Darwish on Gaza: A Poet Looks into the Abyss

Mahmoud Darwish, noted Palestinian poet, reacts to the devastating Gaza revelations with some remarkable, scorching self-criticism. I append comments, understanding that I am working with a translation and may well misinterpret.

MEMRI Special Dispatch-Palestinian Authority/Reform Project
June 29, 2007
No. 1639

On June 17, 2007, renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish published his reflections on the internecine fighting in Gaza in the London daily Al-Hayat. Darwish is known both for his literary output and for his political activism; he was a member of the PLO Central Committee from 1987 until 1993, when he resigned in protest of the Oslo Accords.

The following are excerpts from Al-Hayat (London), June 17, 2007.


Leading Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish on the Events in Gaza

“Did we have to fall from towering heights and see our blood on our hands, in order to grasp that we are not angels, as we used to believe? Did we also have to expose all our faults before everybody, so that our true nature should not remain virginal? How much did we lie when we said: ‘We are an exception.’ That you believe yourself is worse than to lie to another. To be friendly with those who hate us and cruel to those who love us – that is the baseness of one who aggrandizes himself and the arrogance of the lowly.

Interesting on a whole series of levels. Let’s take them one at a time:

    Did we have to fall from towering heights and see our blood on our hands, in order to grasp that we are not angels, as we used to believe?

Apparently, yes. The blood was on your hands a long time ago, in Lebanon, for example. Only the wildest fantasies — like your poetry — could have you thinking you were angels, and only, apparently, the most spectacular failures could get you to reconsider.

    Did we also have to expose all our faults before everybody, so that our true nature should not remain virginal?

Apparently so. If it hadn’t been in public, a global shame, you could have continued to lie to yourselves, to pretend that you were virginal. And just what does it mean to say: “so that our true nature should not remain virginal?” You never were, you were born as a sacrifice to hide Arab shame. Is this an expression of the honor-shame attitude that holds that as long as others don’t know, it hasn’t happened?

    How much did we lie when we said: ‘We are an exception.’ That you believe yourself is worse than to lie to another. To be friendly with those who hate us and cruel to those who love us – that is the baseness of one who aggrandizes himself and the arrogance of the lowly.

This is strong stuff. It also underlines the (non-racist, non-condescending) observation that Palestinians/Arabs know about lies and lying to oneself. They are not unaware of these issues, and when confronted with a stark situation, are capable of searing self-criticism. I’d love to know who Darwish has in mind when he refers to those who hate and love us. It does remind me of my exchange with Omar, whose blog at the time had an opening quote from an Arab proverb about how one sign of a fool is his inability to distinguish friend from foe. What I was trying to say to Omar was, “you have been fools for believing that your leaders — Arab and Palestinian — are your friends.” Is this what Darwish means? But then to whom have the Palestinians been cruel who love them?

As for “those who aggrandize themselves” with “the arrogance of the lowly,” permit me to quote from Omar again, who has a remarkable post about Arab self-delusion that, I think, sheds light on Darwish’ alusion:

Arabs often see themselves as being more aware than others in what matters politics, they like to think of themselves as not being fooled like other nations and that they know why everything happens. In general, they have this thought of that most people around the globe are being fooled either by their governments or by their misleading media tools, while they (Arabs) are not.

I read this as a reference to Arab conspiracy theory. They think Americans are fools because they believe peoples’ protestations of “good faith,” whereas Arabs know that everything is a trick. The fact that anyone who wants to can manipulate Arabs by spinning a conspiracy theory, apparently doesn’t occur to them. As Friedman’s Rule #3 states:

    If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all, they won’t believe it.

So even as they think of themselves as far more self-aware than Westerners, they register on our screens are astonishingly self-deceiving. Interesting paradox.

As for Darwish, it would help if we had a word on how he, Darwish, contributed to this fantasy of innocence… and can we expect him to acknowledge that this fantasy — what Ajami calls the Arab’s Dream Palace — was purchased by demonizing Israel. What on earth gave him the impression that he and his people were at the “towering heights” except his own word magic?


“Oh Past: Do not change us as we get farther from you. Oh Future: Do not ask us: ‘Who are you? And what do you expect from me?’ Because we too do not know. Oh Present: We have borne little, for we are but insufferable passers-by.

Do I detect regret? Uncertainty? Even humility? Oh would that you had shown some of this much earlier. Would that you had not been encouraged in your fantasies for so long by (well meaning?) fools who believed the lies you told yourselves. Say, rather: “O Past: We have abused you so we didn’t have to change. Oh Future: We have destroyed you with our insufferable entitlements and demands. Oh Present: We have refused to experience you, lest we feel the shame of our dishonor.”

“Identity is that which we bequeath, and not that which is bequeathed us. What we invent and not what we recollect. Identity is the false mirror, which we should break whenever the image pleases us.

If by this he means, Palestinians are the forgers of their own identities, and that, in order to take that power in hand and bequeath the next generation a real and healthy and honorable identity, rather than the one handed to them by their Arab brethren who have given them their identity as sacrifices of suffering on the altar of shame-driven hatred, then I’m all for it. That would make the final remark very powerful, and very much an act of integrity: smash the narcissistic image that “pleases” and grapple with the hard and ugly realities.

“He wore a mask, took courage, and murdered his mother, because she was an easy prey for him, and because a woman soldier stopped him and exposed her breasts to him, saying: ‘Does your mother have such as these?’”

Well the first part makes sense. I have written about how in the pathological state of Palestinian/Arab honor right now, the men kill their daughters and sisters for being raped, but not the rapist — because the girl, even as she is family, cannot fight back, whereas the rapist can. As for the second part, I really doubt Israeli soldiers do that kind of thing — although the latest issue of Maxim does give pause — and I’ll pass on the fascinating significance such a fantasy reveals.

“Were it not for shame and darkness, I would visit Gaza, without knowing the way to the house of the new Abu Sufyan, nor the name of the new prophet. And had not Muhammad been the Seal of the Prophets, each tribe would have had a prophet, and each Companion would have had a militia.”

Not sure what this all means, but I do think that each companion did, indeed, have a militia. Muhammad averaged 9 military expeditions a year by the end of his career.

“June has astounded us on its fortieth anniversary. If we do not find one to defeat us again, we defeat ourselves with our own hands, lest we forget.”

“No matter how much you look into my eyes, you would not find my sight there. Disgrace has snatched it away. My heart does not belong to me, nor to another. It has come to do without me, [but] without becoming a stone.

“Does he who cries over the corpse of his brother ‘Allahu Akbar’ – does he know that he is an infidel, because he sees Allah in his own image, smaller than a normal human being?

Did you think you could yell “Allahu Akbar” while killing Jewish children, dance in the street at the news, and not corrupt your souls. Should you be surprised that your cult of death has begun to devour you? Did you have to wait till the world knew it before you realized what anyone with eyes could have known a long time ago.

The prisoner who aspires to inherit the prison concealed a smile of victory from the camera, but he did not succeed in suppressing the joy which spilled out of his eyes. Perhaps because the hasty text was more powerful than the actor.

I don’t know what Darwish has in mind, but I can offer some examples. When the Palestinians who celebrated 9-11, Arafat ordered the footage destroyed, threatened media outlets not to show what they had, and paraded his false regret before the camera while ostentatiously giving blood for the victims. Well-meaning Westerners could not see the Schadenfreude that spilled out from his eyes, but Arabs could, and rejoiced in private, even as they created the prison they loudly demanded the West free them from. As for a hasty text more powerful than the actor, look at Houda Ghalia on the beach at Gaza mourning at her father’s side crying “film! film!”

What do we need Narcissus for, so long as we are Palestinians, and so long as we do not know the difference between a mosque (jami’) and a university (jami’a), because they both come from the same root. What do we need a state for, as long as it and [the passing] days have the same destiny?

“A sign on the door of a nightclub: Welcome Palestinians returning from battle. Entrance is free, and our wine does not intoxicate…

“‘Me and the stranger against my cousin; me and my cousin against my brother; and me and my sheikh against myself.’ This is lesson number one in the new national education under the vaults of obscurity.

MEMRI notes here: “This is an ironic inversion of a common Arab saying: “Me and my brother against my cousin; me and my cousin against a stranger.” It illustrates the point to which Palestinian culture has taken the dynamics of honor-shame to pathological extremes — from zero-sum to negative sum. And once the “apartheid” wall went up, and killing Israelis became too hard, they were left with the one thing they have taught themselves in their shame-filled rage: killing themselves.

“Who will enter Paradise first? He who died by the bullets of the enemy, or he who died by the bullets of a brother? Some sages say: Sometimes your enemy is one born of your own mother.”

“The fundamentalists do not make me angry, for they are believers in their own way. But I am angered by their secular supporters and by their atheist supporters who believe but in one religion – their own pictures on television.

Nice. Edward Saïd comes to mind, and all the other phoney Palestinians who salvage their honor even as they become Western by speaking lies to everyone in the guise of courage.

“Someone asked me: Will a hungry guard defend a house whose owner traveled to spend his summer vacation on the French or Italian Riveria – whichever one of them. I said: He will not guard. He asked me: Does me + me = two? I said: You and you is less than one.

“I am not ashamed of my identity, because it is still [a work] in progress. I am, however, ashamed of some of the things mentioned in Ibn Khaldun’s Prolegomena.(3)

“You are, from now on, another.”

MEMRI notes: The Prolegomena (Al-Muqaddima) is a work by Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) that analyzes Arab history and society. I don’t know what this means. I take the last remark to mean that, with this global humiliation, Darwish recognizes that he is not who he and his people thought they were.

Where to from here? How long before fawning Westerners convince Darwish that he can drown his humiliation in more scape-goating of Israel. Is this fierce man, with his ability to see terrifying truths, to confront the narcissism in which Palestinian identity has been macerated from its beginnings in the refugee camps, capable of staying with the painful truth that might set him and his people free?

What an act of courage that would be! A prophet, a civic hero, in a time great need. Then poetry would become the great creator Darwish once, mistakenly, imagined.

Let me conclude with the remarkable post from Omar in which he shows the essential ingredient of all real self-criticism: empathy for the other and a willingness to be fair and apply the same standards to oneself.


    At the time when most Arabs criticize Westerners (Americans in specific) because they swallow everything presented to them without questioning, they seem to follow the same route! A single news clip, a show, or a bunch of photos are enough for millions to start demonstrating without questioning, and until this day, a thrilling speech can drive millions of Arab Middle Easterners blindly. Over a night, the media turned the sympathetic feelings toward Iran and the Shiites among Arabs 180 degrees with a 2-minute low-quality clip showing Saddam’s execution, and yet most Arabs feel that they cannot be driven easily, not by the media for sure!

    A similar thought can be reflected on some of the conceptions on the west; for instance, there has been a cliché catching on for a while of that all Americans are guilty because they failed in creating a coalition against their pro-war leaders to cause a coup against them, while at the same time forgetting all about Arab states and kingdoms that helped directly in the invasion of Iraq but yet almost no protests took place in the Arab world, therefore neglecting the fact that if it’s anyone’s guilt for not acting then it’s theirs!

    It’s easy for many people to whine and complain about the western double-standard policy, which is a fact, and blame them for not interfering when it matters, while at the same time rejecting everything coming from the west under the excuse of that it’s not “original” or that it has to be some sort of a conspiracy against us. Moreover, the western media bias is harshly criticized by the same people who don’t see any biasing in the Arab media and take any word coming from it to be sacred and unquestionable.

    It’s my deep conviction that we need to introduce objectivity heavily in our lives in order for us to stand up and face the perils ahead, because as I see it from here, hypocrisy never prevails.

Note how his commenters agree at two sites. From your mouths to your hearts to those of your companions. The truth will set you free. But it has to be the truth.

11 Responses to Darwish on Gaza: A Poet Looks into the Abyss

  1. Sophia says:

    Wow. Thank you.

    I just wish some this excoriating self-examination could be retroactive to the 1920′s and ’30′s.

  2. Joanne says:

    “In general, they have this thought of that most people around the globe are being fooled either by their governments or by their misleading media tools, while they (Arabs) are not.”

    Darwish has GOT to be kidding. Omar, too.

    Arabs weren’t being fooled by their own media. Media that promote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? By media that promote the blood libel, that say that Israel tried to make Arabs infertile with poisoned chewing gum and that Israel is developing a special bomb that targets Arab genes (!)?

    Of course, the Arabs always know better. They were always more savvy. Unlike naive Westerners, they KNOW that the Jews control the US and British governments. They KNOW that the US government caused 9/11. They KNOW that 4,000 Jews stayed home from Twin Towers on 9/11, having been warned away. They KNOW that the Jews control the Western media. They’re so savvy, they KNOW that the Jews want to extend Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates.

    But only just now, the poet and this blogger are beginning to figure out that, maybe when it comes to politics, Arabs weren’t what they thought themselves to be. Uh huh. So where were this poet and blogger during the last…oh…few decades or so?

    I suppose that they should be congratulated on their insights. They do criticize some points of mindless hypocrisy. But emphathy for the other side? I don’t see much evidence of that. Even if they’ve come this far, they got a ways to go.

  3. Sophia says:

    Joanne, I wonder if the world will survive the learning curve.

  4. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    my guess is that those who express the slightest of questioning don’t have much traction in the arab world.

  5. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    and the west won’t pay much attention to it either.

  6. Joanne says:

    Funny that you mention about a learning curve, Sophia.

    Just now I’m nearing the end of a book by Fouad Ajami called The Dream Palace of the Arabs. I’m reading a section that shows how a learning curve can actually go backwards, at least in the case of the Egyptians. [Can a curve go backwards? Oh well, you know what I mean.]

    He mentions that only a small minority of Egyptian intellectuals supported Sadat’s peace initiative with Israel. These were people like playwright Tawfic al-Hakim, critic Louis Awad, writer Hussein Fawzi, writer Yusuf Idris, and novelist Naguib Mahfuz. He also mentions playwright Ali Salem, who in the 1990s actually visited Israel and got villified for it (I read the book Salem wrote about his trip).

    What these people had in common was that they reflected an Egypt that was pre-Nasserite, an Egypt that was cosmopolitan (with lots of European residents), more Westernized, and more oriented towards the Mediterranean than to the Arab world. Most of them were old enough to have grown up in this earlier Egyptian world, which reached its apogee in the 1930s and 1940s.

    According to Ajami, it was a younger generation of intellectuals, shaped by Nasser’s brand of pan-Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, who refused to see the Israelis as human, and refused to have anything to do with Sadat’s peace with Israel.

    In any case, those who were more open to Israel were very old and very few in number in the years following Sadat’s peace. Apparently, the peer pressure among younger intellectuals to conform to a hardline attitude has been overwhelming in Egypt, and Mubarak knows better than to ignore it. Hence, the learning curve swung backwards.

    That pressure must be exponentially greater among the Palestinians. Maybe even the people mentioned in DL’s post above have to choose their words carefully. I was very critical, but I forgot that even baby steps take a lot of guts. There are people out there in the Arab world who speak for sanity, for instance the Syrian poet Adonis. I was disappointed to hear him say that Zionism must be resisted, only to read later that he had been pushing for peace with Israel for decades. I guess that people like this have to tread lightly if they’re to survive–not just professionally but literally.

  7. Sophia says:

    I think “resistance” itself is essentially a reactionary movement and obviously this could be said of certain religious movements too – in fact the desire to return to 1948 or even hundreds of years ago, to an Arab Caliphate, are frequently expressed.

    So yes, I believe a huge region of the world is deliberately going backward. And that’s obviously creating serious problems; how could it not? Look at Lebanon – a perfect microcosm, and the desire to destroy Israel – do people have any desire what that would really entail?

    And in Algeria for example, there has been a little-publicized civil war for years, between Islamists and more secular, modernizing forces; I think at least 100,000 people have been killed.

    Unfortunately we don’t hear much about this. That’s one of the worst aspects of the crazy fixation with Israel: people don’t hear about the rest of the region, or about Central and South Asia for that matter.

    I almost plotzed this morning when Zbigniew Brzezinski got up on CNN today and denied that religion (or other reactionary forces, culture conflicts etc) had anything to do with the terror attacks in London, that this was all politically motivated and had to do simply with Iraq and with the US having replaced Britain as the great exemplar of Colonialism/Imperialism; and of course our not being “good, honest brokers” between Israel and the Palestinians. Apparently the only terrorism he sees is that directed at Brits and Americans – the Thais don’t count in his world, nor the Africans, nor progressives in the Middle East, or in India: he specifically stated that the only terrorism that’s going on is directed at Britain and the US! And therefore it’s all just political!

    I also read this morning that the Bush Administration believes the ME is “going Islam” and wants to “engage” the Muslim Brotherhood.

    So between the blindness of people like ZB and the blind expedience of the “realists” I really fear for the next generation or so – it’s bad enough that many people in the ME don’t want to move forward but are apparently willing to create catastrophes in order to go backward – but our own leaders seem to be confused – or worse – and even stranger some on the theoretically progressive Left seem to have found common cause with people who prefer memories of the Middle Ages rather than seeking real solutions for real world problems – yikes -

  8. Barry Meislin says:

    Call it what you want. Learning curve. Backward learning curve. Whatever.

    But know, and know well, that the guiding principle is:

    “If we don’t get what we want (and here you can fill in the blank)—a.k.a. If you don’t give us what we want—we will make sure that the whole world will go to hell. You will know no peace. You will suffer as we have suffered.”

    It is a world of blackmail, murder, extraordinary intimidation, awesome prevarication, unbelievable treachery, and bottomless corruption.

    Get used to it….

    and, like suicide bombing, which is a technique favored by the blackmailers, this pattern first emerged in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict. but as long as it was Israel that was taking the beating, somehow, it seemed okay. the 21st century is under the aegis of this dynamics metastasis on a global scale. — rl

  9. Eliyahu says:

    Since RL mentioned eddy said as a “phoney palestinian,” it should be borne in mind that he was born an American citizen. His father left the Jerusalem area before WW One, that is, while Israel was under Ottoman rule. Maybe he left because Ottoman rule [Muslim rule] was overly tolerant and overly conducive to enterprise. Anyhow, he came to the United States, served in WW One and became a citizen. After WW One he came back to the Middle East, but not to Israel, not to Jerusalem, where Britain now ruled over the Jewish National Home, given the territorial name “palestine” by the Powers. Instead, the elder Said migrated to Egypt, also under British domination. There he set up a successful stationery and school supplies business. After William Said’s wife underwent a problematic infant delivery in Egypt, she came to Jerusalem for her next child’s birth, apparently because Jerusalem had better medical facilities. That’s why Edward was born here.

    As for Ibn Khaldun, he’s famous, among other things, for some very deprecatory remarks about Arabs, particularly the Badawin and their harmful influence on the settled peoples, that is, on civilization. I recommend Ibn Khaldun’s Prolegomena for its sociological and historical insights. At the Hebrew Book Week a few weeks ago, I bought a new copy of the complete Hebrew translation of the Prolegomena for only about $10 or $12 dollars.

    available on the web in an “adapted” translation. — rl

  10. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    i’m with barry. there is too much intellectualization of some very basic and obvious phenomena.

  11. Hillel Stavis says:

    Darwish’s poetic legacy lies in essentially one poem:

    “Identity Card”

    Intended mainly for a western audience (the poem is now required reading in many Israeli leftist schools), the poem actually updates the Koranic imperative, “Recite!” delivered to the illiterate Mohammed. In Darwish’s faux secularism,it has morphed into “Write Down!”, revealing his cloaked adherence to orthodoxy.

    There is always the veiled threat in his verses, to wit, “But if I become hungry, the usurper’s flesh will be my food…”

    Western intellectuals breathlessly await lines like these because they secretly admire bloodlust and the absolutism of eternal, Islamic revanchism.

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