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FROM the ridiculous to the sublime: last Saturday brought sorrowful tidings from Houston, where efforts by surgeons to mend Mahmoud Darwish's broken heart came to naught. "We have lost part of our essence, the essence of the Palestinian being," commented Hanan Ashrawi on the death of a poet who for nearly five decades inimitably articulated the suffering of his people, the agony of dispossession and exile, and - unfailingly - the hope of reunion with the beloved, a dream that remained unfulfilled. Darwish parted ways with the PLO in the wake of the Oslo travesty 15 years ago, yet Mahmoud Abbas didn't think twice before declaring three days of mourning in a nation that remains bereft of statehood.
In 1971, when his decision to live outside the occupied territories was roundly criticized throughout the Arab world, Darwish noted: "I am not the first patriot or poet to leave his country in order to draw nearer to it." He lived in Moscow, in Cairo, in Beirut, in Tunis; it was 26 years before he returned to a homeland from which he perforce remained estranged, settling in Ramallah. During a poetry reading last year, he described the violence between Fatah and Hamas as "a public attempt at suicide in the streets".
Many years earlier, he had lamented: "If only these verses/ Were a chisel in the grip of a worker,/ A grenade in the hand of a fighter/ ... a plough in the hands of a peasant". In due course he was elevated, inevitably, to the ranks of a 20th-century pantheon that includes the likes of Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Darwish, who once described himself as "the envoy of a wound that does not bargain", shared with these three a Marxist-humanist perspective that ensured he was always more popular among Arab people than among their unrepresentative rulers.
Israeli reports of his demise mentioned that in 2000 the education minister, Yossi Sarid, had recommended including some of Darwish's poems in the high school curriculum, but the idea was vetoed by the prime minister, Ehud Barak. It is unlikely that the Israelis will change their minds now that the poet has been interred in the land he loved so passionately, perhaps amid an olive grove. And even if they did, it is all but inconceivable that they would authorize schoolchildren to become acquainted with particularly potent diatribes such as the early poem On Man, which goes:
They gagged his mouth,
Bound his hands to the rock of the dead
And said: Murderer!
They took his food, clothes and banners,
Cast him into the condemned cell
And said: Thief!
They drove him away from every port,
Took his young sweetheart,
Then said: Refugee!
O you with bloodshot eyes and bloody hands,
Night is short-lived,
The detention room lasts not for ever,
Nor yet the links of chains.
Nero died, Rome did not:
With her very eyes she fights.
And seeds from a withered ear
With wheat shall fill the valley.