The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

Remains in Imwas, al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian homes in al-Ramle today (photo by James Morris, That Still Remains)

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Refugee’

I was ten years old when a small branch library opened in the Cheshire village where I grew up.  Week after week I devoured novels, many of them beyond my childish comprehension.  One of the books that did made a powerful impression on me that year was Exodus by Leon Uris.

Published in 1958, Exodus was a hugely influential book, and  I was one of those who were deeply affected by the romance of its story of Jews fleeing from post-Holocaust Europe and struggling to establish a new homeland against tremendous odds. However, as I learned more about the origins of the state of  Israel and watched as the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified I discovered that Exodus was little more than duplicitous propaganda.

In Exodus, the story of 1948 is exclusively one of the heroic establishment of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. There is no sense of the corresponding catastrophe of uprooting and exile that Palestinian Arabs came to call the Nakba. Writing last year in Jewish Journal, Alan Elsner found re-reading Exodus a disquieting experience:

When I first read the book at age 16, I responded to it mainly with my heart — whereas now I read it mostly with my head. Then, I fell in love with Uris’ Israel, which was populated by healthy, strong, lusty young men and women, the latter invariably described as ‘high-breasted’, which was thrilling in itself at that point in my development. They spent their days wearing blue shirts and short pants, working the land and fighting off Arab marauders, and their nights dancing the hora and making love while murmuring verses from the Song of Songs.

‘There was an aggressiveness and pride about them … and they were always filled with the songs and dances and ideals of the redemption of the homeland … These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ehphraim. These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls,’ Uris breathlessly tells us.

Uris’ Israel is very much the Israel of Labour Zionism and the kibbutz and moshav (agricultural co-op) movements. He buys into the concept of the ‘new Jew’ – the independent fighter so unlike the weak Jews of the Diaspora who had been left defenceless against the Nazis. Ari Ben Canaan himself is a ‘strapping six-footer with black hair and ice blue eyes who could be mistaken for a movie leading man. He doesn’t act like any Jew I’ve ever met. You don’t particularly think of them as fighters,’ one British character says.

The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word ‘Arab’ rarely appears without the adjective ‘dirty’ or ‘stinking’ appended. Two examples: ‘Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars … filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere.’ ‘How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children.’

Like many others, I have made a long journey from Leon Uris’s racist fairytale in my understanding of the Israel – Palestinian question, a journey whose way-stations have been events on the ground such as the occupation and illegal settlement of the West Bank and the indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza, but also films and books which have documented the origins of the state of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and land.

Palestinian Walks, Raja ShehadehI recall 5 Broken Cameras, a superb documentary shot entirely in and around a Palestinian village near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian WalksRaja Shehadeh’s brilliant amalgam of a walker’s lyrical account of the landscape he loves and of the unfolding political tragedy of occupation that has transformed the landscape, making him and many other Palestinians exiles in their own country. Both film and book share a similar approach to the subject of the Israeli occupation but approach the issue at a tangent. Raja Shehadeh comes at it by way of seven walks through the landscape he loves; for Emad Burnat in the film it’s watching how his youngest son Gibreel, born in 2005, is shaped by growing up in a village in the occupied territories while the Israeli Army builds a section of the Security Wall between their village and a nearby Jewish settlement. In both book and film, Palestinians reveal their profound emotions for the land that has sustained them for generations.

Perhaps the most remarkable novel published after the 1948 ‘War of Independence’ aka Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, was written by an Israeli. Khirbet Khizeh (The Ruins of Hizeh), published in 1949, tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land in 1948. The book was published under the nom-de-plume S. Yizhar, who was actually Yizhar Smilansky, an an intelligence officer in the Israeli army.

Sabbagh Palestine coverTwo more books have made a deep impression on me. In Palestine: A Personal History, Karl Sabbagh combined his own family story with a historical outline of the Palestinian case against the Zionist project. While Sabbagh’s mother was English, his father was Palestinian, the descendent of a long line of Christian Arabs whose history he traces in the book as far back as the 18th century, when Palestine was an Ottoman province and his ancestor Ibrahim served at the Ottoman provincial court. Sabbagh wants to demonstrate the continuity and richness of the Palestinian Arab presence, both Christian and Muslim, in the region, and reject the Zionist assertion of  title to ‘a land without people for a people without land’.

The book is humane, compelling and meticulously written using both Jewish and Israeli sources. At the outset, Sabbagh writes ironically, ‘I am the son of a Palestinian father, but… I am not poor, unshaven or a speaker of broken English. I do not know how to use a gun or manufacture a bomb. I have little to do with camels, sand or palm trees. But I both sympathise and identify with the Palestinian people.’

 

City of Oranges cover

Adam LeBor’s City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa covers similar ground. Through the stories of six families – three Arab and three Jewish – LeBor tells the story of the ancient city of Jaffa, for centuries the main port of the eastern Mediterranean, home to Muslims, Christians and Jews, famed for the produce of its orange groves.

LeBor begins his narrative in 1920, when the British took over the administration of the city under the Mandate. He traces Jaffa’s transformation from the second city of Palestine to a crumbling, semi-derelict and neglected suburb of the Israeli capital, and then its revival during the last two decades as an artist’s colony and a possible model of Arab-Jewish co-existence. LeBor draws upon hours of interviews with several generations of Jaffa families, on memoirs, letters and personal archives to tell the story of six families, three Arab, three Jewish.  In the process he illuminates the underlying complexity of the makeup of modern Israel, by telling the story from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic perspectives, as well as from Christian Arab and Muslim points of view. Through the eyes of these families LeBor builds as picture how the founding of the state of Israel was simultaneously a moment of jubilation for the Jews, and a disaster for the 100,000 Arabs who fled Jaffa in 1948, most of them never to return.

Reviewing City of Oranges for the Guardian, Mark Cocker noted why, apart from common humanity, British citizens should have a particular interest in supporting progress towards a just settlement of the Palestinian question:

It is salutary to reflect that the 75 years of political strife, civil conflict and outright war that LeBor covers in his book were the result of a promise made by a British politician, Arthur Balfour, former Conservative prime minister, to the then leader of the Jews in London, Lord Rothschild. Known as the Balfour declaration, these 69 words of contradictory obfuscation offered the same land to two different peoples, and was the very moment that the dark genie of Arab-Jewish conflict was released from its bottle. A British administration then presided over the ensuing troubles for 30 years until they abandoned it, exhausted and baffled that the peoples of Palestine had not thanked them for the confusion and injustice. Not least for these reasons it is important that Britons remain morally engaged with the fate of the region. A good place to start would be to read Adam LeBor’s excellent and courageous book.

Lemon Tree coverThis brings me to the most recent book that I have read about this seemingly intractable conflict.  Highly recommended by several friends, Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree was published in 2006. Tolan is an experienced American journalist and his book is a meticulously-researched work of intelligent journalism. What he has attempted in The Lemon Tree – and has largely succeeded in achieving – is to  present an accurate history of the Palestine-Israel conflict through the true story of a Palestinian family driven from their ancestral home in the town of al-Ramla in 1948 by the Palmach, the elite Israeli fighting force, following an order from Yitzhak Rabin, (decades later to be awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his  role in the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority and granted it partial control over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank before being assassinated a year later by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords).

Tolan’s good fortune was not only to find a dispossessed Palestinian family, but also to discover the story of how, in 1967 following the Six-Day War which had overnight made him a citizen of the newly-occupied territory on the West Bank, Bashir Al-Khairi returned with two cousins to his childhood home, lived in since 1948 by the Eshkenazis, Jewish refugees from Bulgaria. There they were met by Dalia Eshkenazi who welcomed them into the old family home, an encounter that is the starting point for Tolan’s story of a relationship forged against the odds between two families, one Arab, one Jewish, and specifically between Dalia and Bashir, two individuals with very different perspectives on the conflict.

Refugees being removed from Ramla in 1948

Refugees being removed from al-Ramla in 1948

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the origins and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In a balanced, even-handed narrative Sandy Tolan weaves the stories of Israeli Dalia Eshkenazi and Palestinian Bashir Khariri into a readable history of the conflict. Bashir’s father, Ahmad, was the scion of a prominent Arab family.  In 1936 he had built a home from cream ‘Jerusalem stone’ in the ancient town of al-Ramla:

Before long, Ahmad would turn his attention to the garden.  In the corner of the yard behind the house, he had chosen a spot for a lemon tree.  Once the tree was in the soil, Ahmad knew it would be at least seven years, and probably more, before the strong Palestinian sun and sweet waters of the al-Ramla aquifer would nurture the tree to maturity. The act of planting was thus an act of faith and patience.

But, in July 1948, when Bashir was six years old, the Khariri family were amongst the thousands of Palestinians forced to flee from their homes in al-Ramla as war erupted between the Arab and Jewish populations  of Palestine in response to the UN Partition Plan to divide Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. On 15 May 1948 the civil war transformed into a regional conflict between Israel and the Arab states when a combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan and Syria entered Palestine and took control of over half of the area allocated for the proposed Arab state,  including the Jaffa, Lydda and the al-Ramla area:

At home the Khairis … and the rest of the people of al-Ramla had left behind their couches and tables, rugs, libraries, framed family pictures, and their blankets, dishes and cups.  They left their fezzes and gallabiyas, balloon pants, spare keffiyehs, sashes, and belts.  They left their spices for maklouheh, grape leaves in brine, and the flour for the dough of their date pastries.  They left their fields of wild peas and jasmine, passiflora and dried scarlet anemone, mountain lilies that grew between the barley and the wheat.  They left their olives and oranges, lemons and apricots, spinach and okra and peppers.  They left their silk and linen, silver bracelets and chokers, amber, coral, and necklaces with Austrian coins.  They left their pottery and soaps, leather and oils, Swedish ovens and copper pots, and drinking goblets from Bohemia.  They left their silver trays filled with sugared almonds and sweet dried chickpeas; their dolls, made with glued-together wood chips; their sumac; their indigo.

The people of al-Ramla were among around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from the area that became Israel and became Palestinian refugees. On 15 July 1948, notes Tolan, while the families from al-Ramla and Lydda were trudging through the hills in blazing heat, David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish leader, wrote in his diary:

The Arab Legion has wired that there are 30,000 refugees moving along the road between Lydda and Ramla, who are infuriated with the Legion.  They’re demanding bread.  They should be taken across the Jordan River’.

In other words, removed from Palestine to the Kingdom of Jordan – ethnically cleansed if you will. In mid-July, the Khairis arrived in Ramallah, along with thousands of other refugees.  Ramallah ‘had been transformed from a quiet Christian hill town in northern Palestine to a depository of misery and trauma’, writes Tolan.  This was where the family would remain, and where Bashir would grow up, eventually training to be a lawyer.

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Meanwhile, in the three years following the war, about 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel – one third of them having fled, or having been expelled, from countries in the Middle East, while others came from the countries of Europe ravaged by the Holocaust.  Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi were Bulgarian Jews who moved to Israel in the autumn of 1948 – beneficiaries of an emigration scheme agreed between the Bulgarian government and the Jewish Agency. (The story Tolan tells of how the Bulgarian Jews survived the war in a country allied to Nazi Germany only because of the decency of a handful of Gentiles forms one of the most interesting chapters of his book, and was certainly a revelation to me.)

On 14 November 1948, Moshe and Solia were among a busload of immigrants (mostly Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians and Poles) who arrived in al-Ramla:

They were greeted by a representative of the Jewish Agency. … It was a simple procedure, immigrants would recall; they were free to enter a house, inspect it, and claim it.  The paperwork would come later.  Moshe and Solia came upon a house to their liking.  It was in good shape and virtually empty, though not brand-new.  Clearly, someone had lived there before.  It was a stone house with an open layout and plenty of space. … In the yard in back there was a lemon tree.

So the empty Khariri house became the Eshkenazi ‘s new home, and the house where Dalia grew up:

In a black and white photograph taken in the backyard of the stone house in Ramla, Dalia stands beside a lemon tree, looking into the camera with tears in her eyes.  The image was taken in the summer, perhaps of 1950; Dalia would have been two and a half.  She’d been crying briefly, offended by the sparrows who had chosen to fly away rather than stay and eat bread crumbs out of her hand.  ‘Why should they fly?’ she cried to her aunt. ‘Why? I love them.’ It is her earliest memory.

In another passage we get a glimpse of the settlers from eastern Europe easing into their new life:

In the evenings, Moshe and Solia would invite Bulgarian friends for gatherings in the backyard.  They laid out plates of black olives, watermelon and Bulgarian chees, pouring glasses of boza, a sweet Balkan drink made from wheat.  They’d talk of news from Bulgaria, and Dalia would hear them telling off-colour jokes in Ladino, the fading language of earlier generations that she could understand only slightly.

It is important to note, when reading passages such as these, with their fictionalised tone, that Tolan has been meticulous in ensuring that everything in the book, down to the smallest detail, is fact, gained from the journalist’s tools – interviews, archival documents, published and unpublished memoirs and diaries, newspaper clippings, and primary historical accounts.  ‘I have not taken liberties with the history, no matter how minor’, he writes.  ‘At no point do I imagine what probably happened, for example at a family event in 1936 and state it as fact; nor at any moment do I describe what someone was thinking unless those thoughts are based on a specific recounting in a memoir or interview’.

So, when we read a passage such as this, in which Tolan describes Dalia’s growing awareness – and confusion – about the place where she has been born, we can sense the truth of how a generation of young Israeli’s came to see their place in the world:

Growing up, Dalia would frequently ask her parents and teachers: ‘What are these houses we are living in?’

‘These are Arab houses,’ she was told. ‘What are these Arab houses that everyone talks about?’ she would reply.

Dalia’s school was in an Arab house, and there she would learn Israel’s history. She learned about the creation of the state of Israel as a safe haven for the Jews. She studied the War of Independence as the story of the few against the many. The Arabs had invaded, Dalia would read, in order to destroy the new state and throw the Jews into the sea. Most nations confronted with such hostilities would have been paralyzed, but tiny Israel had withstood five Arab armies. Little David had defeated Goliath. As for the Arabs, Dalia’s text-books would report that they ran away, deserting their lands and abandoning their homes, fleeing before the conquering Israeli army. The Arabs, one textbook of the day declared, ‘preferred to leave’ once  the Jews had taken their towns. Dalia accepted the history she was taught. Still, she was confused. Why, she wondered, would anyone leave so willingly?

One afternoon when she was about seven or eight years old, Dalia climbed up the black metal gate that Ahmad Khairi had placed at the end of the stone path in the front yard. Atop the gate perched a delicate piece of wrought iron in the shape of a star and crescent: the symbol of Islam. It bothered Dalia. ‘This is not an Arab house,’ she said to herself, and she grasped the delicate crescent and began wrenching it back and forth, back and forth, until it came loose in her hands. She clambered down and threw the crescent away.

Tolan sets the story of his two families against the background of the history of the conflict, told in the clearest way. Every statement is supported by references, not in footnotes in the text itself, but in a 70-page appendix and extensive bibliography which together constitute a quarter of the book.  Tolan skilfully shows how Dalia and Bashir are both swept up in the fates of their people, and reveals their lives as a personal microcosm of more than half a century of Israeli-Palestinian history.

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi, 2011

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi in 2011

Meanwhile, the Khairis had lived as exiles in their own land – first in Ramallah, then in Gaza, and finally returning to Ramallah when Bashir was fifteen years old.  In the early 1960s, in Cairo studying law, Bashir had become deeply involved in activist politics, and particularly with the Arab Nationalist Movement led by George Habash, himself a refugee from Lydda who had been among the refugees who had walked in the heat through the hills to Ramallah in July 1948.

In  June 1967, Bashir was practising law in Ramallah when news came of  Israel’s surprise attack on Egyptian airfields following a period of rising tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours.  When the Six Day War was over, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank meant, paradoxically, that it was now easier for Palestinians exiled in 1948 to visit their old homeland.  That is how Bashir and his cousins found themselves in al-Ramla in the summer of 1967, ringing the doorbell of the house where Bashir had lived as a child. ‘Come in, feel at home,’ said Dalia:

It was a universal welcome – Make yourself at home; Mi casa es su casa; Ahlan wa-sahlan; Baruch habah – yet these particular words seemed especially strange to Bashir as he approached the front door: Feel at home.

Life cover 23 June 1967

As the cousins are shown around the house they see the bedroom that is now Dalia’s but was once Bashir’s. On the wall above her bed Dalia has tacked a poster of an Israeli soldier celebrating in the Suez Canal after the overwhelming Israeli victory in the Six Days War of 1967. For Israelis the image stood for liberation and survival, but standing with Bashir in the doorway to the bedroom, Dalia suddenly realises, for the first time, that Bashir might see the poster differently. In his childhood home, in the lemon tree his father planted in the backyard, Bashir sees dispossession and exile; Dalia, who arrived as an infant in 1948 with her family from Bulgaria, sees hope for a people devastated by the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, from this unpromising encounter a long friendship develops, even though Bashir becomes a senior member of the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and is charged with being  involved in the bombing of a supermarket in Jerusalem  in 1969.  Bashir spends two decades in a total of 17 Israeli prisons, detained after hearings in closed Israeli military courts on suspicion of links to acts of terror carried out by the PFLP, and for helping to organize the first intifada. Bashir remains committed to a programme of resistance to gain for dispossessed Palestinians the right to return to their homeland.

Despite Bashir’s circumstances and politics, Dalia maintains a friendship with the Palestinian, and begins to understand Bashir’s grievances about his family’s lost home. In 1991, she donates the house as a kindergarten for Arab children in al-Ramla and as a peace and educational centre called Open House which is still operating today.

Writing in the Huffington Post in 2008, following publication of The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan commented on the central place of 1948 in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. ‘In Exodus,’ he wrote, ‘ the story of 1948 is exclusively about the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Arabs are alternately portrayed as malicious or pathetic’.  But for Palestinians, 1948 was the Nakba, or Catastrophe, a story not of survival and re-birth, but dispossession and loss:

The Nakba remains little known in the West, despite the rivers of ink and forests of newsprint that have chronicled the last six decades of struggle between the two peoples. Yet it is as central to Palestinian identity as the Holocaust is to the identity of Israel.

Seen through a Palestinian lens, the creation of Israel, sanctioned by the United Nations vote, in November 1947, to partition Palestine into two states – one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews – was not ‘western civilization’s gesture of repentance for the Holocaust,’ as the historian Michael J. Cohen has written. Rather, Palestinians saw themselves as ‘the indigenous majority on its ancestral soil,’ as the Harvard scholar Walid Khalidi has noted, and therefore ‘failed understand why they should be made to pay for the Holocaust.’ Neither did they grasp why the Jewish side, with one third the population, should be awarded 54 percent of Palestine and more than 80 percent of its cultivated citrus and grain plantations. This helps explain why the Arabs of Palestine, in peace talks five and six decades later, would fail to see Israeli concessions as ‘generous’: From their perspective, they lost 78 percent of their land to Israel in the 1948 war, and are ill-inclined to make further compromise on the 22 percent that remains.

Curiously, although Tolan’s book takes as its focus 1948 and the story of one house that changed hands in that year, I gained a greater sense from his historical account of the greater significance, not of the Holocaust, but of Zionism as being fundamental to understanding Israeli justifications for policies of territorial conquest and occupation.  A liberal delicacy often surrounds the question of Israel, rooted quite naturally in the idea of the state as a refuge for Jews who had survived the Holocaust in Europe. But the historical background sketched in by Tolan (or contained in many other histories) confirms the origins of the problem: the Zionist dream of Jewish homeland, a religious state in which Jews would be a majority in their own nation in a territory closely approximating the historical Eretz Yisrael.  With its roots in 19th century Europe, and gathering pace following the British acceptance of ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ in the  1917 Balfour Declaration, the Zionist project clearly pre-dates the Holocaust.  The Zionist belief that the settlers were returning to a ‘land without people for a people without land’ soon provoked the first stirrings of nationalism among the Palestinian Arab population.

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramla today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

The house and the lemon tree.  However the history is interpreted, the evidence is plain: in 1948 some 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.  Although they maintain their friendship and shared commitment to the Open House, Bashir and Dalia cannot come to any kind of agreement about the ‘right of return’: in other words, the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel and have access to their stolen property. Dalia can understand the right to return as a recognition of a past injustice, but for her it can never be, practically speaking, put into place because of the suffering it would cause Israelis and its implication for the state of Israel. For Bashir, return is simply everything he has believed in and worked towards.

In the most recent encounter between Bashir and Dalia that Tolan records in his book, in 2006 Dalia travels the short distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah, through military checkpoints and in the shadow of the Wall – the ‘security barrier’ that in the previous four years has been constructed to separate the West Bank from the rest of Israel. When the pair meet their differences are revealed in a passage in which Dalia urges Bashir to recognise the value of negotiation and compromise, exemplified by the peace process established under the Oslo Accords of 1993-5:

Bashir leaned forward.  ‘For Palestinians it didn’t change the daily life.  It went from bad to worse.  I didn’t go back to al-Ramla.  We don’t have our independent state, and we don’t have our freedom. We are still refugees moving from one place to another place to another place to another place, and every day Israel is committing crimes.  I can’t even be on the board of Open House.  Because I’m Palestinian, not Israeli.  If somebody comes yesterday from Ethiopia but he’s Jewish, he will have all the rights, when I’m the one who has the history in al-Ramla.  But for them I’m a stranger.’

Dalia’s arms were folded tightly across her chest.  She unfolded them and took a breath.

‘Bashir.  Maybe I have no right to say what I’m going to say.  We need to make sacrifices if both of us are to live here. We need to make sacrifices.  And I know it’s not fair for me to say that.  I know. I mean, you cannot live in your house in Ramla.  I know it’s not fair.  But I think we need to strengthen these people who are willing to make some compromise. Like Rabin, who paid with his life. … By not accepting the state of Israel or by not accepting the state of Palestine, I think none of us has a real life here.  Israelis don’t have a real life here, either.  But if you’re not okay, we’re not okay.  And if we’re not okay, you’re not okay.

Now in his seventies, Bashir Khairi continues to live in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, barred from the country of his birth.  Jerusalem is only 10 miles from Ramallah  but given Bashir’s circumstances it might as well be Timbuktu.  I tried to find how the relationship between Bashir and Dalia has evolved since the publication of The Lemon Tree, but there isn’t much to go on.  This is Dalia, quoted in ‘Enemy at the door‘, an article on the Sofia Echo website, in 2011:

The last time I saw Bashir was with Sandy Tolan in about 2006. He can’t come to Israel; he doesn’t have a permit because he was allegedly involved in an act of terror (a supermarket bombing) in 1969.

Has he ever admitted his crime?

I don’t know what he admitted or didn’t admit in court because it was behind closed doors. I have confronted him with this and he has never said that he did NOT do this. He just said ‘why do you call these people terrorists? They are freedom fighters’, so what do you understand from this?

But he’s still your friend and that’s how you see him?

I see him as something that grows from the same earth, from the same hole, in a way somehow part of my fate, shall we say, like family. It’s a very strong connection, to know that you’ve been living in someone else’s house.

That same year, Bashir Khairi was quoted by Noozhawk columnist Karen Telleen-Lawton in ‘Sustainable Peace and The Lemon Tree’:

She has an extraordinary conscience. She offered me back the house because it released her conscience from having a house belonging to someone else.

‘Dalia was willing to sell and give me money, or rent and give me rent,’ he said. ‘My reaction was that the house represented Palestine and Palestine was not for sale or rent. I suggested this house go for Arab children and be called ‘Dalia Kindergarten for Arab Children’ to appreciate and mark her high-class humanitarian position.’

Dalia supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This is the official U.S. position despite the Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza that put to question its feasibility. Khairi disagrees.

‘I still back a one-state democracy for both, with everyone having the same rights and duties,’ he told us. ‘I believe this is the best guarantee for future peace living together. Palestinian land is available for all — Christians, Muslims, Jews — all can live here. We have previously. Thoughts that we can’t live together on one land — this is a short-sighted vision that doesn’t serve peace.’

For me, too, one state seems the solution. Though it might appear as much pie in the sky as a democratic South Africa with a black president would have seemed 40 or 50 years ago, I have believed it to be the only outcome that guarantees any justice and security since reading the late Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.  This week  the House of Commons voted overwhelming in favour of recognition for the state of Palestine.  But how can there be a viable Palestinian state when Israel refuses to relinquish control of the occupied territories where illegal Jewish settlements continue to spread?  Surely there is a matter of principle here?  When the world demanded the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, there was no suggestion that a just outcome would be white control of the greater part of the territory while granting black South Africans independence in the bantustans or homelands. Like Bashir, I believe that only a single secular, democratic state will guarantee peace and justice for all.

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, Ramla (httpborisfenus.blogspot.com)

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, al-Ramla (photo: borisfenus.blogspot.com)

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth…will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks..
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father.. descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!

Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Therefore!
Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware ! Beware ! Beware !
Of my hunger
And my anger!

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Identity Card’ (1964)

See also

Palestinian Walks: the extraordinary patience of things

Palestinian Walks: the extraordinary patience of things

‘such a beautiful, spoiled country’

I’ve only just got round to reading Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, even though it’s been in the house for three or four years.  I had been reminded of Raja Shehadeh’s book while reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, in which MacFarlane writes of joining Shehadeh, an old friend and walking companion, for the first time on a walk near Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.

Shehadeh’s book was first published in the UK in 2007, and I should have read it much sooner.  It’s a brilliant amalgam of a walker’s lyrical account of the landscape he loves and of the unfolding political tragedy of occupation that has transformed the landscape, making him and many other Palestinians exiles in their own country.  Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer, novelist and political activist who has lived on the West Bank since his family fled Jaffa in 1948. He is a founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, and in 2008 was awarded the Orwell prize for political writing for Palestinian Walks.

For decades, as a temporary escape from the stress and disappointments of legal appeals against Israeli orders expropriating Palestinian land for Jewish settlements, Raja has found comfort in walking, following what in Arab culture is called sarha – meaning to roam  freely, at will, without restraint: to go where the spirit  takes you. In Palestinian Walks he invites the reader to accompany him on six walks that span a period of twenty six years. Walking through the undulating hills and wadis of the West Bank, Shehadeh evocatively describes the natural beauty of his homeland: valleys where, after spring rains, wildflowers bloom in profusion with cyclamen, thyme, poppies and asphodels. As he wanders, Shehadeh passes olive groves and fruit trees, encounters gazelles and goats.

As he walks, Shehadeh meditates on Palestine’s history and political struggles, and his growing sense of disappointment and disillusionment with the Palestinian leadership after the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, which he sees in legal terms as a key strategic error that opened the way to the process which has transformed the landscape he loves – and the fate of his people, as one West Bank hilltop after another is claimed by the Israeli authorities and yet more settlements are established, the familiar view changes beyond recognition.

So Palestinian Walks is an elegy for a vanishing landscape. The beautiful hills, rivers and sacred springs, and the landmarks familiar to him from childhood are being concreted over, torn apart by new highways that connect the settlements that rise on the hilltops.  The Dead Sea recedes a metre every year as a consequence of Israel’s diversion of the river Jordan.  Along with his compatriots, Shehadeh experiences everyday humiliations and harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers – and, for him much worse, many of the paths through the wadis can no longer be walked, out of bounds to a Palestinian.

This is how Raja Shehadeh introduces his account:

As a child I used to hear how my grandfather, Judge Saleem, liked nothing more than coming to Ramallah in the hot summer and going on a sarha with his cousin, Abu Ameen, leaving behind the humid coastal city of Jaffa and the stultifying colonial administration which he served and whose politics he detested. It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear  for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn’t have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha.
Going on a sarha implies letting go. It is a drug-free high, Palestinian-style.

His book concludes on a shared high – a drug-induced one – in an account of a walk entitled ‘An Imagined Sarha‘. You wonder, as you read, whether this walk actually happened, or whether his narrative is a metaphor for Shehadeh’s mixture of hope and despair for the future. On this last journey he encounters a young Jewish settler – a man with ‘kind, intelligent eyes’ and a ‘soft, kind voice …almost apologetic, most untypical of an Israeli’ – a man who, like Shehadeh, had grown up and spent his life in the very same hills. The man performs a small act of kindness, and, unwillingly at first, Shehadeh falls into conversation with him.

“You are aware, I hope, that your presence here means perpetual war.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ve taken our land and refuse to even recognize the fact.”

“Let’s say we give it back: What guarantee would we have that you won’t ask to get back Jaffa and Haifa?”

“What about international law?”

“It’s for the weak.”

“It’s a marker of a better, more civilized world.”

“I went to the army for three years. I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will just have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence.”

“Independence from whom?”

“The British.”

“But they came to take our country from us and give it to you. Haven’t you read the terms of the Mandate?”

“They restricted us. They wouldn’t allow the immigrants to come. They wanted us to have only a tiny piece of the country. Israel would not have been a viable state. We had to get rid of them to run our own affairs, to be able to welcome here any Jew from anywhere in the world without anyone telling us not to.”

“Will you pay compensation for the properties you took in ’48?”

“If you pay for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen.”

“What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen? Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I’m concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases.”

“They’re Arab, aren’t they?”

“You’re just repeating what you’ve been told. If you just think about what you’re saying you’d realize how ludicrous it is. Let’s say we accept that you keep your settlements, would you be willing to be confined to the built up areas?”

“You want to turn us into ghettos in our own land. We’ve been through that in Europe. Never again.”

“Then if you want to expand over the entire land will you allow us to buy or rent in your settlements?”

“No. These are areas for Jews.”

“Let us assume that your settlements are built on what you call public not private land. What people would agree to have areas of their country carved out and given to members of another nation and not even be allowed to share the land?”

“But you’re not a nation. You never had your own government.”

“Are you going to repeat the famous position of Golda Meir, that we Palestinians do not exist?”

“No. I didn’t say that. I know you exist. I can see you standing before me. And I know you are not Israeli. You exist, sure enough. But you don’t have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel.”

“And you did?”

“Yes, we had a kingdom right here in Judea.”

“That was more than three thousand years ago.”

“So?”

“So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?”

“It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It’s the only country we’ve got. And you want us to give it up?”

“You want the whole of the land to yourself and you’re not even ready to share it. Don’t you think this is discriminatory?”

“What’s discriminatory about it? What’s wrong with what we’re doing? You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas.”

“I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came. I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete.”

“And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for every thing, don’t you? But it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We’ve long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here.”

There was little to say after this. But I made one last effort to alert him to what was being done to the land by those who claimed to love it. I said:

“The way it’s going we’ll end up with a land that is crisscrossed with roads. I have a vision of all of us going around and around in circles. Whether we call it Israel or Palestine, this land will become one big concrete maze.”

The book concludes with the two men smoking together, sharing the young settler’s water-pipe:

All the tension of the times, the worry about going through area C, the likely prospect of encountering soldiers or settlers, or getting shot at or lost, was evaporating. With every new draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it.

This young man was an artist at preparing a good nergila, I thought. He had talent.

“What’s in this?” I asked.

“It’s hashish that has been opiated.”

I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land. Shots could be heard in the distance, which made us both shiver. “Yours or ours?” I asked. But how could we tell? We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks.

Raja Shehadeh, left, with a Palestinian farmer on a hillside overlooking Ramallah, West Bank.
The six preceding chapters of Shehadeh’s book do more than describe the landscape through which he walks; each walk takes place at a different stage of the recent history of the Palestinian people and maps his changing mood.  At first he describes his attempts as an idealistic lawyer to uphold legitimate Palestinian claims to land, but as case after case is decided against his clients, he becomes increasingly angry, embittered and disillusioned.  Where once he was pleased the Israeli authorities were designating certain areas as nature reserves, he changes his mind when those areas were closed to Palestinians after the Oslo self-rule agreement in 1993 – a catastrophic error in his judgement, resulting in a doubling of the number of Jewish settlements since then. He sees raw sewage from the settlements pouring untreated onto the land of Palestinian farmers. He recognises the psychological damage ordinary people are suffering, and admits to his own ‘internalised defeat’ as the idealism of resistance gives way to a sense of helplessness (as much in the face of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority as the injustices of the Israeli occupation).  Above all, he begins to sense that the changes he is observing are irreversible: he quotes Ariel Sharon in 1980, then Israel’s defence minister, as promising ‘a new map of the country’.

When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was travelling through a vanishing landscape. For centuries the central highland hills of Palestine, which slope on one side towards the sea and on the other towards the desert, had remained relatively unchanged. As I grew up in Ramallah, the land from my city to the northern city of Nablus might, with a small stretch of the imagination, have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ. Those hills were, I believe, one of the natural treasures of the world.

All my life I have lived in houses that overlook the Ramallah hills. I have related to them like my own private backyard, whether for walks, picnics or flower-picking expeditions. I have watched their changing colours during the day and over the seasons as well as during an unending sequence of wars. I have always loved hill walking, whether in  Palestine, the Swiss Alps or the Highlands and outlying islands of Scotland, where it was a particular joy to ramble without fear of harassment and the distracting awareness of imminent political and physical disasters.

I began taking long walks in Palestine in the late 1970s. This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place. The hills then were like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique to such areas.

As our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying for ever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land which many Palestinians will never know.
In the course of a mere three decades close to half a million Jewish people were settled within an area of only 5,900 square kilometres. The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate.

I witnessed this complete transformation near where I grew up and I write about it here. Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed, by those who claim a superior love of the land. By trying to record how the land felt and looked before this calamity I hope to preserve, at least in words, what has been lost for ever.

Shehadeh’s narrative is peppered with the moving stories of those whose rights to their land he tries to defend as a lawyer. For example, he tells of Ayoub, an old distant relative, ‘as strong and as nimble as a goat’, who built a qasr (a farmer’s house on the hills) with his new wife during their honeymoon. The building of a qasr is usually a communal business, but being an only child and having cousins who had emigrated to America to study and were, in his terms, ‘useless’, Ayoub decides to tackle the work by himself. He goes to the hill property and, with his wife Zariefeh, starts clearing ground and carrying large blocks of stone. In the evening, they light a fire to keep warm and keep the jackals off, and they spend the night in the open air. For a week, they work together until Ayoub has built a perfect qasr entirely out of stone, with no cement. For Ayub this is paradise: on his beloved hills in God’s open country.

For Shehadeh, too, walking allows him briefly to forget the situation on the ground. He experiences the pleasure of being out beyond checkpoints, walls and barriers, of feeling ‘giddy with joy’ under a wide-open sky. But walking also provides the means for journeying inwards, his traverses through the landscape being both a deeply private and intensely political experience. As the landscape changes around him, he writes of profound shifts in his own spirit, yet to hold on to a determination to resist:

But the most destructive development, which boded only misery and spelled continued conflict for the future, was the wall being constructed by Israel. This stretched in a jagged course that was determined not only by Israeli military considerations but also by the special interests of settlers and land mafia lords, slicing through the hills, destroying their natural shape, gulping large swaths of Palestinian areas. Only in part did it follow the 1967 armistice’s internationally recognized border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which has now been deleted from official Israeli maps. The ‘settlement blocs’ Israel planned to annex, which thrust like daggers into the Palestinian land, were now sheathed by the wall.

Still, I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements.

The construction of the Israeli Security Wall in al-Walaja village

The more I read Shehadeh’s accounts of his walks, increasingly affected by the construction of new highways and concrete settlements on the hilltops, the more I began to wonder whether what he was describing would have occurred whatever the nature of the administration that ruled this land.  Whether, indeed, he is describing a process that has overtaken treasured landscapes in almost every part of the world.  And then, curiously, it seemed that Shehadeh began to arrive at a similar conclusion.

He becomes conscious of the evidence in the landscape of the vast span of geological history: the knowledge that he is walking on limestone which had formed as the bed of an ancestral sea.  As he begins to view his frustrations at the Palestinian predicament in this broader context his anger begins to dissipate:

Thinking in the long term made it possible for me to separate ‘the present’ from the rest of time and thereby realize that what Palestine and Israel are now would not necessarily be for ever. I was here on earth for a relatively short period and after that time passed, life would go on without my points of view, biases and fears.

Though the Palestine he knew, the land he thought of as his, was rapidly being transformed before his eyes, ‘viewed from the perspective of the land’ these changes hardly count:

A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated.  Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land, however large and formidable they may have been. … Empires and conquerors come and go but the land remains.

To illustrate this perspective Shehadeh quotes from the poem ‘Carmel Point’ by Robinson Jeffers:

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;   
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide   
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty   
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:   
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Thinking in these terms, as well as writing about the experience of his parents and grandparents in the nakbah of 1948, has enabled Shehadeh to overcome his anger. His book stands not only as an account of the psychological trauma of the Palestinian experience, it also illuminates the way landscapes become part of people and help define them.

Slideshow: Raja Shehadeh narrates excerpts from Palestinian Walks.

My friends,
Those left alive among you
Will let me live another year,
A year to walk together,
To fling a river on our backs
Like gypsies,
To break the remnants of the structure down
To bring our tired soul away from its long exile….

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Another Year Only’

The road is long like an ancient poet’s night:
plains and hills, rivers and valleys.
Walk according to your dream’s measure: either a lily

follows you or the gallows.

– from Mahmoud Darwish, ‘To a Young Poet’

See also

The Life and Times of Mahmoud Darwish

I want to sing. I want a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness, to what power there is in us to overcome this cosmic isolation…I’m screaming at a moment when screams can go nowhere. And it strikes me that language must force itself into a battle in which the voices are not equal.
– Mahmoud Darwish

Last night I attended another Arabic Weekender event: a poetry evening celebrating the life and work of  Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, presented by Arts for Palestine at the Al- Ghazali Centre on Earle Road. The Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah who was a friend of Darwish introduced his work and read his poems in Arabic, followed by English translations.  Nouri al-Jarrah was born in Damascus in 1956, lived in Beirut in the early 1980s, and now works in London as a journalist. He established Al-Katiba [The Woman Writer] literary magazine and has published seven collections of poetry. He read one poem he had written to Darwish.

Darwish has written:

“Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down… I always humanise the other. I even humanised the Israeli soldier,” which he did in poems such as A Soldier Who Dreams of White Lilies, written just after the 1967 war. Many Arabs criticised the poem, but he says: “I will continue to humanise even the enemy…The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.”

The poems read included an extract from The Dice Player, an extract from Mural,  And We Have Countries… and  The Exiles Don’t Look Back…

The Dice Player (extract)

Who am I to say to you
What I say to you?
I’m not a stone
Polished by water
To become a face
Nor am I a stick of cane
With holes made by the wind
To become a flute ….
I’m a dice player
I win sometimes
I lose sometimes
I’m like you
Or a little bit less than you
I was born beside the well
Beside the three lonely trees
As lonely as nuns
I was born with no celebration or midwife
I was given my name just by chance
I belonged to a family
By chance
I inherited their features, habits,
And sickness.

I could have not existed
My father could have not married my mother
By chance
I could have been like my sister
Who screamed and died
Not knowing
That she had lived only one hour
Not knowing who gave her birth.

Who am I to say to you
What I say to you
At the door of the church?
I’m nothing but a dice throw
Between predator and prey
I gained more awareness
Not to be happy with my moonlit night
But to witness the massacre
I survived by chance:
I was smaller than a military target
And bigger than a bee
Flying among the flowers over the fence
I worried a lot about my brothers and my father
I worried about a time made of glass
I worried about my cat and my rabbit
About a charming moon over the high minaret of the mosque.

I could have not been a swallow
If the wind had wished it so
The wind is the traveller’s luck
I went north, east, west
But the south was too hard for me
Too far from me
Because the south is my country
I became a metaphor of a swallow
Floating over my debris
In the spring, in the autumn
Baptizing my feathers with the clouds of the lake
Prolonging my greeting
Unto the Nassiri who never dies
Because in him is the spirit of God
And God is the prophets’ luck
It is my fortune that I am the neighbor of Godhead

[…]

It is my misfortune that the cross
Is the eternal ladder to our tomorrow!
Who am I to say to you
What I say to you
Who am I?
I could have not been inspired
Inspiration is the luck of the lonely souls
“The poem is a dice throw”
On a board of darkness
That may or may not glow
Words fall
Like feathers on the sand
I did not plan the poem
I only obeyed its rhythm

To life I say: slow down, wait for me
Till in my cup drunkenness has dried
There are flowers in the garden, flowers to all
The air cannot escape the flower
Wait for me
So that the nightingales don’t escape me
And I don’t break the rhythm
The singers stretch the cords of their lutes in the square
Ready for the song of farewell
Slow down
Long live life!

[…]

I don’t say: Life over there is real
and has imaginary places . . .
I say: Life, here, is possible
and only by chance
did the land become holy:
its lakes and hills and trees
aren’t a replica of a higher paradise,
but a prophet set foot there
and when he prayed on a rock it wept
and the mount fell prostrate in piety
then unconscious

And by chance the field’s slope in a land became
a museum for the void . . .
thousands of soldiers perished there,
from either side, defending two leaders
who say: Charge! Two leaders who wait inside two
silken tents for the loot of either side . . .
Soldiers repeatedly die but never know
which side triumphed!

And by chance, some narrators survived and said:
If those had triumphed over these
our human history would have different addresses

O land “I love you green”, green. An apple
waving in light and water. Green. Your night
Green. Your dawn, green. So plant me gently,
with a mother’s kindness, in a fistful of air.
I am one of your seeds, green . . .

and this poem has more than one poet
and did not need to be lyrical

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you,
I could have not been who I am
I could have not been here

The plane could have crashed
with me on board that morning
but it’s my good fortune that I sleep in

I could have not seen Damascus or Cairo
the Louvre or the magical towns

And had I been a slow walker
a rifle might have severed
my shadow from the sleepless cedar

And had I been a fast walker
I might have become shrapnel
and a passing whim

And had I been an excessive dreamer
I could have lost my memory

It’s my good fortune that I sleep alone
and that I listen to my body
and believe my talent in discovering
pain in time to call the doctor
ten minutes before dying . . .
ten minutes, enough for me to live by chance
and disappoint the void

Who am I to disappoint the void
who am I, who am I?

Mural (extract)

‘A stunning duel with death, fierce, moving and immaculately paced, it is a defiant hymn to loss, a brilliant outcry at having little but language to uphold a sense of continuity…’ (Charles Bainbridge, Guardian)

This is your name,she said
And vanished into the spiral corridor…
I see a heaven within reach. A white pigeon’s wing lifts me toward
another childhood. I didn’t dream that I had been
dreaming-everything is real.
Clearly , I laid myself to rest and flew.

[…]

One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a thought that no sword
nor any book will bear to the wasteland.
A thought like rain on a mountain opened by a blade of grass.
There will be no victor, neither might nor justice, that fugitive!
One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a bird, and will snatch my being out of my nothingness.

[…]

O my name, you will grow when I grow.
You will carry me and I will carry you.
Strangers are also brothers.
We’ll enchant the woman with the weak letter dedicated to the flute.
O my name, where are we now? Tell me:
What is now and what is tomorrow?
What is time and what is space?
What is old and what is new?
One day, we’ll be what we want to be.

[…]
We were good and pious without Christ’s teachings
and stronger than grass at summer’s end
You are my truth and I your question
We have inherited nothing but our names.

[…]

I want to live… I have work to do aboard the ship.
Not the work of rescuing the bird from our hunger or seasickness
but to be eyewitness to the flood: what comes next?
What are the survivors to do with the old land?
Will they repeat the story?
What is the beginning? What is the end?
No one came back from the dead to tell us the truth.

Death, wait for me beyond this earth, in your kingdom.
Wait, while beside your tent I say a few words to what’s left of my life.
I want to read all Tarafah, so give me time.
The existentialists tempt me to exhaust every moment
With freedom, justice, and the wine of gods.
Death, give me time to arrange my funeral.
Give me time in this fleeting new spring.
I was born in spring to keep the orators from endlessly speaking
about this heartbreaking country,
about the immortality of fig and olive trees in the face of time and its armies.

[…]

Death, wait while I pack my bag: a tooth brush, soap, a razor, cologne
and clothes.
Is the weather mild there?
Does the weather in white eternity change?
Does it stay as it is in both autumn and winter?
Will one book be enough for me
to kill no-time, or will I need a full library?
What language do they speak there,
common colloquial or classical Arabic?

The collection, The Rhythm’s Passion, is composed serially in 47 passages. It evokes a poetics of presence-absence, written on the edge of identity, where loneliness is empathic and tender, and persists through the lyrical density of the work – and the lyrical instability brought about by the continual redrawing of its “map of absence.”

The Rhythm’s Passion enacts the drama of being in a radically unsettled place, looking for something to be at home with. The passages that follow are from this poem.

And We Have Countries…

And we have countries without borders, like our idea
of the unknown, narrow and wide – countries whose maps
narrow to a gray tunnel as we walk in them and cry out
in their labyrinths: “And still we love you.”
Our love is an inherited disease. Countries that grow
by tossing us into the unknown. Their willows
and portrayals grow, their grasses and blue mountains.
A lake widens north of the soul. Wheat spikes
spring up south of the soul. The lemon shines like a lamp
in an emigrant’s night. Geography emits sacred texts.
And the ascending chain of hills reaches higher
and higher. The exile tells himself: “If I were a bird
I would burn my wings.” The smells of autumn
become the image of one I love, soft rain seeps
into the dry heart and imagination opens to its source
and becomes reality’s terrain, the only true place.
Everything distant becomes rural and primitive,
as if the earth were still gathering itself to meet Adam
descending from his paradise. I say: These are the countries
that bear us…so when were we born?
Did Adam take two wives? Or will we be born again
to forget sin?

The Exiles Don’t Look Back…

The exiles don’t look back when leaving
one place of exile – for more exile
lies ahead, they’ve become familiar
with the circular road, nothing to the front
or to the rear, no north or south.
They emigrate from the fence to the garden,
leaving behind a will with each step across the yard
of the house:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life.”

They travel from the soft silk of morning to midday dust,
bearing a coffin filled with artifacts of absence:
an identity card and a letter to one beloved, address unknown:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life.”

With a wounded gesture of victory
they journey from the house to the street,
telling those who see them:
“We’re still alive, so remove us from memory.”

They emerge from their story to breathe and to bask
in the sun, think of flying higher…
and higher. They rise and fall. They come and go.
They jump from an ancient ceramic tile to a star.
And they come back to a story…
there’s no end to the beginning.

They flee from somnolence to an angel of sleep,
pale and red-eyed from thinking of the blood
that’s been shed:
“After we’re gone, remember only this life…”

He is quiet and so am I…

He is quiet and so am I.
He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee.
That’s the difference between us.
Like me, he wears a wide, striped shirt,
and like him, I read the evening paper.
He doesn’t see my secret glance.
I don’t see his secret glance.
He’s quiet and so am I.
He asks the waiter something.
I ask the waiter something…
A black cat walks between us.
I feel the midnight of its fur
and he feels the midnight of its fur…
I don’t say to him: The sky today
is clear and blue.
He doesn’t say to me: The sky today is clear.
He’s watched and the one watching
and I’m watched and the one watching.
I move my left foot.
He moves his right foot.
I hum the melody of a song
and he hums the melody of a similar song.
I wonder: Is he the mirror in which I see myself?
And turn to look in his eyes…but I don’t see him.
I hurry from the café.
I think: Maybe he’s a killer…
or maybe a passerby who thinks
I am a killer.
He’s afraid…and so am I.

A Soldier Dreams Of White Lilies

Written in 1967 and inspired by a conversation that Darwish had with an Israeli soldier. The poem humanises the Israeli soldier, which caused controversy at the time of writing.

He dreams of white lilies, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blossom.
He dreams of a bird, he tells me, of lemon flowers.
He does not intellectualize about his dream. He understands things as he
senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he tells me, is to drink my mother’s coffee, to return
at nightfall.
And the land? I don’t know the land, he said.
I don’t feel it in my flesh and blood, as they say in the poems.
Suddenly I saw the land as one sees a grocery store, a street, newspapers.
I asked him, but don’t you love the land? My love is a picnic, he said, a glass
of wine, a love affair.
– Would you die for the land?
– No!
All my attachment to the land is no more than a story or a fiery speech!
They taught me to love it, but I never felt it in my heart.
I never knew its roots and branches, or the scent of its grass.
– And what about its love? Did it burn like suns and desire?
He looked straight at me and said: I love it with my gun.
And by unearthing feasts in the garbage of the past
and a deaf-mute idol whose age and meaning are unknown.
He told me about the moment of departure, how his mother
silently wept when they led him to the front,
how her anguished voice gave birth to a new hope in his flesh
that doves might flock through the Ministry of War.
He drew on his cigarette. He said, as if fleeing from a swamp of blood,
I dreamt of white lilies, an olive branch, a bird embracing the dawn in a
lemon tree.
– And what did you see?
– I saw what I did:
a blood-red boxthorn.
I blasted them in the sand…in their chests…in their bellies.
– How many did you kill?
– It’s impossible to tell. I only got one medal.
Pained, I asked him to tell me about one of the dead.
He shifted in his seat, fiddled with the folded newspaper,
then said, as if breaking into song:
He collapsed like a tent on stones, embracing shattered planets.
His high forehead was crowned with blood. His chest was empty of medals.
He was not a well-trained fighter, but seemed instead to be a peasant, a
worker or a peddler.
Like a tent he collapsed and died, his arms stretched out like dry creek-beds.
When I searched his pockets for a name, I found two photographs, one of his
wife, the other of his daughter.
Did you feel sad? I asked.
Cutting me off, he said, Mahmoud, my friend,
sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.
I was there like a machine spitting hellfire and death,
turning space into a black bird.
He told me about his first love, and later, about distant streets,
about reactions to the war in the heroic radio and the press.
As he hid a cough in his handkerchief I asked him:
Shall we meet again?
Yes, but in a city far away.
When I filled his fourth glass, I asked jokingly:
Are you off? What about the homeland?
Give me a break, he replied.
I dream of white lilies, streets of song, a house of light.
I need a kind heart, not a bullet.
I need a bright day, not a mad, fascist moment of triumph.
I need a child to cherish a day of laughter, not a weapon of war.
I came to live for rising suns, not to witness their setting.
He said goodbye and went looking for white lilies,
a bird welcoming the dawn on an olive branch.
He understands things only as he senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he said, is to drink my mother’s coffee, to return safely,
at nightfall

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Under Seige: poems for Gaza by Mahmoud Darwish

“There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza” – Israel Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni

Under Siege by Mahmoud Darwish

Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.
***
A country preparing for dawn. We grow less intelligent
For we closely watch the hour of victory:
No night in our night lit up by the shelling
Our enemies are watchful and light the light for us
In the darkness of cellars.
***
Here there is no “I”.
Here Adam remembers the dust of his clay.
***
On the verge of death, he says:
I have no trace left to lose:
Free I am so close to my liberty. My future lies in my own hand.
Soon I shall penetrate my life,
I shall be born free and parentless,
And as my name I shall choose azure letters…
***
You who stand in the doorway, come in,
Drink Arabic coffee with us
And you will sense that you are men like us
You who stand in the doorways of houses
Come out of our morningtimes,
We shall feel reassured to be
Men like you!
***
When the planes disappear, the white, white doves
Fly off and wash the cheeks of heaven
With unbound wings taking radiance back again, taking possession
Of the ether and of play. Higher, higher still, the white, white doves
Fly off. Ah, if only the sky
Were real [a man passing between two bombs said to me].
***
Cypresses behind the soldiers, minarets protecting
The sky from collapse. Behind the hedge of steel
Soldiers piss-under the watchful eye of a tank-
And the autumnal day ends its golden wandering in
A street as wide as a church after Sunday mass…
***
[To a killer] If you had contemplated the victim’s face
And thought it through, you would have remembered your mother in the
Gas chamber, you would have been freed from the reason for the rifle
And you would have changed your mind: this is not the way
to find one’s identity again.
***
The siege is a waiting period
Waiting on the tilted ladder in the middle of the storm.
***
Alone, we are alone as far down as the sediment
Were it not for the visits of the rainbows.
***
We have brothers behind this expanse.
Excellent brothers. They love us. They watch us and weep.
Then, in secret, they tell each other:
“Ah! if this siege had been declared…” They do not finish their sentence:
“Don’t abandon us, don’t leave us.”
***
Our losses: between two and eight martyrs each day.
And ten wounded.
And twenty homes.
And fifty olive trees…
Added to this the structural flaw that
Will arrive at the poem, the play, and the unfinished canvas.
***
A woman told the cloud: cover my beloved
For my clothing is drenched with his blood.
***
If you are not rain, my love
Be tree
Sated with fertility, be tree
If you are not tree, my love
Be stone
Saturated with humidity, be stone
If you are not stone, my love
Be moon
In the dream of the beloved woman, be moon
[So spoke a woman
to her son at his funeral]
***
Oh watchmen! Are you not weary
Of lying in wait for the light in our salt
And of the incandescence of the rose in our wound
Are you not weary, oh watchmen?
***
A little of this absolute and blue infinity
Would be enough
To lighten the burden of these times
And to cleanse the mire of this place.
***
It is up to the soul to come down from its mount
And on its silken feet walk
By my side, hand in hand, like two longtime
Friends who share the ancient bread
And the antique glass of wine
May we walk this road together
And then our days will take different directions:
I, beyond nature, which in turn
Will choose to squat on a high-up rock.
***
On my rubble the shadow grows green,
And the wolf is dozing on the skin of my goat
He dreams as I do, as the angel does
That life is here…not over there.
***
In the state of siege, time becomes space
Transfixed in its eternity
In the state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.
***
The martyr encircles me every time I live a new day
And questions me: Where were you? Take every word
You have given me back to the dictionaries
And relieve the sleepers from the echo’s buzz.
***
The martyr enlightens me: beyond the expanse
I did not look
For the virgins of immortality for I love life
On earth, amid fig trees and pines,
But I cannot reach it, and then, too, I took aim at it
With my last possession: the blood in the body of azure.
***
The martyr warned me: Do not believe their ululations
Believe my father when, weeping, he looks at my photograph
How did we trade roles, my son, how did you precede me.
I first, I the first one!
***
The martyr encircles me: my place and my crude furniture are all that I have changed.
I put a gazelle on my bed,
And a crescent of moon on my finger
To appease my sorrow.
***
The siege will last in order to convince us we must choose an enslavement that does no harm, in fullest liberty!
***
Resisting means assuring oneself of the heart’s health,
The health of the testicles and of your tenacious disease:
The disease of hope.
***
And in what remains of the dawn, I walk toward my exterior
And in what remains of the night, I hear the sound of footsteps inside me.
***
Greetings to the one who shares with me an attention to
The drunkenness of light, the light of the butterfly, in the
Blackness of this tunnel!
***
Greetings to the one who shares my glass with me
In the denseness of a night outflanking the two spaces:
Greetings to my apparition.
***
My friends are always preparing a farewell feast for me,
A soothing grave in the shade of oak trees
A marble epitaph of time
And always I anticipate them at the funeral:
Who then has died…who?
***
Writing is a puppy biting nothingness
Writing wounds without a trace of blood.
***
Our cups of coffee. Birds green trees
In the blue shade, the sun gambols from one wall
To another like a gazelle
The water in the clouds has the unlimited shape of what is left to us
Of the sky. And other things of suspended memories
Reveal that this morning is powerful and splendid,
And that we are the guests of eternity.

Identity Card

Record !
I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the nineth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks…
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself
at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.

My father..
descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house
is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title !

Record !
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards
of my ancestors
And the land
which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Therefore !
Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware..
Beware..
Of my hunger
And my anger !

Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008), Palestinian poet:

I will continue to humanise even the enemy… The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.

Scenes from Notre Musique directed by Jean-Luc Godard. The film reflects on violence, morality, and the representation of violence in film, and touches especially on past colonialism and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this clip Mahmoud explains why he feels the need to be ‘the poet of Troy’.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s
hesitation, the aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman’s opinion of men, the works of
Aeschylus, the beginnings
of love, grass on a stone, mothers who live on a flute’s sigh and
the invader’s fear of memories

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the
waning days of September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in
prison, a cloud reflecting a pack
of creatures, the applause of a people for those who face their end
with a smile, and a tyrant’s fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this
earth, the Lady of Earth,
the mother of all beginnings, the mothr of all endings. She was called
Palestine. She came to be called
Palestine. O Lady, because you are my Lady, I am worthy of life.

Mahmoud Darwish: obituary

Mahmoud Darwish, the poet widely regarded as being the voice of the Palestinian people and chronicler of their struggle following the creation of Israel, died last Saturday, August 9 after undergoing open heart surgery in a US hospital. This is his obituary in today’s Guardian:

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

With poems from the 1960s such as this, Mahmoud Darwish, who has died in a Texas hospital aged 67 of complications following open-heart surgery, did as much as anyone to forge a Palestinian national consciousness, and especially after the six-day war of June 1967. His poems have been taught in schools throughout the Arab world and set to music; some of his lines have become part of the fabric of modern Arabic culture.

Darwish was born in the village of Birwa, east of Acre. His parents were from middle-ranking peasant families. Both were preoccupied with work on their land and Mahmoud was effectively brought up by his grandfather. When he was six, Israeli armed forces assaulted the village and Mahmoud fled with his family to Lebanon, living first in Jezzin and then in Damour.

When, the following year, the family returned to their occupied homeland, their village had been obliterated: two settlements had been erected on the land, and they settled in Deir al-Asad in Galilee. There were no books in Darwish’s own home and his first exposure to poetry was through listening to an itinerant singer on the run from the Israeli army. He was encouraged to write poetry by an elder brother.

Israeli Arabs lived under military rule from 1948 to 1986. They were curbed in their movements and in any political activity. As a child, Darwish grew up aware that as far as those in control were concerned he, his family and his fellow Palestinians were second-class citizens. Yet they were still expected to join in Israeli state celebrations. While at school, he wrote a poem for an anniversary of the foundation of the state. The poem was an outcry from an Arab boy to a Jewish boy. “I don’t remember the poem,” he recalled many years later, “but I remember the idea of it; you can play in the sun as you please, and have your toys, but I can’t. You have a house, and I have none. You have celebrations, but I have none. Why can’t we play together?” He recalls being summoned to see the military governor, who threatened him: “If you go on writing such poetry, I’ll stop your father working in the quarry.”

But relations with individual Jewish Israelis varied. Some he liked, including at least one of his teachers, some he loathed. Relationships with Jewish girls were easier than with girls from the more conservative Arab families.

At his school, contemporaries remember him being very good in Hebrew. Israeli Palestinian culture was cut off from mainstream Arab developments. Arab poets who did impress him were the Iraqis Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Exciting innovations such as the Beirut group that clustered round the magazine al-Shi’r and the prosodic and thematic innovations of the Syrian poets Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) and Nizar Kabbani did not reach the beleaguered Palestinians directly. Instead, much of Darwish’s early reading of the poetry of the world outside Palestine was through the medium of Hebrew. Through Hebrew translations he got to know the work of Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. He also became influenced by Hebrew literature from the Torah to the modern poet Yehuda Amichai.

His first poetry symbolised the Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule. His first volumes, Leaves of the Olive Tree (1964), A Lover from Palestine (1966) and End of the Night (1967), were published in Israel. During this time Darwish was a member of the Israeli Communist party, Rakah, and edited the Arabic edition of the party’s newspaper, Al-Ittihad. Israeli Palestinians were restricted in any expression of nationalist feeling. Darwish went to prison several times and was frequently under house arrest.

His earliest poetry followed classical forms, but, from the mid-1960s, it became populist and direct. He used imagery that he could relate intimately to Palestinian villagers. He wrote of olive groves and orchards, the rocks and plants, basil and thyme. These early poems have a staccato effect, like verbal hand-grenades. In spite of an apparent simplicity, his short poems have several levels of meaning. There is a sense of anger, outrage and injustice, notably in the celebrated Identity Card, in the voice of an Arab man giving his identity number:

Write down at the top of the first page:
I do not hate people.
I steal from no one.
However
If I am hungry
I will eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware beware of my hunger
And of my anger.

But his poetry also contained irony and a universal humanity. For Darwish the issue of Palestine became a prism for an internationalist feeling. The land and history of Palestine was a summation of millennia, with influences from Canaanites, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks and British. Throughout all this has survived a core identity of Palestine. He was able to see the Israeli soldier as a victim of circumstances like himself. He expresses the bureaucratic absurdities of an oppressive military occupation.

Darwish left Israel in 1971, to the disappointment of many Palestinians, and studied at Moscow University. After a brief period in Cairo he went to Beirut and held a number of jobs with the Palestine Research Centre. He remained in Beirut during the first part of the civil war and left with Yasser Arafat and the PLO in 1982. He moved on to Tunis and Paris, and became editor-in-chief of the influential literary review Al-Karmel. Although he became a member of the PLO executive committee in 1987 and helped to draft the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood, he tried to keep away from factionalism. “I am a poet with a particular perspective on reality,” he said.

His literary work was changing. He wrote short stories and developed a style of writing poems that was a mixture of observation, humanity and irony. He argued that poetry was easier to write than prose. But the poetry continued inspired by incidents or relationships. There is often an optimism against all the odds in his works of the 1980s:

Streets encircle us
As we walk among the bombs.
Are you used to death?
I’m used to life and to endless desire.
Do you know the dead?
I know the ones in love.

During his Paris years Darwish wrote Memory for Forgetfulness, a memoir of Beirut under the saturation Israeli bombing of 1982 which has been translated into English. A poem in prose, it is a medley of wit and rage, with reflections on violence and exile.

His later work became more mystical and less particularly concerned with Palestine. Often it was preoccupied with human mortality. He was careless of his own health and suffered heart attacks in 1984 and in early 1998.

Darwish resigned from the PLO executive committee over the 1993 Oslo Agreements between Israel and the PLO, which he saw as a “risky accord”. He was able to return to Israel to see his aged mother in 1995. The Israeli authorities also gave him permission for an unlimited stay in the self-ruling parts of the Palestinian West Bank, and he spent his last years in Ramallah and Amman, the capital of Jordan.

In 2000 the Israeli ministry of education proposed to introduce his works into the school curriculum, but met strong opposition from rightwing protesters. The then prime minister, Ehud Barak, said the country was not ready.

Darwish’s work has been translated into Hebrew and, in July 2007, Darwish returned to Israel on a visit and gave a reading of his poetry to 2,000 people in Haifa. He deplored the Hamas victory in Gaza the previous month. “We have triumphed,’ he observed with grim irony. “Gaza has won its independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two prisons who don’t greet each other. We are dressed in executioners’ clothes.”

Over the years Darwish received many honours. He was given the Soviet Union’s Lotus prize in 1969, and the Lenin peace prize in 1983. He was president of the Union of Palestinian Writers. Married and divorced twice, he had no children; his first wife was the Syrian writer Rana Kabbani, who elegantly translated some of his poetry into English.

Margaret Obank writes: Mahmoud was a completely secular person, rather philosophical, an avid reader, elegant in his dress, and supremely modest in his opinion of himself. He liked to be alone, but would always be ready to speak on the telephone.

While I had been reading his poems since the early 1970s, I got to know him through my husband, the Iraqi author Samuel Shimon. Mahmoud supported Banipal, the literary magazine we founded in 1998, and took pride both in issues of the journal and the many dialogues we helpled to promote.

It presents work by Arab authors and poets in English for the first time. When we rang Mahmoud three months ago about doing a special issue on him, his reaction was: “Do you think I deserve that? If you think I do, then I like the idea.” Now it will be a tribute to him.

We were with Mahmoud when he was awarded the Prince Claus Fund of principal prize in Amsterdam in 2004, the theme being asylum and migration. His acceptance speech was both powerful and thoughtful: “A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace … with life.”

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