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Mahmoud Darwish: Acclaimed Palestinian National Poet

Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, is perhaps the most famous national icon in creative Palestinian history. Mahmoud Darwish was one of eight siblings, born on the 13th of March in 1941, in a small village named al-Birwa (البروة‎‎) in Palestine. In June of 1948, al-Birwa was assaulted by Israeli powers forcing the Darwish family to flee Palestine and seek refuge in the south of Lebanon. After residing in Lebanon for a year the Darwish family secretly re-entered their homeland, now part of Israeli control, and settled in Deir al-Asad since their home had been demolished. After secondary school, Darwish began poetry and articles for both magazines and newspapers, in which he soon became the editor for. Mahmoud Darwish completed high school in a northern Palestinian village named Kafr Yasif. Then, at only the age of 19, Darwish published his first book of poetry titled Asafir bila ajniha translating in English as Wingless Birds.

Al-Birwa 1928
Al-Birwa from a distance, 1928

Darwish’s early writings were written in a classical Arabic style following the norms of traditional Arabic poetry. He later drifted from this style, and began using a free verse technique, that distinguished his works for which he is famously known for today. The central themes of his writing initiated from his strong emotions around his lost homeland. One of his most well known quotes was a verse he wrote about an important cultural symbol for Palestinians. He wrote: ‘If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears”. The olive tree branch is distinguished as a symbol of peace and the tree itself is viewed as a symbol of Palestinian identity, thus this graphic illustration had a tremendous impact on the hearts of Palestinians worldwide.

In 1970, Darwish left his occupied homeland to study in the Soviet Union (USSR) at Lomonsov Moscow State University, which he attended for one year before moving to Cairo, Egypt in 1971 and later Beirut, Lebanon in 1973. In Cairo, he was in charge of edited a daily newspaper named al-Ahram. Similarly in Beirut, he was in charge of editing the monthly newspaper named al-Shu’un Filistiniyya translating in English as Palestinian Affairs. Thus while in Beirut, Darwish also worked as a director in the Palestinian Research Center belonging to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). After joining the PLO, Darwish was then banned from reentering occupied Palestine. In 1987 Darwish was elected to the Palestinian Executive Committee of the PLO. Once the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, he later resigned from the Executive Committee.

Darwish Cairo
Young Darwish in Cairo while working for Al-Ahram Newspaper Company

Mahmoud Darwish was seen as one of the most famous artists of the Arab world. His work was so positively admired that Arabic composers put pieces from his writings into songs. These songs later went on to serve as national anthems for several generations of Arabs. Mahmoud Darwish published over 30 collections of poetry and eight books of prose that were translated into over 24 languages. Correspondingly Darwish earned numerous awards for his brilliant literary works that surfaced the raw emotion of his strong regards for his lost homeland. Though Darwish’s literary career thrived, he had faced many struggles with his personal health. Darwish had a long history of heart complications causing him to go into cardiac arrest, which lead to his very first heart operation in 1984. Subsequently he endured yet another operation in 1998, in which he later wrote about his near death encounter following this procedure.

At the age of 67, three days after undergoing his last and final heart surgery in 2008, Mahmoud Darwish passed away on the 9th of August. Darwish’s body was flown from the Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas, to his homeland where he had requested to be buried. Darwish’s body was placed to rest in Ramallah’s Palace of Culture where his memorial can be visited today. Less than one month after Darwish’s passing, The International Literature Festival in Berlin held a worldwide reading in memory of Mahmoud Darwish on the 5th of October in 2008.

Mahmoud Dawish Memorial Al-Birweh Park in Palestine
Mahmoud Dawish Memorial Al-Birweh Park in Palestine

Just one day prior to this vigil, The Mahmoud Darwish Foundation was established as a Palestinian non-profit organization. The foundation was set in place with the goal of continuance of cultural literacy and an intellectual legacy that Darwish had left behind. Each year the foundation grants the annual ‘Mahmoud Darwish Award of Creativity’ to intellectuals from Palestine and elsewhere. Mahmoud was an extremely beloved figure as he brought a voice to the struggles of his people amongst the height of the Arab opposition to the Israeli occupation. However amongst all of his works one thing remained constant, which was his peaceful advance toward the liberation of his people through his influential art of writing.


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