A poet for the people

Mahmoud Darwish's death highlights the fragmentation of Palestinian society

After the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat four years ago, it is difficult to think of another Palestinian, other than the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who could have commanded three days of national mourning.

Darwish spoke to the refugee experience: his passionate and sometimes angry expressions of loss and exile echo across the Palestinian diaspora. Six decades after the establishment of Israel, some four million Palestinians still live in mostly makeshift camps across the Middle East.

Darwish, who died aged 67 on 9 August during heart surgery at a hospital in Texas, was buried in Ramallah, close to Arafat's grave. But his final resting place was almost certainly not where he would have chosen it.

As the news of his death broke, his closest surviving family - his mother and three brothers - set up a traditional mourning tent at their home in the village of Judeidi, a few minutes from the coastal city of Acre, in what is today northern Israel. Darwish left Israel in 1971 following years of alternating imprisonment and house arrest. Stripped of his citizenship, he was rarely allowed to see his family.

They are agreed that Darwish's burial in the main West Bank city of Ramallah is politically and symbolically wise. "He isn't just my son, he's the entire Arab world's son," says his 85-year-old mother, Houriya.

Paradoxically, however, his grave will be inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. Ramallah is sealed off by a matrix of Israeli walls, fences, checkpoints and roadblocks. Palestinians in other West Bank cities such as Nablus and Jenin will struggle to visit his grave just as much as Palestinians in exile.

Even Darwish's own family will have great difficulty. Like the other 1.2 million Palestinians living inside Israel, they are banned under Israeli law from entering Palestinian-controlled areas of the occupied territories such as Ramallah.

Would Darwish have preferred to be buried in Judeidi, beside the rest of his family? No, his elder brother Ahmed told me as he received a steady flow of visitors at their home. "He was never a son of Judeidi."

During the 1948 war, the seven-year-old Darwish and his family had been driven from his birthplace, the village of al-Birwa. Birwa has long been forgotten by the rest of the world. Like more than 400 other Palestinian communities, it was destroyed by the Israeli army to prevent its inhabitants from returning to their homes inside the new Jewish state. Judeidi, one of a few dozen surviving Palestinian villages inside Israel, was as close as the Darwishes could get. Today Birwa lies beneath two Jewish farming communities, Yasur and Achihud.

There is little doubt, say his brothers, that Darwish would have chosen to be buried in Birwa, had it been possible. Birwa fired his imagination and its loss inspired much of his poetry.

In an interview last year, he recollected the village as a place of "open spaces, fields and watermelons, olive and almond trees. I remember the horse that was tied to the mulberry tree in the yard and how I climbed on to it and was thrown off and got a beating from my mother . . . I remember the butterflies and the clear feeling that everything was open. The village stood on a hill and everything was spread out below."

Sadly, Darwish's death serves only to highlight the ever-growing fragmentation of Palestinian society, rather than accentuate, like his poems, the common struggle of the Palestinian people.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.