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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > What Did You Do To Them, Ya Mahmoud?


What Did You Do To Them, Ya Mahmoud?

Monday 11 August 2008, by Michel Warshavski

Some of the Israeli Left is so blinded by its own patriotism that it cannot believe a sane person does not identify with it. Another part, less naïve, lies to the Israeli public and sells it a false bill of goods Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away yesterday, was not a modest person. One day I introduced him as the greatest living Palestinian poet and he corrected me "Arab poet", meaning not only that he was a poet of the whole Arab nation and language, but that he was in fact the greatest of all the Arab poets alive. And indeed he was. And not only a great Arab poet, but one of the greatest intellectuals of our time.

The best thing he did in his life was to leave his Homeland, for, in Israel, he was not and never would have been evaluated at his real value. At best, he was patronized by the little dwarfs who claim to be "Israeli intellectuals"; more often, he was called to order when his poetry was not politically correct in Zionist standards.

As an homage to Mahmoud Darwish, and as a pre-emptive reaction to the hypocritical reactions we will read in the Israeli media in the coming weeks, I would like to reproduce an article I wrote twenty years ago about Mahmoud Darwish and the Israeli left-intellectuals.

(This piece originally appeared in the 2000 edition of Mitsad Sheni, the Hebrew language magazine of the Alternative Information Center. Translated to English by the AIC).

Every decade, the Israeli public hears about Mahmoud Darwish and heaps upon him a combination of hatred, ignorance, jealousy and arrogance. In 1987 this was due to his poem Passers Between the Passing Words, which outraged the Left. This year it is the Right that has mobilized against the decision of the Education Minister to add to the curriculum the work of one who is considered to be, following the death of Nizar Kabani, the greatest Arab poet.

What has changed in the past ten years? Firstly, the Oslo Agreements: “the mutual recognition” brought the peace camp to recognize the fact that there are Palestinian poets, considered throughout the world as a precious part of human culture. Secondly, there was a shift in the Israeli elite away from the provinciality that characterized it for the past two generations. Only provincial- educated persons such as Meir Shalev still believe that Rainer Maria Rilkeis represents the ultimate culture worthy of being taught in Israeli schools, and that the place of Andalusian music is in bus stations. These two phenomena resulted in firstly, an increased awareness of Darwish’s poems in Israel, and later the recognition that his creations are an essential component in the education of Israeli girls and boys in the 21st century.

And what has not changed amongst the majority of Israeli liberal intellectuals? The lack of understanding and willingness to understand Darwish and his poems. From Yossi Sarid to Amnon Rubenstein, everyone swears that it is the poetry of Darwish which is worthy of appearing and not his political perspectives, heaven forbid – as if you can separate between the poet and the freedom fighter, between the creation and the person. The poetry of Darwish draws from the Palestinian experience and the fight of his people, it sustains them and is sustained by them. One who has read even a few of his poems knows this, and I recommend to the gang of ignorant Israeli hypocrites that they see the impressive film by Simone Biton, As the Land is the Language, about Mahmoud Darwish and his poetry.

And now, despite the ‘mutual recognition’, not much has changed in the past ten years. The following article, originally published in Matzpen in May 1988, is proof of this.

The publication of the latest poem by Mahmoud Darwish, Passers Between the Passing Words, exposes the weakness of the Israeli left more so than the “hidden positions” of the Palestinian national poet, as claimed by one of his Israeli critics. The poem illuminates in a cruel light the positions of the various people on the left, in the field of poetry no less than in the field of politics.

About Poetry…

The poem by Darwish highlights an interesting revolution in the field of poetry and literary criticism in Israel: the followers of freedom of art and poetry suddenly(!) became students of Zhdanov, and they criticized the rhymes of the poet as if it was a political manifesto; the “line” of Darwish, as expressed in the poem, is not to their liking. In the eyes of Amos Keinan and his friends, an artistic creation must have a defined political position, as was advocated by the realist school of socialism in the darkest days of Stalin. On the other side, suddenly students of Stalin discovered the freedom of art and the fact, as noted by the editor of Zo Haderech Tamar Gozansky, that “a poem is not a political manifesto, nor a plan for negotiations or an international conference.” In another instance the Israeli communist party magazine, Gershon Kanispal, emphasizes in bold type: “No! A poem is not an editorial in a newspaper.”

What a revolution! Those who praised Zhdanov and saw socialist realism as the height of art and the highest authority in art criticism, now praise the “the foundation of poetic exaggeration”, the emotional flowery phrases and the unrealistic generalization.” It is difficult to free oneself completely from what has been learned and passed on for many years, and Shula Hanin, in the same edition of Zo Haderech, returns to the former version: “It is forbidden not to be clear now! All those for a just solution and a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel…need poems as bright and clear as the sun, and not ‘foggy’ poems, which will not only not serve the cause but bring us backwards.”

And on Politics…

We would not devote a column in Matzpen to the literary criticisms of Gozansky and Hanin, and even of Amos Keinan, unless these criticisms exposed their pathetic political understandings. The Israeli left is proud of its Israeli patriotism, and promotes a solution based on a Palestinian state side by side with the State of Israel. This is certainly their right. However, to cater to Israeli public opinion, they put in the mouths of various Palestinian speakers their own positions and opinions; in the end they convince even themselves that a majority of the Palestinian leaders are Zionists, or at least fans of Israeli patriotism.

Some of the Israeli left is so blinded by its own patriotism that it cannot believe a sane person does not identify with it. Another part, less naïve, lies to the Israeli public and sells it a false bill of goods. Yet both of them, the naïve and the crook, deceive the Israeli public and in their success lies their failure.

The naïve angrily chide the poet: “If this is how you think, I will stop being your friend,” while running to hide with his enemies-friends from the Israeli right, vowing to never believe the Arabs again. The less naïve is also angry that the Palestinian did not play the game attributed to him in the best of the socialist-chauvinistic tradition of the Israeli left, without asking the Palestinian of his opinion at all. What did Tova Hanin write? “A man (Darwish) with opinions such as his has an obligation toward us, those who want peace, and he cannot get away from this…Darwish’s poem was for many of them (writers and artists who want peace) a slap in the face, and all the justifications and explanations will not help….All those for a Palestinian state, side by side with the State of Israel, need poems as bright and clear as the sun…” (Zo Haderech, 6.4.88).

The poet has no ‘poetic license’, the Palestinian has no freedom to decide what he wants, and the poet who is a Palestinian has no right to express his pain. The Israeli left will decide what he is to write, to think, to feel and for which solution to advocate.

What did you do to them, ya Mahmoud? How could you have written what gets in the way of their work? If you did not know, you are a poet on behalf of, but not on behalf of the Palestinian national struggle - on behalf of the Israeli peace camp, and primarily on behalf of the Israeli thinkers, artists and writers who will arrange a state for you, on the condition that you are patient, and put a muzzle on your mouth and your heart, as you refused to salute the Israeli communist party before you were exiled from your homeland – for this is indeed your homeland, and if you insist on expressing the rage of your people and their longing for the homeland, for all the homeland, and if you continue to argue with the vast majority of your people that perhaps you will agree to a Palestinian state next to Israel, but that you will never reconcile yourself with the dispossession of your people from even one inch of the land of Palestine, you will see that the phrase “them”, which appears in your last poem with the Palestinian “we”, will include the large majority of your Israeli friends. They are your friends when you are weak and defeated, and they are your mortal enemies when you are a proud Palestinian who does not hide his aspirations and the legitimate aspirations of your people.

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