“What is homeland?” asks famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in his Journal of an Ordinary Grief, an intriguing but uneven collection of ruminations and autobiographical fragments that first appeared in Arabic in 1973 and is now being published posthumously in English. He has several answers. The most powerful? “To hold on to your memory – that is homeland.”
Memory is a central theme of this book, which has been capably translated and helpfully annotated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Lamenting the plight of Palestinian refugees some two decades after Israel’s founding in 1948, Darwish indignantly addresses the double standard many Israelis apply to the Jewish and Palestinian affinity for the holy land: “He who allows himself a flood of tears for two thousand years cannot blame the one who has been crying for twenty years of having merely fallen prey to delusion.”
Darwish, who died in 2008 at age 67, was one of the Arab world’s most renowned poets. His poems were often about Palestine, and many were set to songs by famous Arab singers. Darwish’s story begins in the middle of the 20th century. In the war over Israel’s creation in 1948, 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from or fled their homeland. Darwish’s family, with the young Mahmoud in tow, chose to wait out the war in Lebanon. Prevented from returning to what became Israel, they sneaked back in. But that hardly ended their woes. “They called us ‘present-absentees’ so we would have no legal right to anything,” complains Darwish of the Israeli authorities. He left Israel in 1970 and later joined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which prompted Israel to bar him from returning for decades.
There is much rage in this book. Darwish condemns Nazism as inexcusable, but proceeds to compare Israeli actions to those of Nazis. However, there are reasons for his fury. One particularly horrific incident that understandably raises his ire is the Kufr Qasem massacre of 1956, when 49 unarmed Israeli Arab civilians – including women and children – were murdered by Israeli border police for having violated a recently imposed curfew of which they were unaware.
The perpetrators were tried and convicted but pardoned shortly thereafter.
Despite his faith in armed resistance, one of Darwish’s strengths is his humanistic approach to Israeli Jewish society. He has Jewish friends, knows Hebrew, and is conversant with Israeli literature. Yet with such a nuanced existence comes a good deal of mental strain. During the 1967 Six-Day War – in which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip – Darwish’s thoughts turn to his Jewish ex-girlfriend: “She may be in Nablus, or another city, carrying a light rifle as one of the conquerors, and perhaps at this moment giving orders to some men to raise their arms or kneel on the ground.”
The book largely covers events in the 1960s; this means that discussion of Israeli Arabs (Palestinian citizens of Israel), who lived under military rule from 1948 until 1966, is often dated. But other topics remain uncannily relevant. The chapter entitled “Silence for the Sake of Gaza,” which salutes the indomitable people of that impoverished strip of land, might just as easily have been written today, given the suffering of Gazans under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Indeed, Muhawi dedicates his translation of “Journal of an Ordinary Grief” to “the people of Gaza.”
Regarding the larger political picture, Darwish does not tackle the fraught question of where the borders of a renascent Palestine should be drawn, and whether reconciliation with Israel is possible. Over the years, however, the poet made clear his belief in a two-state solution and his desire for peace. In fact, Darwish’s later moderation – visiting Israel toward the end of his life, refusing to justify suicide bombings, criticizing Hamas’s takeover of Gaza – is not adumbrated in this book.
At times, the very nature of the author’s subject makes for a taxing read. In fact, Darwish’s passionate ode to his homeland may unsettle and even alienate people for whom effusive patriotism is suspect. Those whose bond to their country is not constantly minimized or denied outright often find it difficult to empathize with the Palestinians and understand their self-absorbed Weltanschauung.
But in one of several rewardingly contemplative moments, Darwish muses that the Palestinians should respond to the national challenge they face in such a manner that they feel an even greater connection to Palestine, for the only alternative is to acquiesce in the denial of their identity. “This is your homeland,” observes Darwish, “and the response to the conquerors enhances your love for it because any weak point in the relationship between you and it is an opening for them.” Indeed, what many would consider the Palestinians’ overwrought national ardor is in fact an existential struggle against their negation as a people.
Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.