Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz

His Beloved Land

May 24, 1998

   The Tel Aviv Cinematheque yesterday held the premier screening of the impressive, moving documentary by Simone Biton, "Et la terre comme la langue." Many guests turned up for the event, but one was unable to attend: the film's protagonist, the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish, a native son of this country and perhaps its finest poet, is not permitted to enter Israel. Why? Just like that. To glance at what Israel has done to Darwish over the past 50 years is like viewing a snapshot of the entire Palestinian tragedy. Look at what we are still doing to him today, and you will understand how, with our own hands, we are pushing away true reconciliation.

Darwish was 6 when his Galilee village of al-Barawi, between Yassur and Ahihud, was captured. Today all that remains is rock-strewn soil. He fled with his family to Lebanon and then sneaked back into Israel, becoming a "present-absentee" for about 10 years in the village of Deir al-Asad. He went to school under the Israeli educational system and he lived under the Israeli Military Government that ruled the "Arab sector." But he did not become a "good Arab." He became an activist in the Communist Party and a poet. Security authorities hounded him relentlessly. Between one incarceration and the next he visited Cairo, saw for the first time an entire city that spoke his language, and stayed. He never returned.

Israel did not forgive him and since then has refused to allow him into the country, not even to visit his elderly mother, his brothers and his homeland. Darwish wandered between Beirut and Amman, Tunis and Paris. "My homeland is a suitcase" is the most famous line he has written. "In fact, for years my homeland has been language alone," he said on another occasion. He became a ranking activist in the Palestine Liberation Organization, minister of culture in the Palestinians' shadow government, and a poet deeply admired throughout the Arab world.

His superb poems are among the most powerful love songs ever written to this bleeding land. His words of yearning cannot fail to move anyone who reads them, whatever his or her views. If Israel were more certain of its justness it would long since have introduced Darwish's poetry into the school curriculum. But so shaky is its self-confidence that Israel is afraid even to let the poet visit.

At the height of the hopeful days of Oslo under the Rabin-Peres government, and following a lobbying campaign involving then-ministers Yossi Sarid (who threatened to smuggle Darwish into the country) and Shulamit Aloni, as well as Ahmed Tibi and then-MK Hashem Mahamid, as well as an intellectual or two, Darwish was allowed into Israel for five days. Five days, no more. Yitzhak Rabin, who first allowed him into the Gaza Strip, said in 1995: "I want to see what he says in Gaza about the peace process. ... It all depends on his good behavior." The deputy defense minister, the late Mordechai Gur, demanded explicitly in the Knesset that Darwish declare his support for the Oslo process as a condition for entering Israel. That's Israel for you: you can oppose the Oslo accords only if you are a right-wing Jew.

Is it even relevant to deal with the political views of a poet in connection with issuing him an entry visa to Israel? Of course not. Still, it is important to note that even though Darwish was among the critics of Oslo and even resigned as shadow minister of culture because of them, he was and remains an advocate of dialogue and settlement with Israel. In 1994, speaking in Abu Dhabi, he called for cultural normalization with Israel, and earlier this month at the al-Nakba events (marking "The Catastrophe" that the Palestinians associate with Israel's founding) in Ramallah, he again spoke in favor of a two-state solution. But he is still forbidden entry to Israel. A petition currently being circulated by the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem will not change that fact. The silence of most Israeli poets and writers, and their inaction in the face of the injustice being done to their colleague, do not help.

 Now he is in Ramallah, where he edits the literary journal Carmel while recovering from major heart surgery that was performed in Paris. His close family lives in Jedeida, in the Galilee, an hour and a half from Ramallah, but he can't get there. At week's end he told his good friend Ahmed Tibi that he would very much like to conclude the long journey of his life in his homeland. In Biton's film he says frankly that to this day he has not accepted defeat.

When he is photographed at an Israeli army checkpoint at the entrance to Jerusalem, where he is turned back, his defeat is plain to see. But it's far from clear who the victor is in Israel's war against Darwish. "I am from here, and here I am, and I am I, and here am I, and I am I... forever here, here forever," he wrote once, demonstrating that in the final analysis he is the true victor, while Israel, so much afraid of him, is the defeated one.



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