“It is particularly in Darwish’s poetical progression that Palestine endured and became metaphor.” This observation in the introduction to Palestine as Metaphor (Olive Branch Press, 2019) resonates throughout the five interviews with Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which together make up this book. Darwish narrates Palestine, conflict and confrontation, love, exile, loss and return in a profound, sensitive and assertive tone which illustrates both his individuality and his attachment to Palestine and the Palestinian people.
The book imparts an understanding of Darwish which takes time to absorb. Through the published in-depth interviews, the reader gains the opportunity to dissociate from the forced, at times erroneous, depictions of the poet and his work, to move closer to Darwish’s essence and thoughts. Navigating the concept of Palestine within, and without, as he reveals, is an exile’s experience. His articulation of Palestine, however, is not isolated and depicted solely from a militant or diplomatic perspective. Language and love are closer to the metaphor of Palestine, and it is from this combination that Darwish’s poetry must be read.
With the land and poetry as inseparable entities, there is both rupture and continuity. Unlike the prevailing notion which usurps culture to service militancy, Darwish insists upon a wider interpretation that allows the poet’s expression to roam and return. “I discovered that the land is fragile and the sea is weightless. I learned that language and metaphor are not enough to bestow place upon a place.” The poetic accomplishment is defined by a continuous seeking of expression, one that defines, dissociates and seeks union. Palestine is ever present because of the poet’s awareness of its history, culture and rupture. The need to define Palestine is an expectation which the people have associated with Darwish, whereas the poet is conscious of how Palestine reveals itself, and not necessarily through political impositions. “The image, the theme and the event dwell together in a landscape, which is the landscape of history,” he notes.
Poetry must surpass conventions. “The poet is the one who perfects the observation of this moment when he feels ready to go and seek poetry in the depths of his being.” The conventions that Darwish speaks of include the public’s perception of the poet and his poetry, a restriction that impeded both recognition and understanding of his metaphors. “My reader does not authorise me to read myself as I wish, for he forbids himself to read me outside the preconceived image he has of me.”
The interviews illustrate several contentions which Darwish felt hindered appreciation of his work. He describes being “a prisoner of political reading”, and thus divested of the narratives he wished to impart. For Darwish, confining poetry to the political “does not serve the poetry or the cause.” Yet he also recognises the contradiction in this relationship between the poet and the reader, and how they sustain each other. “The reader wishes to keep me captive, and I, from my side, continue to imprison him, and, in this figurative exchange, our relation evolves.” The land, after all, constitutes a bond, a shared link also experienced in exile, as the poet states: “I am convinced that exile is profoundly anchored in me, to the point that I cannot write without it.” If exile is a permanent fixture, land is as well, hence the presence of Palestine as metaphor, which Darwish separates from the trappings of political implications which usurp words for a project that exploits identity, rather than reveres it. “The exile never ends,” he says, “whether we are away from the country or not.”
For Darwish, nostalgia intertwines with identity and memory. The dream is a return, or an arrival which, in the poetic realm, surrenders itself to various interpretations. There is a difference between the political and the literary homeland, the latter being closer to the people’s remembrance. “Memory must become more fertile, to be transformed in its identity as a witness of history.” This is also an integral characteristic of the poet whose loyalty to the people “is not made tangible by his direct political action but by the sincerity of his work.” Darwish’s poetic identity is paramount; he refused the exploitation of his work, or its bludgeoning to serve a diplomatic quest.
Likewise, Darwish also found contention in the depiction of himself as a national poet. “If a national poet is representative, well, I don’t represent anyone.” The statement is another reflection on the sensitivity and personal experience embodied in his work; emotions which are exclusively his and imparted according to his expression. However, Darwish recognises a national poet as one “who expresses the spirit of a people,” which is closer to his sentiment regarding his link to Palestine and Palestinians. Darwish is not seeking to ostracise himself with such statements, but rather the freedom to view himself, his identity and his expression through a personal lens which is also part of the wider narrative.
Palestine is always present, in memory and metaphor, within the individual and the masses. “A people without poetry is a conquered people,” Darwish ruminates. Language, land and thought intertwine to create the metaphor. Politically, Darwish seeks freedom. He asserts that he wants to “obtain the right of return without paying a political price.” It is a reasonable request, and one that is made impossible due to Israeli colonisation of his land.
Reading Darwish’s interviews is equivalent to immersing one’s self in an unrivalled metaphor. His language is impeccable, passionate and pondering, like an extension of his verses which resonate upon every reading. What is conventionally associated with Darwish is dismantled through the poet himself, allowing the reader to arrive at a deeper understanding, and one that reads like a timeless and regenerating revelation of the man and his poetry.