Mahmoud Darwish Commemorated in London

By Mamoon Alabbasi – London

The life and works of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were celebrated in London Monday in a special event that paid tribute to the renowned Arab writer.

The event, organised by Exiled Writers Ink, included readings from the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and other poets, literary analyses of some of his work, a short musical piece, and a documentary extract.

Wasting little time on prose, Fathieh Saudi, poet and chair of Exiled Writers Ink, recited verses of Darwish’s poetry at the intervals when presenting each participant.

A poem by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter in memory of Mahmoud Darwish was read on his behalf by Joanna Carolan, a writer and performer.

The poem, entitled ‘Death’, ended with:

Did you wash the dead body

Did you close both its eyes

Did you bury the body

Did you leave it abandoned

Did you kiss the dead body

The characteristics of Darwish’s lyrical poems were highlighted during an analysis by David Constantine, poet, novelist, translator, and editor of Modern Poetry in Translation.

Constantine focused on Darwish’s “lyrical autonomy” where his poems were “particular and specific to real circumstances” but at the same time “generalised”, making it easier for others who do not share his experience to recognise and understand.

“He’s absolutely loyal to the real struggle of his people. At the same time he writes poems which have real autonomy,” noted Constantine.

According to Constantine, Darwish managed to combine two seemingly contradictory factors at the same time.

He read a poem of Darwish entitled ‘State of Siege’. Among its moving verses were:

To a killer: if you had looked your victim in the eye,

Perhaps you would have remembered your mother in the gas chamber,

Perhaps you would have changed your mind,

And set yourself free from the logic of the gun

This is no way to claim your real identity

During his talk on the importance of Darwish in Arabic poetry, Professor Sabry Hafez, literary critic and director of Al-kalimah.com, touched on certain periods of the life of the Palestinian poet.

After the creation of Israel in 1948, Darwish “could not be registered in a school,” noted Hafez, adding that “although some of the Arab teachers sympathised with him, when an inspector came they asked him to disappear.”

“He, as a child, had been a subjected to almost a process of erasing his very existence, his identity,” said Hafez.

However, life did not become easier for Darwish as he grew older.

“He learned from a very early age that writing poetry was a very dangerous profession,” said Hafez.

He was subjected to imprisonment in Israeli jails each time a collection of his work was published, Hafez noted, citing four occasions of imprisonment and one instance of house arrest.

But the Palestinian poet, who was later forced to flee his home, became a national symbol and established himself as a voice of hope after the ‘disaster’ of 1967, said Hafez.

Darwish, continued Hafez, developed his own style and refused to be branded or labelled.

He constantly embarked on new imagery and new themes, and although he began with lyrical poetry of resistance and hope, where he established his popularity in the Arab World, Darwish “did not confine himself to that,” noted Hafez.

His poems, which included multiple voices reflecting different dialogues, began to reshape modern Arab poetry, argued Hafez.

Despite the many attempts to silence his voice, Darwish’s message reached the world, and his vision lives on after his death.

During the event, Sara-Mae Tuson, poet and acting editor of the London Magazine, read Darwish’s poem ‘My Mother’, before reciting a poem of her own.

The London Magazine, first published in 1732, had recently issued an edition dedicated to Arabic themes and literature.

Eloquently reciting Darwish’s poem, the young poet and editor read:

I am old

Give me back the star maps of childhood

So that I

Along with the swallows

Can chart the path

Back to your waiting nest

Putting the spotlight on the ‘female images in Darwish’s poetry’, Lina Abou Baker, Palestinian poet and journalist, read out verses of poetry in Arabic and some of their translations in English.

The feminine nature in which she recited the verses could serve as a reminder of the softer side of Darwish, away from the struggle for self-determination and the rage of resistance.

Words were silenced during a brief break where Turkish musician Cahit Baylav played an oriental piece with the violin.

An analysis followed, entitled ‘Born again: A Poem Revisited’, by Dr. Stefan Sperl, senior lecturer in Arabic literature at SOAS, University of London.

Sperl touched on how the “death of the author” gives the text new meanings, noting that some questions that were raised by Darwish in one of his poems can now be answered.

In his poem, Darwish could not have guessed in which land he would have died, Sperl explained, but today we have the answer to that question.

During the event, Sally Thompson, poet, barrister and mediator, read one of her poems and a poem by Darwish.

A text , entitled ‘a visit to the tomb of Mahmoud Darwish September 2008 ‘, written by John Berger, poet, novelist, painter, art historian, and Booker prize winner, was read on his behalf by Anne Rodford, former production editor at Zed books.

Khaled Hroub, Palestinian author and director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, recalled his rather humorous encounter with Darwish.

Hroub had complained to Darwish from … Darwish. Hroub had told the late poet that his great poetry left no room for others to be recognised.

However, after securing a promise from Darwish to listen to the main piece of his new collection, Hroub was shocked to hear the news of the great poet’s death.

Determined to hold Darwish to his word, dead or alive, Hroub recited his new poem at Darwish’s grave.

Touching on the concept of exile, Jennifer Langer, poet, editor of anthologies of exiled literature and joint editor of Exiled Ink magazine, read out Darwish’s poem ‘Who am I without Exile?’

Langer noted that much of Darwish’s work “has been translated to Hebrew to an Israeli readership,” and that Darwish himself was familiar with Hebrew literature.

Her words signal hope that perhaps one day peaceful coexistence would prevail.

The event concluded with the screening of an extract of the film ‘Writers on the borders’, highlighting some of the sorrows of life under occupation.

-Mamoon Alabbasi is an editor for Middle East Online. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: mamoon@meo.tv.

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