Friday, July 13, 2007

Return of the 'modest poet'

Palestinian poet Darwish returns to Haifa on 1st literary event since self-imposed exile.
By Dalia Karpel

How thrilled is he really about his coming visit to Haifa? What was the impact on him of a report that 1,200 tickets (out of a total of 1,450) for his poetry-reading appearance this Sunday in an auditorium on Mount Carmel had been snatched up in one day? Does this embrace move Mahmoud Darwish, known as the Palestinian national poet, who in recent years has lived in Amman and occasionally in Ramallah?

"When I passed the age of 50, I learned how to control my emotions," Darwish says, during a conversation that takes place in Ramallah. "I am going to Haifa without any expectations. I have a barrier on my heart. Maybe at the moment of the encounter with the audience a few tears will fall in my heart. I anticipate a warm embrace, but I am also apprehensive that the audience will be disappointed, because I do not intend to read many old poems. I would not want to appear as a patriot or as a hero or as a symbol. I will appear as a modest poet."

How does one make the transformation from being the symbol of the Palestinian national ethos to being a modest poet?

"The symbol does not exist either in my consciousness or in my imagination. I am making efforts to shatter the demands of the symbol and to be done with this iconic status; to habituate people to treat me as a person who wishes to develop his poetry and the taste of his readers. In Haifa I will be real. What I am. And I will choose poems of a high level."

Why do you disdain your old poems?

"When a writer declares that his first book is his best, that is bad. I progress successively from book to book. I have not yet decided what I will read to the audience. I am not stupid. I will not disappoint them. I know that many want to hear something old."

Darwish arrived in Ramallah from Amman on Monday morning of this week. He was scheduled to hold working meetings in the days that followed and then go to Haifa, the city in which he embarked on his literary path, in the 1950s. He doesn't yet know how he will travel - there are many volunteers who want to drive him to the meeting in Haifa with residents of the Galilee. The evening is being organized by Siham Daoud, a poetess and editor of the literary journal Masharef, in conjunction with the Hadash Arab-Jewish political party. Darwish will speak and read about 20 of his poems. Samir Jubran will accompany him on the oud and the singer Amal Murkus will moderate. Darwish hopes the Interior Ministry will let him stay in Israel for about a week, although the entry permit he received is valid for only two days.

The conversation with the poet takes place at 4 P.M. in the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. The magnificent, well-kept building contains an art gallery and a hall for films and concerts.It also has a spacious office, from which Darwish edits the poetry journal Al-Karmel.

The room we are in contains a library rich in Arabic books, though a few Hebrew ones are interspersed among them. There is a poetry collection put out by the Hebrew literary journal Iton 77, Na'ama Shefi's "The Ring of Myths: Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis," as well as copies of the literary-political journal Mita'am,edited by the poet Yitzhak Laor, and a poetry collection by Sami Shalom Chetrit.

Darwish, thinner than ever, elegantly dressed, is cordial. For someone who eight years ago was pronounced clinically dead and was restored to life almost miraculously, he looks fit and younger than his 66 years.

"Is there any hope for this nation?" I ask, and Darwish, the great pessimist, does not even bother asking which nation I am referring to. "Even if there is no hope, we are obliged to invent and create hope. Without hope we are lost. The hope must spring from simple things. From the splendor of nature, from the beauty of life, from their fragility. One may forget the essential things occasionally, if only to keep the mind healthy. It is hard to speak of hope at this time. That would look as if we were ignoring history and the present. As though we were looking at the future in severance from what is happening at this moment. But in order to live we must invent hope by force."


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