Friday, August 15, 2008

Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish

10 Aug. 08: Zhang Darwish

The sight was familiar: a busy nook across from the train station in a Chinese city with milling crowds. But the faces all had familiar Palestinian features which didn’t change their Chinese likenesses. And as we sipped our delicious noodle soup THE MAN came in and greeted us warmly. He was at once Mahmoud Darwish and Zhang Yimou. And I was comforted by his presence and warm embrace.

Gazpacho is one of my favorite summer dishes and Didi outdoes herself with embellishing it with local greens and spicy flavors. I can’t resist it though I am a doctor and I know the consequences. I have a serious problem with stomach acid and I normally avoid spicy foods late in the day. But gazpacho is too delicious. Toufiq, my best friend, came over in the late afternoon and for a couple of hours we trimmed hedges in the garden while exchanging expressions of awe at the Olympic opening ceremony we had watched together the night before. We marveled going over the details: the costumes, the spacewalk, the magic globe, the fireworks, the magic stamps, the new meaning imparted to body painting, and the scale of it all. And I related to Toufiq the privilege of having eaten noodle soup at Zhang Yimou’s favorite noodle bar. As we sat down to a bowl of gazpacho Didi helped me bring to life for Toufiq the production by the same magician we had seen in Guilin two years back, thanks to our hosts there, Michael and Limei. Then we raided the fig trees in the garden.

Shortly after sundown Didi and I made a courtesy call at my sister’s. We had missed the wedding party of her first grandson and we had to congratulate the newlyweds. Much as I resisted, I had to accept some of the sweets and fresh fruits offered. It would be too rude not to. They had gone out of their way preparing for our visit. They had set up an outdoor TV screen and a DVD player especially for us so we could enjoy the cool westerly evening breeze while watching a rerun of t the ceremony, the dancing, and the feasting that we had missed.

I had unreasonably overstuffed myself. Just as I was falling asleep the telephone rang. It was my nephew Abed. He wanted to share with me the sad news of the passing away of Mahmoud Darwish, the poet of the Palestinian cause, resistance and conscience. “Is that the closing note in the rhapsody of hope we all had dreamed of and nurtured in our hearts?” he wondered. Abed is another Kanaaneh with dormant literary aspirations. He worships Mahmoud Darwish and has memorized many of his magic lyrics. He wanted to come over to cry on my shoulder. I sought to console him on the phone with a list of the promising young Palestinian poets, not least among them Abed’s own up-and-coming poet nephew, Bashir Shalash. At the mention of Bashir’s name he sounded like he stopped moping and sniffling. And I managed to hold back my own tears and to doze off into fitful sleep.

Twice I got up to swallow some antacids. But the crazy dream would come back as soon as I closed my eyes: Zhang Darwish would come back too, all smiles and slurping his noodle soup with hearty appreciative little noises. But there were three little girls in the shop and they spoke of having a hidden atomic bomb. “We are refugees. Benny Morris invited us,” they kept saying. Mahoud Yimou tried to dissuade them from using their bomb at the demonstration they were heading to in his ruined village of al-Birweh. “Some one will belittle me for this. Israelis are clearing the cemetery in al-Birweh to put up cowsheds. They are disturbing the peace of our dead ancestors, fathers and mothers. And here I am telling the girls not to use violence in resisting the criminal acts. But atomic war is a crime too and you don’t resist one crime with another. There are a lot of flowers in the Galilee. Why do these girls not use wild Galilee flowers? Flowers are as powerful and more becoming for girls. Here in our Olympics opening ceremony we are using songs and flowers to soften the hardened criminals in attendance.”

In the dream when he said those words they sounded so much deeper and more eloquent. They were pure magic. “You must stop those girls from doing it. Have Abed and Bashir help you,” he concluded.

But the girls seemed unconvinced. Laughing coquettishly they ran out of the shop. As I got up to run after them I headed to the medicine cabinet for more antacid. But this time I didn’t go back to bed. I stayed up and wrote.

12 Aug. 08: Punishing the Cactus:

Gardening has come to be a part of my life at a level that I rarely comprehend. Earlier today, as I sat at my computer for my usual morning session of correspondence and of putting down in words some of my free floating anxieties, my mind kept straying away from the task at hand. I simply lacked the needed concentration and the will to perform in routine mode. Frustrated and distracted I abandoned my study and headed out to my garden still in my pajamas. On the way out I unthinkingly grabbed the Brazilian machete I brought home as a souvenir on one of my trips, not fully aware exactly for what purpose. I turned the hose on to drench the earth around my ancient olive tree, the second time I water it this year. It is well rooted in its new location already and over the period of two years I have weaned it from the initial twice a week watering schedule aiming to reach to its natural state of total dependence on rainfall only. I fed the cats and topped the water dish for the free roaming chickens I had let loose in the garden earlier this year as an added attraction in anticipation of the summer visit of my grandchildren. Didi has been bending my ear every day about the social life of the brood and the masterly performance of the rooster. I sprinkled a handful of wheat for it just to see again its mastery of the art of chivalry in calling all the lady chickens to come eat first.

Then I had my morning quota of figs from the tree and approached the long row of cactus. It has overgrown its desired double function of serving as hedge and source of delicious fruit. It stands nearly three meters high. I usually hack down a few high cactus leaves, enough for my daily supply of prickly pears. But today I seemed to savor the act of hacking down the hardy cactus fronds. As I proceeded with the vengeful act I found myself thinking the unthinkable: I should finish the whole hedge off. Its roots have extended far into the field and seem to be affecting the health and productivity of the neighboring figs. I should get rid of the whole thing and start anew in a different location and keep it constantly trimmed to size. Just by replanting one or two leaves and by next season they will bear enough fruit for us. I am having difficulty distributing the plentiful yield this year. Friends and relatives have stopped showing up to pick their share expecting me instead to pick it, clean it and deliver it to them myself. The hell with them all! I am going to cut it all down and free myself of the thankless task next summer.

It took nearly two hours before I stopped hacking at it. By the time I tired out I had a heap of mangled cactus about my own height and several square meters wide at the base. I was totally exhausted and dripping wet with sweat. I had cleared nearly half of the hedge. Only then did it dawn on me what exactly had I been doing. Many a time in the past, when particularly frustrated, I would take an ax to an old dead tree and strike at it till I could hardly move anymore. Once when my late brother and father figure, Ahmad, had a stroke and I, as his trusted doctor, couldn’t find a way of offering him meaningful help, I took out my electric saw and cut down some two dozen cypress trees with the excuse that they were blocking the westerly breeze from brother Sharif, my next-door neighbor. By the time I was done I had perfected the art of determining exactly in which direction a tree would fall and hence acquired the formal position of the neighborhood’s woodchuck. Ever since, my services are sought after by relatives and neighbors to take down this old neem tree without harming the house it shades or to cut that mulberry tree without ruining the chicken coop next to it.

But cactus is different. It, the olive and the fig are so hardily adapted to the Palestinian terrain that they have become landmarks identifying the sites of the hundreds of Palestinian villages razed off the face of the earth by Israel . It never occurred to me before, but it seems that faced with its failure to submerge this living evidence of its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Israel has turned around and decided to adopt it as its own in the image it cultivates of its native born sons and daughters as ‘Sabras’, Hebrew for the hardy and thorny cactus. It is as flagrant an assault on Palestinian culture as is its assimilation of our original fast food, the Falafel, as an Israeli innovation. Israel even tried to appropriate the colorful Palestinian hand–embroidered dresses as uniforms for its airline till some alert Palestinian raised objections through UNESCO, not to mention the ‘Hura’ imitation of the Palestinian Dabkeh.

Today it is Mahmoud Darwish I am taking revenge for. All day yesterday I struggled to take my mind off him and his passing away, off what a loss to the Palestinians, to all Arabic speakers and to humanity it was, and off what I could do to quell my anger about it. I had planned to travel to Ramallah to attend the State funeral planned by the Palestinian National Authority, the first since Yasser Arafat’s. I could join members of the Arab Human Rights Association who were travelling in a chartered bus from Nazareth . But would I be able to keep out of trouble should the Israeli armed forces stop us on the way and start questioning and searching us? Perhaps I should travel there the night before and stay overnight. But what would my presence mean beyond paying respect personally to the dead man. At least with the HRA, an organization to which I belong, we will make a formal collective statement conveying the message of our co-ownership of the man, a message of belonging with the rest of the Palestinian people.

I called Moslih, my nephew who teaches at Bir Zeit University, to see if he is travelling to Ramallah. He said he was not and that he had just written an explanation of that on his website. I visited and was absolutely dumbfounded by the eloquent piece he had written in Arabic decrying the loss of Darwish in a very personal yet representative way of the revered image the man has in the average Palestinian’s heart. He ended with promising Mahmoud that, while his body would be laid to rest in Ramallah, he, Moslih, would be searching for the ruins of his home in al-Birweh.

I felt annoyed and frustrated at my inability to give expression to my own feelings towards the late poet, in the language he loved and lived wherever his exile took him. I speak and read Arabic fluently. But I never learned to type it. And I have lost the creative command I once had of literary Arabic. Linguistically I clearly resemble the axiomatic case of the crow that is presumed to have had its own satisfactory unique gait till it tried to imitate the enviable gait of the pigeon. By the time it accepted its failure it had already forgotten its own way and thus was stuck with the permanent wobble it uses for perambulating. The last time I wrote anything halfway intelligible in Arabic was in my last year in high school as a member of a circle of aspiring poets at the time. Two years later, lonely and disenchanted as a foreign student in Yankton College in South Dakota, I attempted to write in my mother tongue again. My poems were stillborn and I keep them till today as a memento of the loss of creativity I once had.

Now I don’t even have Arabic letters on my keyboard. Makbula Nassar, a fellow Arrabeh villager who made it into media circles in Israel through her twice-weekly radio program and her photos of the ruins of Palestinian villages on the back page of al-Ittihad, the only Arabic news daily in Israel, wrote informing me of the planned symbolic funeral to be held tomorrow in the cemetery of the poets ruined native village of al-Birweh. In passing it on to other locals on my list I felt the need to apologize for writing in English.

What a shame at a time when others are brandishing their literary Arabic skills in memory of its last great icon! To Arabs their language holds a magic power beyond comprehension. God himself offered them no proof of the authenticity of his prophet and of the truth of his message save for the miracle of the Koran’s Arabic eloquence, held by all believers to be beyond the ability of all earthly composers. I still recall to this day the greatest compliment that I ever received from a teacher on my own literary attempts which amounted to an admonition to stop imitating the Koran and develop my own ‘competing style’. Native Arabic speakers can be easily held spellbound by word crafters regardless of subject matter or content, a fact that gives a clear edge to poets and demagogues. But Mahmoud Darwish was an authentic literary innovator building on his early command of the language to promote shared Palestinian sentiments and aspirations to a global audience. With his wellspring of creative energy and provocative thought and with finely sculpted solid images of Palestinian suffering and incessant resistance he confronted humanity with the reality of its abandonment of its essence in our case. If Arafat embodied Palestinian resistance to the world’s revolutionaries, Darwish challenged the world’s collective conscience to acknowledge it. And his living images lost little in translation, evidence of their deeper human appeal in substance and not in style only.

I lasted for two hours of the hard physical work of hacking down the cactus hedge I had worked as hard to establish years ago and of carrying the loads at the end of a fork to a clearing in the orchard to be left there to dry out thoroughly in the heat of the summer sun before I can return the remnants to the soil. As usual for the whole period I had donned my radio receiver in the shape of a headset to stay abreast of world political and cultural events thanks to the BBC and to Monte Carlo. Suddenly I heard a news item that I comprehended. For two hours my thoughts had revolved around Mahmoud Darwish and what his death meant to all of us Palestinians and to our cause. I had not comprehended anything that I heard on the radio for the entire two hours. And now I did: Hugo Morales of Bolivia won a plebiscite about public approval of his presidency. Whoopee! I am happy for him. He is native like me. Fuck the conquistadores!

14 Aug. 08: A Galilee Funeral

Makbula’s idea had caught on. At four in the afternoon Didi and I arrived at the entrance of the industrial zone just to the east of the hill that once was el-Birweh. We joined the funeral procession by several hundred Galilee youth, in black and with Palestinian flags, that proceeded up the dirt road to the ruins of Darwish’s native village’s cemetery. I sought the company of Hanna abu-Hanna, himself a revered Arabic literary figure and a friend of the late poet. Hanna has aged into a shadow of his old vigorous self, now struggling to keep his balance as we wound our way between the strewn cemetery stones and the single barbed wire coiled randomly at its edge. Someone must have attempted to protect the venerable site at one point. Traditional Moslem village cemeteries lack the pretentious raised platforms and showy headstones inscribed with names, dates and prayers. The villagers seem to abide literally by the spirit of ‘dust unto dust’. Each grave is simply outlined by an elliptical row of fist-size local stones. No indication of identity or rank with the exception of a dozen pointed larger bare headstones, possibly attesting to a special status once had. The whole area of the cemetery is overgrown with dried and thorny wild grasses that made it that much more difficult for Hanna to negotiate. A few times some young person would offer his or her help. But Hanna insisted on struggling unaided, perhaps energized by the thought of making a last gesture to his dead friend.

To the south of the forsaken cemetery the skeletal frame of a new industrial-size cowshed juts out encroaching on the serenity and abandonment of the scene. At the far edge to the west are the stone piles and rock foundations of what once were the homes of Mahmoud Darwish and his fellow Birweh villagers. And further to the west are the modern homes and green yards of Ahihud, the thriving settlement that now claims el-Birweh’s very same space and attempts to erase it from living memory with telephone poles, electricity grid, a modern paved access road and a gated entrance from the main road further west. And further west yet is the blinding sheen of the sea, ‘Bahr Akka’- Acre’s Sea as we all once knew it, at the far end of the extensive Sahl el-Birweh, the village’s share of Palestine's coastal plane. The setting sun insists on making a point we almost forgot: This is a choice Mediterranean setting for romance, for a poet to be born, to live, to love, to procreate, to struggle, to die, and to be buried in an unmarked grave and missed by family and fiends. Where did Mahmoud go wrong? Where did we all go wrong? Damn the Zionists!

The empty coffin, draped with the Palestinian flag, was placed in a suitable clearing at the top of the hill in the midst of a multiplicity of unmarked graves, one stone-edged ellipse next to the other. The clearing is suitably demarcated on two sides by a hedge of thorny wild cactus still loaded with overripe fruit and a few hardy pomegranate shrubs with their still unripe fruit. A woman, shrouded in black, sat, cross-legged and leaning her head on one arm, across the clearing from where I stood and picked at the ground with a tiny stick, totally absorbed in her repetitive movement. Someone broke a small green twig with a shiny emerald pomegranate and placed it on the coffin. Others followed suit with lemon, fig and olive branches. Didi had brought a bunch of dried wheat stalks from a vase in our living room and we laid it on the coffin. The only flower he had ask for, were it available, was a Galilee red poppy and it is not the season now. So wheat, the second item he asked for, was right, though he wanted it green and we had none. He died unseasonably.

A child of seven or eight and several young men and women recited from Mahmoud’s poetry, a flutist played some sad tunes, Hanna delivered a moving eulogy and a young woman accompanied on oud sang his “Ahinnu ela khubzi ummi – I long for my mother’s bread” set to music by the Lebanese revolutionary singer/musician Marcel Khalife. Then she sang a Palestinian classic dirge about the horse returning home without its knight. That brought tears to my eyes as it does right now.

In hearing the young woman’s beautiful voice leading the many other young people who sang along I suddenly realized that this was my dream encounter with Mahmoud from a few days ago come true: No violence; just flowers and songs.