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Mahmoud Darwish and the idea of Home as the distant lover

Mahmoud Darwish and the idea of Home as the distant lover

chanchal kumar


Chanchal Kumar

chanchal kumarMahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet was among the first artists to popularize the idea of the homeland as the distant, absent lover. Writing from exile for most of his life and spanning a career that covered more than four decades, he achieved widespread acclaim with poems that both celebrated and mourned the memory of Palestine where he grew up as a child. In her 2019 book Mahmoud Darwish: Palestine’s Poet and the Other as the Beloved, the author Dalya Cohen-Mor writes about the poet: “Blending nationalist verse with love poetry, he created a new kind of patriotic poem in Arabic, or a new kind of love poem, in which Palestine is fused with the figure of the beloved and is the object of erotic attention.” (Cohen-Mor2).

However, a distinction needs to be made between a poet like Michael Ondaatje and Mahmoud Darwish regarding their experience as a Third Culture Kid. Although both have been personally affected by war and conflict, Darwish identifies as a Palestinian Arab and his creative oeuvre is centered on striving for the rights of Palestinians living in the land illegally occupied by Israel. In a sense, therefore, language and poetry serve as his true abode in lieu of a physical piece of land to call his own. A TCK writer like Ondaatje might have allegiance to multiple countries that he has lived in. For Darwish, however as the title poem “A Lover from Palestine” of his third collection published in 1966 suggests, he belongs to the country he was forced to leave behind. Living for decades in cultures as different as that of Moscow and Paris, which consequently makes him a transcultural writer, as theorist Arianna Dagnino formulates in her influential paper “Transcultural Writers and Transcultural Literature in the Age of Global Modernity.” (Dagnino1)Darwish makes a niche for himself as a political poet concerned with a singular purpose.

The Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali perhaps comes closest among contemporaries to the sentiment that the former shares. It can also be pointed out that no two transcultural writers are identical. There are differences of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and caste, if they have Indian roots. So transcultural writers, no matter if they have lived their lives moving from one destination to the next, are still bound to have distinctly disparate experiences if they do not have a common marker in the categories just mentioned above. Bearing this in mind, the present paper will address a significant facet of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetical output. Drawing from Marc Auge’s formulation relating to places and non-places (Auge 78) where, talking of the French novelist Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”, he mentions the part about Francoise outlining how everyone who was able to understand her thought and speech forms a ‘cosmology’ and constitutes the ‘Combray philosophy’ (Auge 77). In a similar vein, Darwish’s poems on colonialism, forced displacement, and exile create a universe wherein oppressed sections of people from varied locations and experiences can find common grounds of understanding. Moving from this aspect of his work, the paper will delineate how the figure of the beloved permeates his idea of home and the many ways in which it manifests in his poetic corpus.

As a way of brief introduction to his early childhood: Mahmoud Darwish was just seven years old when his family had to leave their village in al-Birwa in northern Palestine during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. (Cohen-Mor 3) This memory of an adolescence would never be forgotten, and reminisces would recur throughout in his writings. As Marc Auge first quotes Michel de Certeau then explains in his paper “From Places to Nonplaces”,

the experience of infancy is that of first journey, of birth as the primal experience of differentiation, of recognition of the self as self and other, repeated later in the experiences of walking as the first use of space, and the mirror as the first identification with the image of the self. All narrative goes back to infancy. (Auge 84)

 In the poem titled “I belong there” included in his first comprehensive English-translated collection, Darwish wrote,

I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.
I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell
with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by seagulls, a panorama of my own.
I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon,
a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.
I have lived on the land long before swords turned man into prey.
I belong there. When heaven mourns for her mother, I return heaven to her mother.
And I cry so that a returning cloud might carry my tears.
To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.
I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home. (Darwish 39-40)

 He echoes the sentiment favored by Certeau and Auge to make his relationship with Palestine clear-it is the place of his birth and where he passed his infancy. The final verse of the poem could be read to mean that all that he has learnt and the knowledge that he has gained so far has further guided him to what he holds dearest to himself: his home. As Auge makes clear in the passage quoted above, the period of infancy is the first journey, and intimately connected to a person’s “recognition of the self as self and other…” (Auge 84) Notable in the verse by Darwish is that he has capitalized the word home and italicized it, perhaps to assert the many things home can mean in addition to being just a physical space. Figuratively, it could imply a person’s lover or significant other.

It is almost a cliché in romantic poetry to refer to the sweetheart as one’s home. Here, it will be prudent to foreground the prominent detail that the woman with whom Darwish fell in love and had an affair with was of Israeli-Jewish descent. Her name was Tamar Ben-Ami, and they met when he lived in Haifa and was a member of the Israeli Communist Party. Cohen-Mor clarifies that he joined the Party not because he felt ideologically in tune with it but for the reason that the Israeli Communist Party was “…the only political framework that gave legitimacy to the expression of Palestinian national sentiments.” (Cohen-Mor 4) The eponymous “Rita” of his poem “Rita and the Gun” is none other than Tamar Ben-Ami, who returns in many other passionate poems he wrote and published during this period. The poem itself has been anthologized multiple times and has been the subject of much scholarly attention− among both Jewish and Arab academics. Some have gone so far as to conclude that the poem is wholly metaphorical and the “Rita” is not Tamar Ben-Ami but someone else. On the contrary, Darwish himself spoke about this relationship in interviews and accepted the actuality of the story as based on true incidents.

There has been factual research on the existence of the woman who featured in the poet’s work. According to a documentary made by Arab-Israeli filmmaker, Ibtisam Mara’ana, titled “Write Down, I Am an Arab (Sajjil ana ‘Arabi)” in which the filmmaker presents on camera for the first time the letters that were written by Darwish to Ben-Ami, and which, at seventy years old, she has still preserved carefully. The relationship itself, the first for the poet as well as for Ben-Ami, who was sixteen when she first met Darwish, had led to much heartache and sorrow for both. It was Darwish who had to suffer a snub first because she wanted to pursue a career in dancing and choreography, and the political circumstances of the country not being of much help, they drifted apart. However, much later, they found an opportunity to meet later when they were in their forties. This time, Ben-Ami’s hopes of a future with him would be dashed as Darwish did not want to revive an old romance. The fact that this early affair with a woman who shared her identity with a side that was responsible for homelessness and violence for many Arabs like him, and which did not end well in spite of his trying to make it work somehow, it is natural to assume that the shadow of this experience would fall on his larger understanding of the relations between the two communities. There is no way its significance can be overstated. Cohen-Mor states,

 Darwish went on to compose love poems about her, disguising her
identity under the pseudonym Rita. Over the years, Rita became a leitmotif
in his poetry, appearing again and again, like a haunting dream or an obsession. Most probably, the primary reason for this lasting effect on them is that it was their first love, a fact that they had both confirmed in interviews. Psychologists have explored the notion of “first” experiences, suggesting that “part of why firsts affect us so powerfully is that they’re seared intoour psyches with a vividness and clarity that don’t fade as other memories do.” (Cohen-Mor 59)

 Recalling a childhood in a village in Palestine along with his first relationship with a Jewish woman from Israel, and the self-defining memories it left in him, made Darwish who he was as a writer. Perhaps knowing the Israeli “Other” in such intimate terms contributed to him being an artist and spokesperson for the struggle against oppression everywhere in the world. Not that his relationship with her was free from tension and a threatening sense of doom. The “Rita” in his poems reappears, and each time divided loyalties prevent the two from having a prolonged moment of serenity. Mostly, it is the poet-speaker who accuses his Israeli lover of betraying his love by joining the Israeli army against Palestinians fighting for freedom. In Journal of an Ordinary Grief (1973), Darwish wrote,

Between sand and water, she said, “I love you.”

And between desire and torture, I said, “I love you.”

And when the officer asked what she was doing here, she answered, “Who
are you? And he said, “And who are you?”

She said, “I’m his sweetheart, you bastard, and I’ve come with him all the
way to the gate of this prison to say goodbye. What do you want with him?”

He said, “You should know that I’m an officer.”

“I too will be an officer next year,” she said.

She brought out her military induction papers. The officer then smiled, and
pulled me away to prison.

The following year, the [1967] war erupted, and I was put in prison again. I
thought of her: “What is she doing now?” 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. Or
perhaps she is in charge of the interrogation and torture of an Arab girl her
age, and as beautiful as she used to be. (Darwish 51-52)

 He imagines Rita enlisting as a soldier for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), helping to incarcerate Arab men or interrogating and torturing a young Arab girl who is “as beautiful as she used to be.” Rita has transitioned from being a lover to taking on the role of his worst enemy. The poet and his beloved, who is also the Other thus become part of the archetypal tragic love story, in the tradition of Romeo-Juliet and Laila-Majnun. They belong to warring social groups who have sworn enmity between them and want the destruction of the opposite camp. In poems like these, Rita is no more a vision of love and solace, bringing with her memories of home, but rather the bane of his existence. There is a conflicting duality to the relationship they share, since both have a common religious ancestor in Abraham and the two share monotheist beliefs, Jewish-Arab relations are marked by strife and discord. The last time Darwish wrote a poem dedicated to her was after their meeting in Paris. It was titled “Rita’s Winter” and it seems to be the moment where he got over his constant longing for a lost period in his life. Meeting Ben-Ami in person for the first time since their estrangement and realizing that his personal life has undergone foundational change, he never came back to her in his writings anymore. Significantly, as Cohen-Mor explained,

 The Rita poems and prose passages reveal a chapter in Darwish’s life that left a lasting emotional mark on him. This unforgettable event in his life—his first experience of romantic love, and an unrequited love at that—became seared in his mind as a self-defining memory with a close linkage to his national identity and the loss of his homeland. (Cohen-Mor 89)

 Psychologists too have affirmed the view that primary experiences play a dominant role in an individual’s perception of reality. Darwish grew and learnt about the culture of Israeli-Jews from his lasting association with the lives of people he met, of which Ben-Ami could be considered vital. But his school teacher who taught him the Hebrew language, and had a profound impact on his understanding of literature as a teenager was also Jewish. The poet always mentioned her with love and admiration in his interviews. Taking the path of dialogue to find a way out of the ongoing conflict, he never demonized the Israeli soldier but attempted to present them as someone who wants to resolve the crisis too.

Finally having found closure in his relationship with Tamar Bin-Ami, Darwish sought the time to compose poetry and made political work his first priority. More than making language and poetry as a kind of home for himself, Darwish believed that there is no greater happiness to a poet than when a reader finds refuge and courage in his words. He reminds us that in Arabic, “Both the poetic verse and the house are said “bayt.” As if a man can reside there.”(Bitton 1997) With a deep commitment to his cause and keeping the spirit of resistance alive through his writing, the poet made the suffering of a minority, who were abandoned by those that shared a common ethnicity with them (since Arabs outside Israel failed to lend their support to the Palestinians), a tragedy for those who stand with the weak across national boundaries. Always considered the voice of the Palestinian people, giving expression to the struggles faced by them, Darwish was expected to write political poems that made the collective proud.

His poetry was chanted in the streets and workers on the field, and although he did not let populist views influence his personal opinion, writing love poems that centered his desire as an individual being, frequently drew criticism from the public. Seeing it from a TCK viewpoint, Darwish’s positionality is unique as someone who grew up in a village facing economic and material hardships, and later traveling to different parts of the world and also living for a long time in capital cities of the First World countries. Most of the TCK writers hail from families who have secure, if not elite, privileged lives in many ways. Simon Gikandi’s theorization on the postcolonial cosmopolitan is of interest here. Keeping in mind that the term “postcolonial” itself is problematic, serving no purpose other than marking historical moments, Gikandi’s conception of the writer-intellectual who although has roots in, what he terms “the rejects of failed states” (Gikandi 23), but find themselves more in common with the global class, and share concerns with the thinker-of-the-world personality fits Mahmoud Darwish well. In his paper “Between Roots and Routes”, Gikandi incidentally mentions Edward Said, Palestinian scholar and close friend of Darwish too when he writes about war and exile:

 For some of the most distinguished thinkers of the modern period, from Hannah Arendt to Edward Said, the characteristic figure of the twentieth century was the refugee and exile. Both represented the underside of modernity and the failure of a discourse of reason and rights. (Gikandi 26-27)

 Said is quoted later to criticize the “radical subjectivity” espoused by someone like Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist who held the belief that being free from questions about state, citizenship, national loyalty was liberatory. (Gikandi 27)Without mincing words, Said had written,

 Is it not true that the views of exile in literature, and moreover, in religion, obscure what is truly horrendous: that exile is irremediably secular and unbearably historical; that it is produced by human beings for other human beings; and that, like death but without death’s ultimate mercy, it has torn millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, family and geography? (qtd by Gikandi 28)

 As pointed out before, questions of class and privilege are at play here in their responses to the reality of exile. While Adorno, the child of a couple among whom one was a successful businessman and the other, a professional singer, opportunities and material comfort in life were a given. Said on the other hand, speaks for the thousands of poor, the displaced who cannot expect to survive if they do not work hard for it. In a short article written when both Said and Darwish were active politically and professionally, the former said about Darwish that his poet friend is read and discussed as much by common Israelis as by Arab readers, and that was a mark of the kind of position he held even among those of the oppressor community. (Said 113)

 Placing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a temporal plane and drawing from history which sees Palestinians as the indigenous population that lived in the land now under Zionist Occupation, the scholar Honaida Ghanim has argued in her incisive research work that “the Palestinian has begun to forsake the dream of the past, which he had envisaged as a return to the intimacy of home.” (Ghanim 78) She quotes Moshe Dayan who said in 1969 to an audience of Technion Institute students:

 Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either: Nahlal arose in the place of Mahalul, Givat in the place of Jipta, Sarid in the place of Haneifs and Kefar Yehoshua in the place of Tel Shama. There is not one place built in this country that didn’t have a former Arab population. (PLO Negotiations Affairs Department) (qtd by Ghanim 83)

 The Arabs who had their homes in the villages of Palestine can no longer refer to an address or location on a geographical map to validate their existence as a equal human beings. If the tangible proof of residence of a section of people is erased, what vestiges of their self-identity remain? Driven to despair and self-destructive violence, the youth of Palestine “…who once dreamed of a free home on earth, had become satisfied with the quiet of heaven.” (Ghanim 89) Deleuze and Guattari underscore how identity and territory or home intertwine, with their story about the little child in the dark singing to himself. (Deleuze 311) The song in the context of Zionist resistance becomes the poetry of Darwish which expresses the desire to return to the land where his family lived and the landscape he wishes to see once more.


Works Cited

Bitton, Simone, Mahmoud Darwish: As the Land Is the Language. Film .Lyons: France 3. 1997.
Deleuze, Gillesand Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.
Ghanim, Honaida. “The Urgency of a New Beginning in Palestine: An Imagined Scenario by Mahmoud Darwish and Hannah Arendt. “College Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1, Arendt, Politics, and Culture (Winter 2011), pp. 75-94.
Auge, Marc, “From places to non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity” pp.75-115, London: Verso. 1995.
Cohen-Mor, Dalya. Mahmoud Darwish: Palestine’s Poet and the Other as the Beloved. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Gikandi, Simon, “Between roots and routes: Cosmopolitanism and the claims of locality”, Rerouting the postcolonial, Routledge, 2010.
Ashcroft, Bill, “Transnation”



 Chanchal Kumar is from Jharkhand and currently lives in Delhi, India. His poems have previously appeared and awarded in The Sunflower Collective, Hamilton Stone Review, Welter Journal, Name and None, Young Poets Network, UK including others. Recently, his poems were translated to Bengali by Harakiri Journal. He is pursuing M.Phil at University of Delhi.


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