In Memory of Mahmoud Darwish: Interview with Mourid Barghouti (Cairo, December 2008)
Cairo, 15 December 2008
(Talking about common friends) Everyone knows each other.
But, you have to remember, you are moving within this circle of people who read and write, and go to school, university, and you are moving within a limited circle. A poet, a novelist… the circle itself is small in Palestine.
Does this circle manage to stay connected to the rest of the people though? My experience in Ramallah was very different from my experience in Jenin. I meet people that know of people in Ramallah all the time, but Jenin is like removed all the time, it’s a whole other story…
And now with the checkpoints and barricades and the barriers and the wall and the Israeli restrictions, the movement between people is really very difficult, as you have realized.
I’m trying to get to know the person of Mahmoud without knowing him personally.
How long have you known him for? When did you meet?
My first meeting with him happened in Cairo when he left Palestine for the first time in ‘71. ’71-’72. He was in Moscow, and then went with a journalist called Ahmed Bahaddin from Egypt. I was in Cairo. I was in Cairo because I studied in Cairo University from ’63 to ’67, when the war broke out I had to leave, I went to Kuwait. I left Kuwait at the end of 1970, 1971. And we stayed, I stayed here, as a married person. We married in ’70. We married in Kuwait in 1970, but then we decided to leave that place, we couldn’t stand it, life in the Gulf. We would never write, or read or do anything, it’s a stupid location for a creative writer. It’s a huge company and that’s it. So we decided to leave, and then we came back to live in Cairo. Radwa joined back her University, she was a teacher in Ein Shams university, and I was taken to teach English language in Cairo University for two years and then I volunteered for Radio Palestine which was broadcast from Cairo.
That year Mahmoud arrived to stay in Cairo, he left Palestine. It was his first contact with the Arab world. One of his first impressions was… he was amazed that everybody around is Arab. “Are you all Arabs?” Nothing in Hebrew, nothing. So in the hotel in the street in the restaurant in the theatre in the cinema, everybody around him was an Arab. Because after ’48 they became a minority and surrounded by Israelis everywhere from all kinds of origins. Israelis from Russia, from Yemen, from Poland, from Australia, from Brooklyn, from everywhere in the world. And now the city full of Arabs.
At that time, did people feel a difference, for example, between being a Palestinian and being an Egyptian?
Until now, I mean on the popular level, we feel as one culture. The borders, the passports, the nationalities, stamps, they are really for the governments. You would follow what happens in Tunisia, in Morocco, or in Iraq, or in Yemen, or in Palestine, or in Syria or in Egypt, as your own place. You are sad if there is a dictator here, if this part is occupied, if this decision is taken, if this policy is adopted. This emotional unity is there. This cultural unity is there. There is political division, this was drawn by the red pencil of Churchill and the (Sykes-Picot ? or Balfour? ) Agreement in 1917, 1916, to draw the nation states.
Before that everybody would take the train to move from one country to another country, to drive a car or to go by a camel or anything. This was the Arab land and people were living there. Palestine was part of Syria. And Lebanon. You would say Greater Syria and you are talking about Lebanon, and Palestine, and parts of Jordan, and it was all called bilaad al-Sham. The creation of Israel came in the middle of this unified population, emotionally, and culturally, and historically, even economically… a Lebanese would go and buy bread from Galilee, because it’s better than Beirut, or clothes for the bride for the wedding, they would go to Haifa. People in southern Lebanon, whenever they wanted to go to a city, they went to Acca, or Haifa, to Northern Palestine, which was closer to them than going north to the capital Beirut. And even their dialect, is not like the Beiruti dialect. It’s close to the Palestinian dialect. Their sheep would go to graze there. It was one place. This political division, and creating the nation states was something really to serve the colonial interests.
Now, they created governments, with different flags, with different interests, different armies, different agendas, and constitutions, and then this was the price of… the price and the prize actually, to them. It was difficult to put Israel in the middle of this, solid and united. And then you create a moderate, pro-western government, you create a religious government, like Saudi Arabia. Go whatever direction, but don’t be one.
And people understood that?
Arabs know that. The population knows this, but it’s beyond their capacity to change it. And the rulers are clinging to these borders because they became kings, and presidents, and now you have twenty kingdoms, twenty republics, and sultans, and sheiks, and everybody is the king of his own corner, and he’s defending it, and he can be moderate with the Israeli occupation but he cannot be moderate with his Arab neighbor now. Look at the clashes between the Lebanese and the Syrians, sometimes the Libyans and the Egyptians, the quarrel between (Quatar?) and Bahrein over one island, and Iraq and Kuwait, now they are fighting each other. And this was the scenario.
But the people still felt the same?
People still feel the same. You can really examine this by yourself.
But here in Egypt, many people my age, people who are twenty, don’t know anything about what’s going on in Palestine. It’s so far away from them.
This is the problem. They are the victims of a very long-adopted policy in the information industry, in the media, tv, radio, in the newspapers that are all by the government, to forget about any Arab commitment. Since Sadat went to Israel and took Egypt out of the struggle, the policy, for thirty years now, for forty years, is just to keep the Egyptian population unaware, of the tragedy of any other country outside Egypt. Egypt is for Egyptians and Egypt comes first, and this is the policy. King Abdullah of Jordan would tell you, Jordan comes first. In Lebanon, Lebanon comes first. Aualan Lubnan, aualan al-Urdun, aualan… kullu aualan. So what is akhiran is Palestine.
But this is a very carefully studied policy. It might veil some vision of the population for a certain period but at any dramatic moment in history people will just go back to their revolutionary emotions. You know yesterday, this shoe business against Bush, you know, people are celebrating it all over the world, not only the Arab world… This is also Iraq, and Bush being greeted out of office with a pair of shoes… they started with slapping the statue of Saddam with shoes, and they ended with slapping the body, the live body not the statue, of the emperor himself, the destiny-maker of the world, by shoes, on camera. But I told you, the reaction was really pan-Arab. During the first intifada, when the Palestinians were one, and it was really a successful confrontation, and the policy of facing the Israeli occupation with a popular uprising, the Egyptians were a different nation. They were donating money, making demonstrations, organizing themselves in support groups, because the government could not play against the Palestinians. Now, the government is telling them, look at those, you are sympathetic with people who are fighting each other. Are you with the crazy people in Gaza or with (Fatah?) … Actually they are really using all our mistakes against us. But the emotion is still one, and if it is covered with a certain layer, one or two layers of falsified propaganda, or any media, it’s very quickly removed if there is really a dramatic moment of confrontation. This happened when Israel attacked south Lebanon, people felt one.
Is that only people that had been involved or had cared about the situation before, or is it also the younger generations?It seems to me that there is such a split in Egypt, or in Lebanon for that matter, between people that have been through ’82, or ’67, and people my age.
Well, I don’t want to generalize, I don’t have statistics, I haven’t met everyone but no, I would dare to say that the emotion is there, and the split has always been there. When you face a problem of occupation or dictatorship, usually society splits into two parts. One who would like to coexist with the problem, and keep his head or her head lower, be quiet, and go with it. It’s always like this, in every kind of conflict. And then you have the other part who say no, we will not accept this, we have to resist even if we are the weak side, even if we are going to lose, or to sacrifice, but this is unacceptable and we have to step up. This split takes place in any problem, in any dilemma.
And then people have to fight against their occupier and at the same time against their people…
And their people. Yes, those that are making fun of them. You are resisting the enemy, let’s say the outside enemy, and then you are trying to convince all you struggle against, half of your population, that what you are doing in resisting the enemy is right, and they are mistaken not to join you. So it’s always a dual, intellectual struggle and practical struggle. Practically you struggle against the enemy, but intellectually it’s both the outside and the inner.
And then even within the people who want to do something there are splits.
Yes, in Lebanon not everybody was with Hezbollah during the invasion. But they kept silent during the days of the invasion, but when it was over they started to say, ok Hezbollah, let’s come, let’s finalize, let’s put an end to this. So the split itself is always there. If you are capable of scoring a clear victory, then you will be better off, and everyone is with you, and victory has so many fathers. But if you lose, nobody is confessing that he is part of it, ‘it’s not me’, I’m not the reason for being defeated. But now in Lebanon (the government?) is endorsing the victory to his own position, taking it to ‘I am the one who said so’ I am the one who convinced the Americans to do so and so. I am the one who created the seven points that led to this ceasefire, I am I am I am I am. But then he would tell, ok Hezbollah, come here.
Let’s go back to Mahmoud Darwish.
Then he was given a job in Al-Ahram, it was a literary magazine. Still Al-Ahram today. They used to print a magazine not literary, but some sort of social intellectual and literary magazine, called (Al-taliar ?). And the editor in chief was Lutfi Al-Khouly. And he took him, in Al-taliar, as one of the editors. But Al-taliar was published by Al-Ahram, and the offices are in Al-Ahram and also Mahmoud used to write a feature, weekly I think, in Al-Ahram, and the monthly effort for this Al-taliar. But after a while he juts decided to go to Beirut where the PLO is.
Is that the reason why he moved to Beirut, because that’s where the PLO was?
Yes. He wanted to be with the majority of the Palestinian resistance movement. Because in Cairo, the Palestinians in Egypt historically are not allowed to organize. You have to stay here as a guest, be nice, be quiet, you can do business, you can run a shop, a cafeteria, you can make business, but no organizational effort, and if you speak politics, if you do politics then it is, it should be identical with the position of the government.
Is that why you were made to leave Egypt? What happened?
No, I was deported from Egypt the day when Sadat went to visit Israel. He did not want any Palestinian, and I was a poet, and in the radio station, and he did not want any statement to criticize him, or any poem, or any satire, or anything, so it was preventive.
It was a preventive measure. They came to my house and they handcuffed me, and they deported me, with others of course. Just preventive measure, those Palestinians, ‘we don’t want any headache from them.’
Mahmoud Darwish was in Lebanon already.
’77? Yes. Actually when I was deported, I was deported to Baghdad, and then after some days I went to Beirut, and there he received me and was like, ‘what happened to you?’ (laughs) He was in Beirut, at that time he was in the Palestinian Research Center, the head of which was (Dr. Anis Sayd ?), he’s still living. The center is closed, and the Israelis bombarded it, and they confiscated the library and the archives. It was attacked twice by bombs, and once they sent some parcel with explosive, and this poor professor Anis Sayd, who’s a great Palestinian mind, was the head of the institute and Mahmoud’s boss, he lost his fingers, and one of his eyes, and his hearing.
He’s still alive, he’s still in Beirut. He’s now old, people read to him, he can’t read, but he published a huge book called “13 September: Against the Oslo Agreement.”
And you yourself never lived in Beirut, right?
I did, because when Sadat closed the first time the radio station, we traveled, we went to Beirut and we built a radio station in Al-Fakhani. I stayed there, but I was not happy with the leadership, as I told you. I am a critical person. I don’t like so many things, and I used to tell them that my problem with you is not political, my problem with you is aesthetic. You are ugly (laughs). So I stayed for some months there at the radio station, and then Syrians, the Syrian army, entered Lebanon, because the Palestinian Lebanese forces were about to dominate the country and the Syrians were afraid of this, so they wanted to strike a balance between this force and the pro-Israeli Christian minority, so they brought the Syrian army and they made the massacre in Tel Al-Zaatar, which is famous, and Mahmoud wrote of this, and then Sadat called us again from the radio, he wanted us to shout against the Syrians.
He wanted you to come back to Cairo?
Yes, he wanted us to come back to Egypt and to shout against the Syrians. You know the radio station was closed, was shut down, twice. The first one in 1975 and then Syria entered Lebanon in 1976, then he invited us back, and then he went to Israel and took us finally and shut us down forever in 77. So we were used to it. Mahmoud was in Beirut at that time, he was in Shuun Filistiniat.
Did you become close friends with him when he came to Cairo the first time? When did you get to know him really?
It was in so many geographies. The first meeting was in Cairo, and then in Beirut. And then I was in Budapest for many years as you know from I saw Ramallah, and he was in Paris. If I wanted to publish a poem in al-Karmel, instead of sending it by mail, I would go to Paris, just to see him and spend time there. My brother had a house in eastern France in the border of Geneva, and I used to go every year there and then I used to take a tgv to Paris to see Mahmoud. I knew him in Cairo, Beirut, and then Paris. And then when he left Paris he decided to stay in Amman, and my mother is in Amman, our house is in Amman, I spend many months every year in Amman, and then he used also to come to Cairo very often, so he used to come to this house, here, many many times, and I used to go to his flat in Abdoun, in Amman many times. He knows my mother, he comes to our place, she cooks for him. He never married, he never had anyone to cook for him. It’s not that he never married. He married briefly twice, but he’s not…
What was he like as a person?
Mahmoud as a person?
He was thin. Tall, not very tall I mean, my height. Thinner. Thick hair. Very shy, but he looks aggressive. I was always to defend him when everybody said ‘your friend is so aggressive, he thinks that he’s god or something. He doesn’t talk to us. I used to tell them, you are stupid. He is so shy. And this is the wall that protects him.
I heard he was intimidating.
Yeah, people would think that he is so aggressive, so intimidating, but actually this was out of being a very shy person. He was very clever and he respects the distance, he never comes to propose a closer distance, from anyone. He doesn’t impose a friendship on anyone, he doesn’t express admiration of anyone to bring him closer or nearer. He is very reserved. He doesn’t do those social briberies, you know, ‘you are beautiful, you are attractive’. I think this is common between us, because – you read it in I saw Ramallah – sometimes I think the others should take the first ten steps towards me, before I respond.
So how did you guys connect? How did your friendship happen?
It was gradual. It was slow. It developed with every time we had to be in a situation or to choose between two different ways and then we discovered that we are similar. We will for the same thing, we opt for the same option. And I think he understood that he’s dealing with somebody who’s as composed and as shy and as distanced as himself. He really expressed it in so many occasions, and sometimes in written from, when he dedicated a book for me or even for Tamim, or Radwa, and when he spoke to friends. He felt comfortable with this family, and with my mother.
The last day, when he died, I was here, and then the tv stations started telephoning me. I had phoned him. I knew he was told by his French doctor, ‘you have a ticking bomb in your heart and you have to choose your own way of death. Either you go to the operation or you leave it until you just collapse anywhere, in a restaurant or in the street, or when you are sleeping, anything. He was thinking whether to go or not to go, and then a friend told me that Mahmoud decided to go. I telephoned him in his mobile, his mobile was 262600. On the mobile phone you don’t know his whereabouts so he might answer when he’s in Paris, or in Amman or in Ramallah, or in Nazareth, so I told him, where are you? And he told me, I am with my mother, in Galilee. He was speaking slowly as if he did not want them to listen to what he said to me. He said, I am going to Texas, I just came here to say hello to them, and I’ll be leaving. I told him, have you decided to do it? and what’s the risk? He said, paralysis or death or a miracle. I told the doctor that I won’t accept paralysis. I will not be paralyzed. This was the last time I heard his voice. I phoned the people in Texas when the news started to come, he died, he’s still alive, so many things, one of them told me that he died, the second apologized, Mr. Barghouti, he is still alive. We are sorry. It was crazy. Anyway, after that I took a flight to Amman and I attended the funeral in Ramallah, not in Amman, I went to Amman just to cross the bridge.
How was the funeral? In Memory for Forgetfulness he writes about how he would like his funeral to be.
The opposite of what he wrote. Because they are ugly.
Did they make it into a very political funeral?
They tried to politicize it, as if he is a member of the executive committee of the PLO, as if he’s a minister, a member of the government. And then they covered everything with violet color, and he hated violet. And in one of his poems he said I just want seven (ears of grain ?) And they said, we can’t bring him this.
Who was in charge of this funeral?
The Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen. The government. They were all there but I never shook hands with them, I hated them. They are not the ones to tell them your condolences for Mahmoud. They were half a circle around the grave and when these rituals were over I just went back to my hotel and I did not leave it for three days because I refused to. I came for my heart, for my own, not to give my condolences to anyone there. They were really… very prosaic.
Did people manage to come?
Yes. Thousands. All kinds. All kinds of age, sex, religious background, families, teenagers, old people, villagers, people of the city. They were just climbing the hills of Ramallah, walking in a very very hot day. It was the 13th of August. If you know Ramallah, the qasr-al-taqafa on the hill. You have to go.
When did you see him in last?
We had dinner in my house in Amman, in May. He left, we had dinner on our terrace. He was fond of shrimps. Radwa and Tamim don’t eat shrimps at all, and I used to bring a huge tray of shrimps, 2kgs or something, and he used to say, you know what I love about you Radwa and Tamim, that you don’t like shrimps. You are great, you are my friends. And then we would compete who is finishing first. He told everybody about these shrimp massacres that we had here. So when he was going back after the dinner, one of my friends, my nephew actually, he studied neurology, and he told me, uncle, Mahmoud is not well. The way he walks, there’s a big problem. Not in his legs, just, there is something.
He did not like to speak about his health. But to me he made it known that he went to Paris, he met his doctor, his doctor told him about this ticking bomb in his chest, in his heart, and that he had to choose. More than that, he used to tell me that he never left the key inside the hole when he slept, he would just close and take the key because, he told me, ‘I don’t want to be discovered after four or five days a dead person. I want the maid, or a friend to come. I don’t want to be left alone.’ If you read him carefully the idea of death was haunting him for a long time, since ‘48. When I was in Budapest I received a phone call that he collapsed in Vienna and that he is hospitalized for his first heart attack. That was ‘84. I took my car and went to his hospital in Vienna. He stayed for a long time at the hospital, for one month or something. I used to take my car every weekend to spend one or two minutes with him every visit, and then go back and come again. He used to ask me to smuggle one or two cigarettes because he was not allowed to smoke and everyone around him would not give him a cigarette and then one night he told me, those stupid people think that they are cautious, they take care of my life more than I do. You are my friend, give me one. I used to smoke and I used to bring him two cigarettes.
In the last years, since moving back to Ramallah, he changed a lot, the way he wrote, the way he thought about things. How do you think he changed over the years, from the first time you met him in Cairo?
It is as if he decided to reconcile himself with all. He became really more social. Less aggressive. He would socialize more, he would answer the telephone, answer to emails, accept invitations. He traveled to so many places in the last five years. When you are a writer, myself and Mahmoud, and others, usually we drop fifty percent of the invitations that we received because otherwise we wouldn’t have any time to write or to read or to be ourselves or to have your own time under your own command. You are invited to Australia, you say no, to the United States.. you can’t really accept them all. But in the last five years he accepted almost every invitation.
He was just bidding farewell to life. He was aware that it was his time. He was aware. He just wanted to say.. he went to Ramallah, and Haifa, and Amman, he went to France, to Sarajevo, to Macedonia, wherever he was invited. He was just trying to say goodbye.
It seems that he got more lonely. Or rather, more scared of loneliness. From the poetry at least.
Yes. Through the poetry his loneliness is everywhere. The last years. Because in the beginning he enjoyed his freedom as a single person, not accountable to any relationship, to anyone, to any woman, to any leaders, to anything. He was enjoying that. But after all that he would tell you, you know, I am afraid to be alone. I never keep the keys inside. this idea of being lonely was heavier and heavier and heavier.
Is that because of age? Or did he grow disillusioned?
To tell you something that is not really known to everyone, he was pessimistic in his last days about the prospects of the Palestinian cause. He knew the stupidities of the leadership but he was not the person who is going to make public clashes with the leadership, criticizing, but in his heart he was really disgusted with the whole scene. And he used to express that. It’s really a very difficult situation, to us, all of us. We were just meditating the whole story, the whole resistance, dream, and its application on the ground, and it was really disappointing.
In the end, did he have any hope left, at all?
I think he was very pessimistic.
Are you also?
Yes, with this Palestinian scene, and with this Arab regimes in the neighboring countries around Palestine, I am not optimistic. I think the Israelis are not offering to the Palestinians any offer that a Palestinian can accept. Not a Palestinian, not a Palestinian nationalist, but a Palestinian traitor. They don’t have any offer to be tempting to a traitor to accept, to sell to the people, ok, come on, we have this offer let’s us accept. Not even that. They are not offering anything actually. They speak of their sovereignty in the sky, and on the ground, and in the sea, and on the borders, and on the statehood, and on who’s coming and who’s going. And no Jerusalem, and no refugees, and no settlements. That’s why there is no possibility to end this struggle by force and there is no possibility to accept any offer by the stronger part, which is the occupier. Those who are supposed to bring initiative, in any conflict, are the winners, the stronger side, those who have the land, they should say, ok, we would like to compromise, so this is my offer. We never had an offer that even a traitor could accept. This is a situation where you don’t know how to borrow hope. It will go on until either we negotiate from another point rather than this low point, we are negotiating now from the last point that we have as Palestinians, this kind of internal conflict, this kind of Arab division around us. Nobody is supporting us. Arab dictators in every capital, almost in every capital. And this US and western position in support of Israel. Everything Israel does is legal, is legitimate. Israel is above law, above international law. Yesterday they dismissed the representative of the human rights division in the United Nations, they deported him from Tel Aviv airport, and he is now back in Geneva. They are not allowing him to enter the airport. They are above. They are accountable to no one, and if you criticize Israel you are anti-Semitic. If you criticize the decisions of the government of Israel then you are anti-Semitic. This is crazy. Just yesterday and the day before yesterday the European Community upgraded their relation with Israel as if they are giving it a prize. With this international scene, with the lack of Israeli initiatives, with the Arab dictatorships around Palestine, and the internal division of the Palestinian leadership, and the collapse of the Palestinian centers, the Palestinian means of struggle…
Yet it seems that right now there still is a strong Palestinian pride…
Yes we have a strong sense, we have a strong example. We have a dream. We have a history of sacrifice, we have a brave history of children facing tanks, and civilians facing a huge army, this is the asset of Palestine. The history and the memory is there.
Will that continue?
Yes, it will continue. It will continue. You know what happens, in history, colonialism and occupation and dictatorship, they just postpone the future, they don’t change it. All slaves one day will be free but this day, the masters make it, they just postpone and postpone and postpone. This is the human endeavor for freedom, you just want to be free today, and you start your struggle, and then you are free after three-hundred years.
So it will come?
It will come. It will come. I am confident in human nature, but not in present-day politics. The disappointment is with politics, not with history.
Back to Mahmoud Darwish, it seems that he also became very bitter and disillusioned with politics and the PLO.
Yes, he was disillusioned, and bitter, and hopeless. This internal division almost was part of… this huge wave of melancholy that controlled his soul in the last days. He was really under this impression of, what happened to us? All of us Palestinians. Did we write poetry to reach this? Did we struggle to reach this? And he wrote this famous article ‘you are not yourself’ and it made people of Hamas angry with him because they understood that he sides with Abu Mazen, when actually he was misread. He was really just slapping everyone on the face, the leadership in Ramallah and the leadership in Gaza.
But the leadership in Ramallah kept claiming him as their own.
They wanted him. He was the most popular figure in Palestine and they wanted to say that he belongs to us, he is our symbol, our example, and this beautiful creature is ours. And the funeral, it was full of their military, all the security forces were there with their huge guns, pushing people here and there. And then what happened is that I shook the shoulders of one of the officers, and I don’t know the military grade but he seemed to be somebody really up, with so many stars. I just shook him because they were pushing everyone around, including the relatives of Mahmoud. And then I just captured his two arms in the middle of this crowdedness, why are you carrying all these arms in the funeral? He told me, to keep the security. But this is your people. Suppose there is no security, suppose something happened, would you shoot? He said, I have instructions. Because you know, I heard somebody say, he is my uncle. A small boy was pushed away from the grave, and said, let me come, Mahmoud Darwish is my uncle. And then I saw Siham, his sister, trying to push, and then she was pushed away. She almost collapsed. I was close and I supported her, and then, at that moment I just took this officer who was making this. So many stupidities. They are ugly, this leadership.
You knew Mahmoud also in 1982, when he was still in Beirut. How was he then, before dropping out of the PLO, when he was still involved?
He was very close to Arafat. He had him as a father figure.
Did you also get to know Arafat?
Yes, of course. I knew Arafat, and I was always critical of Arafat. Mahmoud was not.
Did you argue?
We argued a lot. We argued a lot. You know, my love to Mahmoud and my admiration of Mahmoud’s personality and of his career as a poet does not mean that – and this is universal – the acceptance and admiration and endorsement of a person and your friendship and your love does not mean that you are in love with a god. So you are in love with a human being and there are some differences, different choices, and that was the case. No one is so naïf to say that if you are in love with somebody then you have two gods, without any differences, no. We respected each other, we were friends, we helped each other, we were in very difficult situations together, but we quarreled. On politics we quarreled, on choices, on analysis of things, but I never for a single moment thought and he never for a single moment thought that he or myself were talking the minds of others when we were talking our sentences, whenever he talks it’s Mahmoud talking, and not talking on behalf of another master. This was a part of the respect between us. When I was against some of the things that he is accepting, he wouldn’t even question the background, if this is Mourid’s mind. But with others, when you are in a faction, or in a party, then you are a mouthpiece of a certain faction. I am independent, I have never been in any party, and he knows that. That’s why we were always frank. After all, he came closer to being critical, and I never came closer to being reconciliatory with the leadership. The historic development brought him closer to being a critical figure. And I am still a critical figure as I started. At the end we were just.. you know, we would weep on the shoulders of each other.
How did the change happen? When did he start getting disgusted with politics?
It was Oslo. Not before that. Oslo was his realization that the whole meaning of the struggle is going to be changed substantially. Before that he used to understand the pragmatic choices of Arafat, his friend. It was a personal friend, he was almost the son of Yasser Arafat. They were really close to each other emotionally, and everything that he did in politics, he did for Arafat. When he told him to come and be a member of the executive committee or come to be a secretary of the union of writers, he would do that to please Arafat and not want those jobs. But finally, after Oslo, he asked him to be a minister of culture and he refused.
Did that end their relationship?
No, they kept their friendship to the last minute. Mahmoud was not a confrontational character. He would say, I am against Oslo and I am resigning but he wouldn’t go to the press, attacking the leadership. He would take the step silently, letting people say whatever they wanted to say. He was not a populist who used his opposition to gain something. It was Oslo. He said, I don’t see that it will lead to statehood, but let them try. Dr Anis Sayd, and myself, and Edward Said were on the sharper side, Oslo will be a catastrophe, things have to be done to stop this catastrophe. We should examine Arafat’s policies. We should watch it, we should stop it if it’s going to lead to this catastrophe. On this point, this degree of opposition was different. Edward was much more outspoken. Edward Said wrote books about it. I am not a prose writer and I am not a journalist I am just a poet, but in interviews, if I am given any platform, tv, in my poetry, and in any discussion, any seminar, I make my position about Oslo very very clear.
You and Mahmoud had very different opinions on politics. You chose not to be involved whereas, at least at the beginning, he seemed to believe that there is a connection between literature and politics, there is a role for literature in politics.
He had hopes. He had hopes. He had hopes and they collapsed. I was ambivalent about that. He joined a side, I was always independent, still to this moment. I can’t wake in the morning and find myself part of any party or dictator, vote for a, or to z, or approve this statement or sign this paper, I can’t do that.
In Memory for Forgetfulness he questions the role of the poet. He asks, what is the point of poetry in all of this. What do you think?
This is one of my remarks to your introduction. I think it would serve you much better if you think of the whole thing with the background of a brutal military invasion and occupation and massacres and loss. The background is this. Occupation, invasion, military against civilians, and massacres and at the same time being let down by all your friends or Arab governments. Nobody helps you. So the Israeli role in deleting Palestine from the map, in the political genocide of the Palestinians, not the physical, yet… but there is some sort of political genocide to end the name of Palestine, to end the map of Palestine, to end the memory and story and narration of the Palestinians, with this brutal military mind. This is the background of so many scattered sentences in Mahmoud’s book and in his poetry. But when he is not sure of the necessity of being a poet, this has to be explained only in the context of being occupied, suppressed, invaded, denied, dispossessed, exiled, dismissed, deported, besieged. So this is not a free meditation on the role of poetry, this is not a philosophical theorization, this is not a free point of departure in thinking of the role of poetry in life or the role of the poet. It is some sort of physical reaction to this rude and savage comparison between the bombshell and the baby or the lack of a glass of water. So it’s being a poet in that context. When you read his book you have to read it in one of the moments of history where Beirut was showered with custer bombs every half minute, from fighters F-60s and I don’t know with a population who don’t have any anti-aircraft artillery. So you just received death, you just watch it. This is the book. The whole book is receiving the possibility of death and you are helpless, being a poet or being a general with Arafat. Because Arafat is general at that time and the Lebanese joined forced with the Palestinians. What did they have to stop the skies? Those easy wars, what’s an easy war in our times. As Palestinians, or Arabs, or Lebanese, or even Iraqis. That the sky is full of bombers, and you don’t have anything to do. So you just a carpet, receiving.
And on top of that there is also all that’s going on within Lebanon and within Lebanese society.
This is what they did. And what they did in Afghanistan, what they did in Jenin, what they did in the (Balkans?), and in Gaza. I would differentiate between Israel going to war and them going to kill. If you go to war you send your artillery, your aircraft, but you are afraid that they might be shut down. But Israel is not afraid of having them shut down, nobody has artillery, and aircrafts, nobody. Not the Palestinians, nor the Lebanese, not the Iraqis, not the Afghanis. This is an easy war, and this is one of the theories actually of the new think-tanks in the United States. I think this is taking us to Macchiavelli or something like that, the weak enemy should be crushed immediately, quickly, start with the weak, smash, kill, finish.
It’s amazing that with all of this, Palestinians and the Palestinian resistance are still there.
Because there is no violent solution to any struggle. The whites in South Africa tried this for two three centuries and it didn’t work.
Do you think Palestine is going to have it Gandhi, its Mandela?
We had it, in the first intifada actually. And Arafat’s policies ended that beautiful era of Palestinian struggle with the ugly Oslo agreement. From 1987 to 1993 those were the years when the Palestinian people were having this brilliant resistance against the Israelis. Israel was embarrassed that it had to show its military might against children, that it had to show its tanks, killing and smashing houses and schools and the gardens and it was a scandal all over the world and Arafat just made this Oslo agreement and ended it.
What about the second intifada?
The second intifada, Israel provoked the Palestinian security forces. They used to kill their wives and their mothers in front of them, and at that time they were having these guns on their shoulders, and nobody would see the civilians killed around them, and he is armed without hitting back. When the first two or three Palestinian security forces retaliated the Israeli fire, you started to listen to this language of reciprocity, and both sides, and ceasefire as if it is really a war between two armies, and this was ridiculous. The security forces were really provoked to use their guns during Sharon’s time. He deliberately bombarded the security forces buildings and quarters. And from now, that language of both sides, of ceasefire, of… equal suffering, as if it was not an occupied population and an occupying military force. This shift in the language… and now everybody, when you tell them that they are making a massacre in Jenin will say, and you are throwing rockets against them.
But it seems that there is starting to be a little bit of awareness, internationally.
Very slowly, very slowly. And actually official Europe is a hypocrite, the political entity. There is European hypocrisy. They don’t want to be independent, taking sides, from the United States. They don’t want to drift a little bit from the Washington position. They just wait for Washington analysis and they just come as close as they can, they accommodate themselves with the Pentagon first, they refuse to sacrifice this harmony with Washington. This is bad to Europe, I mean, nobody takes European policy seriously now. As you know, Tony Blair, and Berlusconi, a generation of leaders just waiting for Washington directions as if they were secondary actors in a movie.
Mahmoud lamented ‘being read before he wrote’, he was uncomfortable with the label attributed to him, that he was ‘the voice of the Palestinians.’ Did he talk about that?
Yes, he felt as we all feel when you take you writing seriously that there is no proper literary criticism movement in the Arab world. And there was some sort of media response to his work but not literarily criticism because he was not weighed literarily as he wished to. He was celebrated in the media, but his work as a poet is minute and diverse, it has very refined proposals and suggestions of solutions of the act of writing, that were not discovered because there is a problem with literary criticism.
Why is that?
I have a huge theory about that which is, a poet, or a painter can write under any circumstances. You can write a poem under dictatorship, under occupation, in Gaza, in a cell, on the deathbed, in the hospital. You can write it if you are poor, if you have a lot of money, and under any severe circumstances, you can write a poem or draw your portrait or make an image or short story or even a novel. But to have a literary criticism movement you have to have freedom. Under oppression you can write poetry but you can’t write criticism. Because criticism is just.. you point to false literary names, and you collapse them, you just say this is not great writing or you just point to a new talent and you say, this is great. You need a free society to accept this. In this tribal, traditional society, if you are the Saudi Arabian ambassador who writes poetry and all the liberals are writing just in defense of his page, and you can’t say he is not a poet because there is no freedom. And then you find the literary critic who is giving us the ten commandments of how to be a modernist or how to be a great writer and who would celebrate that stupidity in the same time so his theory collapses. How do you call this poetry and theorize for the opposite? And our universities still are part of the government, not totally, they are not totally independent, and our literary magazines are either absent, or financed by governments or NGOs who are completely Western. We have a problem with the literary criticism movement because it needs a free society, it needs freedom and we don’t have it. As Palestinians we live under occupation, other Arabs live under dictatorship. So this was the complaint, that we are not read properly.
What about the interpretation of poetry by the people?
People are different. Some people go to the poetry for the position in the poem, and some go for the aesthetics, and some go because of the star who is reading, and the theatre. You have hundreds of motives for going to a book of poetry or a poet or a poetry reading. Totally different personal orientation and education and expectations from poetry. Some people go just as part of the struggle, who want the poet to say their own political views. Some go, as people who like poetry as a narrative and beauty, and some people go to be seen in the theatre, to socialize.
Maybe I am romanticizing this, but it seems that Mahmoud’s poetry drew so many different people. It seems that people from no matter what background felt represented by it.
I would say they loved the poet. More than the poetry. Because loving the poetry needed this kind of critical mind and critical reading. But Mahmoud had certain stations in his life where his popularity magnetized the multitudes, in thousands. When he was direct. When he was giving very explicitly what he wrote. He became the hero of the people because of the poetry that he did not like. Like sajjl ana arabi (write that, I am an Arab). When he was supposed to be anthologized and the anthology editor would choose sajjl ana arabi, he would quarrel with him, don’t put it.
Yet when most people think of him, they think of this poem.
Of sajjl ana arabi. But he was really not happy with the anthology. This was just part of his past. And now he had developed a much more refined poetry. More sophisticated. But nevertheless, his popularity fell mainly from this poem and the other poem, This Earth is Closing on Us. It’s the other sajjl ana arabi. After twenty years he wrote this and those two magnets made Mahmoud. Those were behind the thousands who would went to the funeral, and those were recited all the time. Popularity was there for popular reasons.
How did he feel about the popularity?
He enjoyed being known, whenever he went to the restaurant. But he never used it, he was shy. If he went to the restaurant he would always choose a table that was less exposed. When he sat in a cafeteria he would take the chair that was less exposed to the window, or to the others. I mean, you are there not to be on stage, you are there just to be there, for yourself.
Did people recognize him and go up to him? How did he react?
Nobody likes stupidity, and if he was stupidly approached he would be angry, but if something is witty or nice or clever he would respond nicely. But if he was asked rudely or taken for granted…
People read him from all different experiences, and everybody somehow felt spoken for. He was able to write about Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in ’48, Palestinians in Lebanon and in America. It’s like he found the one thing that connected everyone together in spite or their different experiences of being a Palestinian.
He was the Palestinian movement without the mistakes of its leaderships.
And when he wrote, and you, as a poet yourself, whom do you write for, whom did he write for?
For me, this is for myself, what sends me to the white paper, or to the open page in a labtop – I am in writing in the computer nowadays, for years now. What sends me to the white screen is a desire to listen to my inner voices, to listen to what is inside me, and I think that something is forming inside me. Some voices are there, some positions, some images, sceneries, and rhythms, and in the busy day you don’t have time to know what is moving inside you. So I organize my time to find a place to be alone and try to listen to those inner voices. When I write them and work with them they take the shape of a poem. The poem is a form. The poem is not poetry, the poem is the form, it’s a form, we call it a poem. Bt what is inside this form is our voices, our images, our desires, physical and spiritual.
So it’s entirely private?
Yes. You go there, I go there to listen to my inner voice. And then when they are in this form of the poem, you discover that what was inside you is partly common with so many others around you and then the readership is created here. And then the role of the poem in society is created from this junction. Because, where do I bring my inner complex, voices and sounds from? I get it from my life which is the life of so many similar families and fathers and parents and lovers and husbands and you know… uncles, and politicians and so, when I wrote I saw Ramallah for instance, which is not in the form of a poem but is in the form of a memoir, what is there is the same poetry inside me. I was really astonished to receive messages and emails, and letters and accounts of people I read for many years to come, on how similar stories happened to them. In the bridge, or in the checkpoint, or in the exile, or in Kuwait, or in Cairo, or under Sadat, or after Oslo. I have been doing this, this exactly happened to me. I am describing something that happened to me in Geneva and he writes, it happened to me, the same thing, in Brussels. I was not writing their stories, I was writing my story, the story of my body, the story of my soul, but this is really… it has some sort of unexpected meeting with other similar stories. Because this is the background and we lived for one hundred years in this struggle, fifty years trying to prevent the loss of our homeland and then we have been living the last fifty years trying to restore whatever was lost. Therefore when I listen to my inner voices, and the others are listening, we are listening to the same voices after all. The same, with different nuances, different colorings, different rhythms, but we are searching for the same words.
Then it’s not yours anymore?
But it comes with a different thickness, with a different heaviness, with a different weight. Stress, color, phrase. What’s amazing about writing poetry is that you make things seen as if they happened for the first time, although they happened one hundred times before. And if I write, as once I wrote, a poem about Tahrir Square, that Tahrir. Millions, millions pass from this square. But when you read this poem, oh my god, is this Tahrir Square really? Because I have made some omissions, I delete certain things and I keep certain elements, I redistribute my light and shades so I lighted strongly here and leave shades in that side, and then I take my snapshot and then it’s a different matter. It’s the way you put your camera, the location of the camera, the distribution of light and shade that changes the final photo. And it’s amazing to me, even if it is the same experience of people, when they read it, as if seeing in a movie the life of somebody, not the life exactly as it is, but with this magic change by a great director.
That’s the power of Mahmoud’s poetry?
And sometimes he gave them exactly what they wanted, sometimes he took them with him a step further.
Did they follow?
Yes, with difficulty. Now you have people who understand his more sophisticated poetry more than the way he started. This is always filled step by step.
You wrote that poetry is ‘one more act displacement’. The idea also comes up frequently in Mahmoud’s poetry. Do you, did Mahmoud, resent the isolation that comes with being a poet? Do you write because ‘you have to’? Do you sometimes wish that you didn’t have to?
What is your question?
Why do you write?
Actually every poet would give you a different answer. I went to poetry from the beginning as a teenager, and I did it because I was a person who has a lot to say about the status quo, and I wanted really to interfere with the internal affairs of the life, the world, and I found poetry is one of these places to interfere. But you don’t go to the poem as a matter of choice, and decide that at six o’ clock I will write a poem, or at the fifteenth of the next June I will write a poem, or I’ll publish a poem, no. Something forces you to go to your desk and sit down. I never succeeded in defining what is this force that can make you jump from your chair to your writing desk and to the paper. But it seems that your reservoir of scenes and observations and memories, and attitudes, and then when they are really pressing you, you just go there, and then you are forced to write them. So it’s a choice, and it’s a force.
And it’s a blessing and it’s a curse also?
Yeah. People think that we are… and we do nothing, we are just writers. It takes a lot from you.
I love your poetry and I love Mahmoud’s poetry, but I especially love your I saw Ramallah and Mahmoud’s Memory for Forgetfulness. I don’t even know if to call it prose, it’s really longer poetry. Why did you change form?
I think Mahmoud went to prose and I went to prose not because we wanted just to change our career from poets into narrators. It always happens and it did happen because of the outside circumstances, and of the nature of the emotion that demands to be expressed. This visit to Palestine after thirty years of exile, when I wanted to write about it, I discovered that I am not writing in the form of poetry. I started some lines, and was like, what is this, you are not a prose writer, this is prose. But I just kept writing in a simple manner. The experience you are going to express is wider, and larger, than the form of a poem, and I have just seen thirty years of my life without Ramallah, and then I tried to draw Ramallah itself after thirty years in exile, and it seemed that without thinking of it, my body, my fingers, my soul they acted as if they could never put this in a poem form. This is wider, this is larger. I will always use to say that I follow my rough copy, my rough copy leads me, so the first pages I wrote led me to a book, sometimes they lead me to a two-line poem, that’s it, and I sign it, and it’s a very short poem, and it’s a haiku, and I do with it and I don’t want to write anything more, so I don’t follow any prior direction in literature, there is no recipe, of what is poetry what is a poem what is modernity what is good what is bad, I hate that.
Did you manage to say it all?
No, I am writing a sequel to I saw Ramallah, it’s supposed to come out next March, it will be part two of I saw Ramallah. It’s about my visit to Ramallah with Tamim, my son, who was born in Cairo. Palestine to him was something in the news, in the stories of the family, in his grandmothers’ stories, in (CNN ?). in school, but we went together, crossed the bridge together, and this experience, it took me ten years to be brave to write it, and now it’s going to be published next March.
Has he also written about going to Ramallah?
No, Tamim wrote poetry, Tamim is a poet himself. He wrote some poems yes. He has a famous poem called In Jerusalem.
How do you think Palestinians, or children of Palestinians born in the diaspora, maintain their connection to Palestine? Is that ‘Palestinianness’ so strong because of the occupation and the exile, or is there something more to it, Palestinianness without Israel?
You know, when you are living under historical pressure for almost a century you have to expect that such a people would really deliver to survive, so you see so many talents, so many endeavors, so many people who deliver under pressure, so many people who can succeed in difficult circumstances, because of their cause, it demands thinking, it demands rethinking, it demands innovation, it demands being innovative, finding ways. And you see grandmothers or children solving their problems with originality, as if the impossible is not a word to them, they always find a way. They become much more alert, and alive, this is a survival technique in a dangerous system.
What would Palestine have been like had all of this never happened? In your book you wrote about all the bookstores that could have been in Ramallah, but weren’t.
Just imagine those that were killed and injured and massacred, how many painters or conductors or musicians or poets or writers could have been. Naji Ali, cartoonists, how many thousands were killed there? How many Naji Alis were there among the dead. Mahmoud came from a small village, I came from a small village, those people were massacred or killed or dispersed in the war, and had they lived, had they survived, how many of them would have been an artist, a thinker, an inventor, a physicist, an engineer, and architect? A nation massacred and chased and dispersed and exiled and impoverished and besieged. You are killing part of their future. We are missing the future. And now we are trying to restore our future by being good people, nice people, and doing things beautifully, trying to perfect things from the smallest simplest actions.
In your essay you wrote that a real poet doesn’t take his future when he dies.
What is the future of Palestinian poetry?
People are writing, generations will come. It will go on. We are a strong population, we are a strong nation, we have a strong spirit. Nothing changes easily.