It is five years today — Thursday 25 September, 2008 — since the death of the Palestinian public intellectual and political activist Edward Said, “the most brilliantly eloquent emissary of Palestine to the outside world” in the words of an equally eloquent and brilliant fellow compatriot — Mahmoud Darwish.
The anniversary of Edward Said’s death will be commemorated next Sunday at Columbia University in New York, the city and university where Said lived and taught for the last 40 years of his 68-year-life. Conspicuously absent from the event will be Mahmoud Darwish, who had been invited by Columbia University to give the keynote address. Sadly, his sudden death last month — at about the same age at which Said died — prevents him from addressing next Sunday’s gathering in New York.
Darwish, who died on 9 August following open-heart surgery in Houston, was very keen on keeping this appointment, so much so that he had even contemplated postponing surgery until the end of September and after he had delivered the Edward Said Memorial Lecture in New York. “I am going to see what the doctors say in Houston, but I will try to postpone a decision until after my visit to New York in September,” he told me over the phone at the beginning of July.
That, alas, turned out to be impossible. Darwish arrived in Houston on 29 July, and it is now clear that what he heard from the consultants there changed his mind regarding postponing the surgery. On 6 August Darwish walked into the operating theatre from where he was never to walk out again. His body was transported to the Palestinian territories a few days after his death, and he was buried in Ramallah on 13 August. It has long been the habit of Egyptians to commemorate the death of loved ones on the 40th day after their funeral. As I write these words on 23 September, it is 40 days since Mahmoud Darwish was buried; while the anniversary of Edward Said’s death on 25 September falls on the scheduled publication date of this column. I can think of no better way to commemorate both memories than to try to illuminate some aspects of the literary and political relationship that bonded the two men together. Naturally, though, any thorough investigation of this immensely complex and rich relationship is beyond the scope of a single column — perhaps even beyond the scope of any one book.
To begin with the political, obviously Palestine is the overriding structuring element in this relationship, for as has been said, “being born Palestinian is a political act in itself.” Both Said and Darwish were born Palestinian, and both were uprooted from their birthplace by the 1948 Palestinian Nakba which resulted in the occupation of Said’s West Jerusalem and the razing to the ground of Darwish’s village of Birweh in Upper Galilee where an Israeli Moshav was built on its ruins.
Twenty-six years after the Nakba, which both men experienced while very young — Said was twelve, Darwish, seven — they met for the first time in New York. In his 2004 poem commemorating the first anniversary of Said’s death, Darwish described this first encounter: “There, on the doorstep of an electric abyss,/ high as the sky, I met Edward,/ thirty years ago,/ time was less wild then…/ We both said:/ If the past is only an experience,/ make of the future a meaning and a vision.”
The “sky-high electric abyss” mentioned here must be one of New York’s skyscrapers, housing the PLO delegation led by Yasser Arafat who addressed the United Nations General Assembly in November 1974. After this event both Said and Darwish told interviewers how they had cooperated with the PLO delegation in the writing of the famous “Olive branch in one hand, and gun in the other” speech delivered by Arafat before the UN. The Arabic text was put into an eloquent style by Darwish, while the English translation was rendered into a text of matching eloquence by Said.
This marked the beginning of a long friendship between the two men and many years of political cooperation under the banner of the PLO. Both men continued in their attempts at giving the future “a meaning and a vision,” though, unlike Darwish, who was later to become a member of the PLO’s executive council, Said was never completely immersed in PLO politics.
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, expelling the PLO from the country, and Darwish, who had been living in Beirut for the previous ten years, had to leave. Six years would elapse before he would find himself again cooperating with Said on the last PLO-inspired document they worked on together, the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Statehood. This was an experience that signalled the beginning of Said’s increasing disenchantment with the PLO leadership, leading to his withdrawal from any association with Arafat by the beginning of the 1990s.
Said wrote about the reasons behind this disenchantment in an article that appeared in The London Review of Books on 8 December 1988, in which he wrote that “Darwish, [Elias] Khoury and I met together for the first time in six years [since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982] at Algiers the other week, to attend the meetings of the Palestine National Council. Darwish wrote the Declaration of Statehood, which I helped re-draft and translate into English.”
Along with the Declaration, the PNC approved resolutions in favour of two states in historical Palestine, one Arab, one Jewish, whose co-existence would assure self-determination for both peoples. Khoury commented relentlessly, but fondly, as a Lebanese, on what we did, suggesting that perhaps Lebanon might some day be like Palestine. All three of us were present as both participants and observers. We were tremendously moved, of course: yet Darwish and I were worried that our texts were being mutilated by politicians and even more worried that our state was, after all, only an idea.”
An idea betrayed by Arafat and his men, Said would argue in later years. Darwish disagreed. Political differences notwithstanding, both Said and Darwish recognised and cherished the immense intellectual and literary achievements of the other, never allowing their diverging political views to detract from the great admiration each held for the other. In an article on Darwish published in the American literary periodical Grand Street in winter 1994, for example, Said insisted that Darwish, who had never completely severed his relations with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority which Said had vehemently attacked, should nevertheless still be considered apart from it.
“His mordant wit,” Said wrote, “fierce political independence, and exceptionally refined cultural sensibility kept him at a distance from the frequent coarseness of Palestinian and Arab politics.”
In the same article, Said wrote that “poetry for Darwish provides not simply an access of unusual insight or a distant realm of fashioned order, but a harassing amalgam of poetry and collective memory, each pressing on the other. And the paradox deepens almost unbearably as the privacy of a dream is encroached on and even reproduced by a sinister, threatening reality... This strained and deliberately unresolved quality in Darwish’s recent poetry makes it an instance of what Adorno called late style, in which the conventional and the ethereal, the historical and the transcendently aesthetic combine to provide an astonishingly concrete sense of going beyond what anyone has ever lived through in reality.”
In his introduction to Said’s book On Late Style, published posthumously, Michael Wood writes that “I find I can’t believe that he [Said] wanted to finish this book. Or rather, he wanted to finish it, but was waiting for a time that would perhaps have never come… Completing the work would have been too much like writing the end of a life.”
I can find no better end to this piece than to note the uncanny resemblance between what Wood says here about Said and what Darwish’s family and friends found when they went to his flat in Amman for the first time after his death. On his extraordinarily well-organised desk they found a few hand-written papers containing an unfinished poem with a note saying, “I do not want to finish this poem.”
It is a great honour, worth noting here by way of a postscript, that the writings of both Darwish and Said appeared on the pages of this newspaper. Both were generous enough to entrust Al-Ahram Weekly with the task of giving voice to their visions of the flawed “Middle East Peace Process,” which has plunged the Palestinian people into a nadir of violence and despair that continues to the present day.
Darwish’s first overtly political piece to appear in the Weekly was a translation of his letter of resignation from the Executive Committee of the PLO in protest at the Oslo Accords embarked on in summer 1993; while Said’s first article — a forceful denunciation of the Oslo agreement — appeared in Sepember 1993.
Said continued to contribute regularly to the Weekly for the next ten years, and his many articles are now collected in three books: Peace and its Discontents, The End of the peace Process and From Oslo to Iraq.
Darwish, on the other hand, who seldom wrote articles and was never a regular contributor to any newspaper or magazine, was nevertheless a generous friend of the Weekly, and he always granted the paper copyright of the translations of both his poetry and the occasional columns that appeared in the literary periodical he edited, Al-Karmel, as well as of those that appeared in other Arab papers whenever occasion called for his intervention. On this anniversary, all of us at the Weekly are deeply saddened by the loss of these two voices of Palestine, whose writings it was a privilege to host on the pages of the paper. We extend our heart-felt condolences to their families, as well as to the millions of people all over the world who continue to strive to keep alive their lofty and humane visions.الفلسطينية | al-falasteenyia