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Uri Avnery: The Anger, the Longing, the Hope

by shergald Sun Aug 17th, 2008 at 08:35:22 PM EST

Uri Avnery, Israeli peace activist and founder of Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), in this article pays tribute to Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, on his death. Darwish's life as well as his poetry is a mirror of the sixty years of agony experienced by his people, the Palestinians.

ONE OF the wisest pronouncements I have heard in my life was that of an Egyptian general, a few days after Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem.

We were the first Israelis to come to Cairo, and one of the things we were very curious about was: how did you manage to surprise us at the beginning of the October 1973 war?

The general answered: "Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets."

I reflected on these words last Wednesday, at the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish.

DURING THE funeral ceremony in Ramallah he was referred to again and again as "the Palestinian National Poet".

But he was much more than that. He was the embodiment of the Palestinian destiny. His personal fate coincided with the fate of his people.

He was born in al-Birwa, a village on the Acre-Safad road. As early as 900years ago, a Persian traveler reported that he had visited this village and prostrated himself on the graves of "Esau and Simeon, may they rest in peace". In 1931, ten years before the birth of Mahmoud, the population of the village numbered 996, of whom 92 were Christians and the rest Sunni Muslims.

On June 11, 1948, the village was captured by the Jewish forces. Its 224 houses were eradicated soon after the war, together with those of 650 other Palestinian villages. Only some cactus plants and a few ruins still testify to their past existence. The Darwish family fled just before the arrival of the troops, taking 7-year old Mahmoud with them.

Somehow, the family made their way back into what was by then Israeli territory. They were accorded the status of "present absentees" - a cunning Israeli invention. It meant that they were legal residents of Israel, but their lands were taken from them under a law that dispossessed every Arab who was not physically present in his village when it was occupied. On their land the kibbutz Yasur (belonging to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement) and the cooperative village Ahihud were set up.

Mahmoud's father settled in the next Arab village, Jadeidi, from where he could view his land from afar. That's where Mahmoud grew up and where his family lives to this day.

During the first 15 years of the State of Israel, Arab citizens were subject to a "military regime" - a system of severe repression that controlled every aspect of their lives, including all their movements. An Arab was forbidden to leave his village without a special permit. Young Mahmoud Darwish violated this order several times, and whenever he was caught he went to prison. When he started to write poems, he was accused of incitement and put in "administrative detention" without trial.

At that time he wrote one of his best known poems, "Identity Card", a poem expressing the anger of a youngster growing up under these humiliating conditions. It opens with the thunderous words: "Record: I am an Arab!"

It was during this period that I met him for the first time. He came to me with another young village man with a strong national commitment, the poet Rashid Hussein. I remember a sentence of his: "The Germans killed six million Jews, and barely six years later you made peace with them. But with us, the Jews refuse to make peace."

He joined the Communist party, then the only party where a nationalist Arab could be active. He edited their newspapers. The party sent him to Moscow for studies, but expelled him when he decided not to come back to Israel. Instead he joined the PLO and went to Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Beirut.

IT WAS there that I met him again, in one of the most exciting episodes of my life, when I crossed the lines in July 1982, at the height of the siege of Beirut, and met with Arafat. The Palestinian leader insisted that Mahmoud Darwish be present at this symbolic event, his first ever meeting with an Israeli. He sent somebody to call him.

His description of the siege of Beirut is one of Darwish's most impressive works. These were the days when he became the national poet. He accompanied the Palestinian struggle, and at the sessions of the Palestinian National Council, the institution that united all parts of the Palestinian people, he electrified the hall with readings of his stirring poems.

During those years he was very close to Arafat. While Arafat was the political leader of the Palestinian national movement, Darwish was its spiritual leader. It was he who wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the 1988 session of the National Council on the initiative of Arafat. It is very similar to the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which Darwish had learned at school.

He clearly understood its significance: by adopting this document the Palestinian parliament-in-exile accepted in practice the idea of establishing a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, in only a part of the homeland, as proposed by Arafat.

The alliance between the two broke down when the Oslo agreement was signed. Arafat saw it as "the best agreement in the worst situation". Darwish believed that Arafat had conceded too much. The national heart confronted the national mind. (That historical debate has still not been concluded today, after both of them have died.)

Since then Darwish lived in Paris, Amman and Ramallah - the Wandering Palestinian, who has replaced the Wandering Jew.

HE DID not want to be the National Poet. He did not want to be a political poet at all, but a lyrical one, a poet of love. But whenever he turned in this direction, the long arm of Palestinian fate dragged him back.

I am n ot qualified to judge his poems or to assess his greatness as a poet. Leading experts on the Arabic language are still bitterly quarreling among themselves about the meaning of his poems, their nuances and layers, images and allusions. He was a master of classical Arabic, and equally at home with Western and Israeli poetry. Many believe that he was the greatest Arab poet, and one of the greatest poets of our time.

His poetry enabled him to do what no one had succeeded in doing by other means: to unite all the parts of the fractured and fragmented Palestinian people- in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, in Israel, in the refugee camps and throughout the Diaspora. He belonged to all of them. The refugees could identify with him because he was a refugee, Israel's Palestinian citizens could identify with him because he was one of them, and so could the inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories, because he was a fighter against the occupation.

This week some people of the Palestinian Authority tried to exploit him for their struggle with Hamas. I don't think that he would have agreed. In spite of the fact that he was a totally secular Palestinian and very far from the religious world of Hamas, he expressed the feelings of all Palestinians. His poems also resonate with the soul of a member of Hamas in Gaza.

HE WAS the poet of anger, of longing, of hope and of peace. These were thestrings of his violin.

Anger about the injustice done to the Palestinian people and every Palestinian individual. Longing for "my mother's coffee", for his village's olive tree, for the land of his forefathers. Hope that the conflict would come to an end. Support for peace between the two peoples, based on justice and mutual respect. In the documentary by the Israeli-French film-maker Simone Bitton, he pointed at the donkey as a symbol of the Palestinian people - a wise, patient animal that manages to survive.

He understood the nature of the conflict better than most Israelis and Palestinians. He called it "a struggle between two memories". The Palestinian historical memory clashes with the Jewish historical memory. Peace can come about only when each side understands the memories of the other - their myths, their secret longings, their hopes and fears.

That is the meaning of the Egyptian general's saying: poetry expresses the most profound feelings of a people. And only the understanding of these feelings can open the way for a real peace. A peace between politicians is not worth very much without a peace between the poets and the public they express. That's why Oslo failed, and why the present so-called negotiation for a "shelf agreement" is so worthless. It has no basis in the feelings of the two peoples.

Eight years ago, then Minister of Education Yossi Sarid tried to include two poems of Darwish in the Israeli school curriculum. This caused a furor, and the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, decided that "the Israeli public is not ready for this". This meant, in reality that "the Israeli public is not ready for peace."

This may still be true. Real peace, peace between the peoples, peace between the children born this week, on the day of the funeral, in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, will only come about when Arab pupils learn the immortal poem of Chaim Nachman Bialik "The Valley of Death", about the Kishinev pogrom, and when Israeli pupils learn the poems of Darwish about the Naqba. Yes, also the poems of anger, including the line "Go away, and take your dead with you."

Without understanding and courageously facing the flaming anger about the Naqba and its consequences, we shall not understand the roots of the conflict and shall not be able to solve it. And as another great Palestinian man of letters, Edward Said, said: without understanding the impact of the Holocaust upon the Israeli soul, the Palestinians will not be able to deal with the Israelis.

The Poets are the marshals of the struggle between the memories, between the myths, between the traumas. We shall need them on the road to peace between the two peoples, between the two states, for building a common future.

I was not present at the state funeral arranged by the Palestinian Authority in the Mukata, so orderly, so orchestrated. I was there, two hours later, when his body was buried on a beautiful hill, overlooking the surroundings.

I was deeply impressed by the public, which gathered under the blazing sun around the wreath-covered grave and listened to the recorded voice of Mahmoud reading his poems. Those present, people of the elite and simple villagers, connected with the man in silence, in a very private communion. Despite the crowding, they opened a way for us, the Israelis, who came to pay our respects at the grave.

We bade our silent farewell to a great Palestinian, a great poet, a great human being.


Reprinted by permission.

Thank you for this eloquent article from Avnery.  Do the Israeli have left no one to whom they will listen who understands Arab culture?
"Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets."

T.E.Lawrence would have know this.  Among a small number of things with which the Bedu of his day counted the strength of their tribes was the eloquence of their poets.

In Israel today all seems captured by triumphalist nationalists who lately have little about which to be triumphant and who seem mired in corruption both petty and grand, seeing real estate development and self enrichment opportunities in land grabs presented as "facts on the ground."  These facts then poison the possibility of peace.  I personally know Americans of Jewish ancestry who were told that it is o.k. not to go to temple so long as they support Israel.  It is hard to know which corruption is the worse.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Aug 18th, 2008 at 04:26:56 PM EST
It is evident that Judaism is not winning the moral-ethical war over Zionism, as it seems that only right wing types are ruling the day in Israel. Even from proportedly left wing advocates, say from Labor, their version of peace is not any more principled than that of Likud, the so-called right wing Zionists. That Labor and Kadima, the other major parties, are also right wing Zionists, never occurs to anyone.

They are.

There is no political party internal to Israel that will ever make peace with the Palestinians. It must come from the outside, possibly from Judaics.

by shergald on Mon Aug 18th, 2008 at 06:04:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Unfortunately, the only real outside threat would be what a friend of mine referred to as the US dropping the Shekel Bomb, i.e. cutting off all US aid.  This would have to be accompanied by a prohibition on American donations to Israel and I can't see it ever happening.  

I would settle just for a sufficient disabling of AIPAC that US politicians had some flexibility on their response to the conflict.  I wouldn't buy "My Country, Right or Wrong!" for the USA, but so many American Jews, regardless of their affiliation, appear unable to seriously consider that Israel can do wrong, let alone what their obligation is when Israel is doing wrong.

I presume you count the Orthodox, most of whom thought that the creation of Israel was not appropriate absent the coming of the Messiah, among the Judaic.  Anyone else?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Aug 18th, 2008 at 07:43:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
RE. cutting aid and political support to Israel, or disabling AIPAC, these options will just never happen. We are caught up in a vicious cycle of dependency, as the tail wags the dog we are, that is no easily overcome. One high point, still small by comparison, is the new J Street lobby org that was set up to counter right wing Likudnik AIPAC. Will it succeed in doing so? We wait and hope.

by shergald on Mon Aug 18th, 2008 at 09:11:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My impression of the US support for Israel is that it is ephemeral. There is no particular reason for US support outside of immediate gain.

There is clear similarities in terms of political philosophy. That philosophy is is take what you can get. Not exactly a philosophy that is conducive to long term friendship that will weather difficulties.

As long as that immediate gain is there - cash and political, then the relationship continues. When it is gone, then so too will be the relationship.

The US is quite willing to turn on its friends when they in any way do not support the current political stand of the US government. (Try mentioning "softwood lumber" to a Canadian for example.)

As the saying goes, "There is no honour among thieves." So too is US support for Israel.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Mon Aug 18th, 2008 at 11:09:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can only wish you were right, especially about the ephemeral part.  I agree that there is no true mutuality of interests between them.  They are a deep thorn in the side of the USA when it comes to our dealings with the rest of the Muslim world.  But here we are and here we have been since 1968.  We are paying Israel $3 billion/year in aid as part of the peace agreement with Egypt.

The true interests of the USA and Israel do, in my opinion, coincide.  That would consist in bringing about a fair and just settelment of the Palestinian Issue which would require very significant concessions by Israel.  But in order to address them we would have to treat rather harshly the government in Israel.  In order for that to happen, we would have to change the entire election finance situation in the USA and then be very lucky.  What we in fact have is an arrangement that serves the interests of the right wing parties in both the USA and in Israel.  Read shergald's comments.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Aug 19th, 2008 at 12:18:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The cash to Israel includes kickbacks - or should I say bribes and threats - to politicians. Israel plays well with the general public and is good for political millage. I'm not sure what not being in the best interest of the United States as a country has to do with it. It is a wonderful system financed by the general population at great expense. It is not the only such system in the US. (See The Omnivores Dilemma for another such system using corn subsidies for indirect support of multinationals.)

Look at other regions. The Kurds went from being totally ignored to great friends. Look at Saddam Husein as well. (There's a lesson for Georgia!) When it is convenient one is ignored, and when it is convenient one is a great friend, and when it is convenient one is the worst person in the world. And when it is convenient one is developing democratic institutions. When it becomes convenient the relationship with Israel will change accordingly. Since 1968 it has been convenient to support Israel. Various lobby groups have worked very hard to set up, and make sure that convenience continue. That work is absolutely necessary because there is no ideological reason why the US supports Israel. Ok - support for Israel will help to hasten the second coming of christ, and the end of the world. The work is to transfer cash and power for political and economic support.

If I were to try to pick a group that is truly anti-semitic, I would probably pick the fundamentalist movement that George Bush is part of.

There is no inherent reason for US Politicians to support Israel other than you grease my palm and I'll grease yours. When that grease stops, for whatever reason, then change will happen. There is no guarantee that it will be change for the better.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Tue Aug 19th, 2008 at 09:46:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with all you say here.  It is only the ephemeral part that bothers me.  Forty years is not ephemeral!

My concern is that the grease to which you refer will, in the end, be vaporized as part of the creation of a World Heritage Monument to the World's Three Great Monotheisims that may be created at the site now occupied by the Western Wall and Al Asqa Mosque by the detonation of a nuclear weapon.  I can only hope that better resolutions might emerge.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Aug 19th, 2008 at 11:36:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I personally know Americans of Jewish ancestry who were told that it is o.k. not to go to temple so long as they support Israel.  It is hard to know which corruption is the worse.

But this was part of Zionism from the start, which was in many ways an antireligious movement. The religious started to dominate later, perhaps following the capture of the Western Wall, and will probably become much more powerful, given their spectacular birthrate (fertility rate around 8 for Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox). What this means for the country is anybody's guess, as it's not clear to what extent they have preserved their relative indifference to Zionism, and to what extent they support the far right settlers. So far they seem to be using their power mostly on religious issues, such as forcing women to the back of the bus

by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Tue Aug 19th, 2008 at 01:59:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this superb text, shergald!

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Mon Aug 18th, 2008 at 06:08:49 PM EST

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