Looking for Darwish by Maya Jaggi

Maya Jaggi

Looking for Darwish


On a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem, a rock garden terraced like the surrounding landscape leads up to the white-stone tomb of Mahmoud Darwish, the bestselling poet of the Arab world, a world in which poets fill stadiums. Five years after his death at the age of 67, the bard from Galilee is still revered as Palestine’s national poet – laurels he once told me he both cherished and chafed against. In a graceful conceit by the architect Jafar Tukan, Darwish’s calligraphed tombstone, rising from a flowerbed, bookmarks an open volume. Its sloping pages to either side have pyramid-like portals to a recital hall and, opposite it, a museum.

The Mahmoud Darwish Museum in the Israeli-occupied West Bank opened last year on the southern outskirts of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, where Darwish settled in the mid-1990s. Last summer I scoured the glass-cased memorabilia, from his 1960s house-arrest order in Haifa and the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood he hand-drafted in Algiers in 1988 to fountain pens, manuscripts and coffee cups. The poet’s words resound as he gesticulates from a giant screen. Yet not even the red rug and writing desk from his Jordanian flat in Amman, or the summer jacket folded over a chair, can summon his spirit. Perhaps not surprisingly, the man who rebuffed Yasser Arafat’s offer of the post of culture minister and resigned in protest from his symbolic place on the PLO executive the day after the 1993 Oslo accord (a deal described by his friend Edward Said as a ‘Palestinian Versailles’) eludes the official memorial to him. 

Unexpectedly, I found Darwish’s spirit on a return visit in September. The Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre (named after an earlier, pan-Arabist writer) occupies an elegant mansion built in 1927 that belonged to Ramallah’s first mayor. Darwish’s corner office on the first floor is preserved behind a glass door as it

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RLF - March