Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Darwish in Cairo

Mahmoud Darwish, also known as the Poet Laureate of the Palestinian Resistance, died this week 10 years ago. To honour his memory, Sayed Mahmoud reviews his 1971 stint in Cairo, during which time he was attacked for leaving Israel


Walking the streets of Cairo with the late star of vernacular poetry Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi (right behind Darwish) and the writer Safinaz Kazem (to the right of the picture)
Walking the streets of Cairo with the late star of vernacular poetry Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi (right behind Darwish) and the writer Safinaz Kazem (to the right of the picture)

“I could never have imagined, even when the imagination soared the highest, that a poet’s biography could turn into a major issue in the life of the Arabs. Did this happen in Jahiliyyah? Is the point for us to return to Jahiliyyah, that is the question.”

Thus Mahmoud Darwish in one of his earliest responses to the campaign to which he was subjected for relinquishing Israeli citizenship by coming to Cairo as a refugee; at the time this was thought of as giving up the Palestinians’ right to their land by leaving it to non-Palestinians.

Darwish was an Arab Israeli, a member of the Palestinian community that remained following the declaration of the state in 1948, and he had decided to “emigrate to Palestine by way of Cairo after he felt paralysed in terms of his movement and freedom by the intensity of Israeli repression and bigotry”, as the 26 February 1971 issue of Lebanese magazine Al-Hawadeth put it, having placed an image of Darwish on its cover with the headline, “If only he returned to Israel”. As “a phenomenon that glittered in the darkest moments of despair” testifying to “the authenticity and resilience of our Arab nation and the Palestinian people who persisted in their Arab identity against the most horrid forms of nationalist and racist oppression”, Darwish, the magazine pointed out, had always been against “migration out of Palestine”.

The article, perhaps the fiercest in the campaign, was signed Rabi’ Matar, according to the late critic Ragaa Al-Naqqash in his book Mahmoud Darwish, Poet of the Occupied Land a pseudonym for Ghassan Kanafani (although Al-Naqqash offers no evidence for this). But as is evident from the wording above the magazine remained sympathetic to Darwish if not to his decision to “join the caravan of those who leave their homeland in order to be closer to it”.

In the same issue, Al-Hawadeth published an interview with Darwish by Ahmed Said Mohamedieh, a Palestinian who settled in Beirut in 1963 and, after working as a literary editor in Al-Hawadeth and Al-Anwar, another Beirut magazine, founded Dar Al-Awdah in 1970; it was Dar Awdah that published Darwish’s early work, making it available across the Arab world. Mohamedieh had interviewed Darwish in Moscow, where he was studying at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, and Darwish then expressed the view that emigration was not a good way to serve the national cause.

The rhetoric of Al-Hawadeth’s objections, which draws on Darwish’s own poems, remains striking however hollow it rings today:

“O Mahmoud, O sweetest son to whom the Arab nation has opened its arms, let us not speak to you of the tragedy of the Arab reality that is about to crush you, not knowing what are the legal problems that result from your decision. Since you retain your ‘translated’ nationality, as you describe it, we exhort you, out of a heart that loves and cherishes you:

“‘We are at the stage of return and insistence on remaining; the stage of emigration has ended forever, and so – if only you could return to Israel, to prison, that’s what you should do whatever the price you must pay out of your freedom and even your art and poetry. Your place is next to the millstone even if they imprison you in silence, for your silence in Palestine is a thousand times better than your poetry in the Okaz verse market that will be set up for you in the Arab world.

“‘Return, for you have made a choice you cannot revoke, for you have appointed yourself “the agent of a wound that cannot bargain”, as you say: “The torturer’s strike has taught me/ To walk upon my wound/ And keep walking, to walk and to resist”. With such a job, resignation is not an option.’”

Al-Naqqash points out that this was a fairly widespread position on the issue, particularly among the literati across the Arab world. But Darwish’s arrival in Cairo had been in some sense a decision made by the Egyptian state, since he was immediately employed in the state Radio Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs). Indeed in October 1971 Darwish became an official employee of Al-Ahram newspaper, the state and the country’s most important press outlet – then in throes of a transformation due to Sadat succeeding Nasser and changing the political orientation of the state structure – where he joined the Centre of Palestinian Studies (later to become the Centre of Political and Strategic Studies).

Perhaps that is why the Egyptian media was so invested in defending Darwish, with an article in the 15 March issue of Rose Al-Yusef magazine republishing an article that had appeared unsigned in the Haifa Arabic newspaper Al-Ittihad, which Al-Naqqash feels was probably written by the great Palestinian writer and Darwish’s godfather Emile Habibi. But by then the Egyptian poet Abdel-Moati Hegazi had already started firing back on 22 February in the same magazine.

“You know, my friend,” Hegazi wrote, “that all eyes are now upon you, the eyes of your Arab people in all their countries, the eyes of your comrades in the occupied territories and the eyes of your enemies too.

“You also know that people who have been stabbed enough, and deceived enough have a right to want to spare you and themselves the usual fate of the struggle of political refugees: to end up in the corner of a cafe. The questions and comments directed at you hint at such concern, and in the press of some Arab capitals you might’ve read remarks that explicitly state it.”

Hegazy goes on to defend “the young man” and his fellow poet Samih Al-Qassim, a Druze citizen of Israel, against the charge of being “an Israeli phenomenon” following their earlier participation in a literary festival in Sofia, Bulgaria, where they represented Arab Israelis: “Cairo has done its respectful part in showing concern for you when it created room for you in Sawt Al-Arab; all that remains is for you to go on doing your part.” He also suggests that, as a Hebrew speaker, Darwish should oversee the national radio’s Hebrew service and to launch a project to translate Israeli literature into Arabic, “for our enemies find out about us through a writer like Naguib Mahfouz many, many times more than they do through their security apparatus and spies”. Hegazy names poets who started out in Russian and switched to Hebrew, eager to find out how someone can change his language within two decades and still produce poetry.

“You told me in a previous conversation that the struggle will be a long one,” so Hegazy concludes his article, “because it is a complex historical struggle, which can’t be resolved before it matures. Let us, then, enter it armed. We have time and who knows, Mahmoud. Maybe your stay in Cairo will be the spark that triggers the activity and the work spirit to achieve what we have so far expected of you alone.”

By April 1971, Darwish had joined his friend the remarkable journalist Ahmed Bahaaeddin (later editor in chief of Al-Ahram) at Dar Al-Hilal’s popular magazine Al-Musawwar, where his first article appeared on the 9th.

“You cannot demand of an oppressed national minority the achievement of what the entire [Arab] nation has failed at,” he wrote. “The ability of the [Israeli] Arabs to act depends and is conditional on the ability of the Arab peoples to act... I have despaired of the ability of Arabs in Israel who are allied with progressive Jewish powers to achieve any essential change internally so long as the external Arab circumstances fail to provide a material basis for such a possibility... It is impossible to have any serious expectations except of a handful of Arab countries who are both willing and able to work, and the first of these is Cairo. We can even say that one of the criteria of true [Palestinian] patriotism is the Arab citizen’s position on Cairo.”

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