted and requires an assertion of historical establishment.
Politically, Darwish was involved in drafting speeches for Yasser Arafat, as well as the Declaration of Independence of 1988 which endorsed the UN Partition Plan. These are, however, viewed by Abu Eid as perfunctory requests on behalf of Arafat and not necessarily a personal expression regarding the political scenario. Darwish had opposed the fragmentation of Palestine, yet in the aftermath of the Second Intifada he opposed armed resistance and advocated civil resistance, taking into consideration the loss for Palestinians. His opposition to the Oslo Accords is also documented and narrated in this biography. The perceived political shift after 1988 was formulated as normalisation by some of his critics, but Abu Eid explains Darwish’s position towards the end of the book with a quote from the poet: “Who doesn’t want all of Palestine? The question is – is it possible? The problem is not my aspirations but the reality and the balance of power… therefore I must be realistic, rational, and wise and not ask for much – which might prevent me from getting even a little.”
Muna Abu Eid has created a challenging narration interwoven within a complex and detailed depiction of the contentious aspects of Darwish’s life. Collective memory and consciousness, therefore, are best extracted from his literature, rather than his political involvement. The greatest strength of the book lies in the awareness of objectivity and subjectivity. Colonialism has coerced the mind into political compromise and rationalised discourse based upon a premeditated defeat. However, the essence of Palestinian memory, which Darwish depicted in his literature, is an emotive, strong memory that has eclipsed time and its ramifications. Abu Eid has juxtaposed these contrasting realities with skill, leaving little doubt in the reader’s mind as to which element has prevailed, the proof of which are the Palestinians themselves.