Mahmoud Darwish: Journal of an Ordinary Grief

“What is homeland?” asks our Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in his “Journal of an Ordinary Grief, a collection of ruminations and autobiographical fragments that first appear in Arabic in 1973 and is now being published posthumously in English. He has several answers. The most powerful? “To hold on to your memory – that is homeland.”

Lamenting the plight of Palestinian refugees some two decades after Israel’s founding in 1948, Darwish  addresses the double standard many Israelis apply to the Jewish and Palestinian affinity for the holy land: “He who allows himself a flood of tears for two thousand years cannot blame the one who has been crying for twenty years of having merely fallen prey to delusion.”

Darwish, who dies in 2008 at age 67, is one of the Arab world’s most renowned poets. His poems are often about Palestine, and many are set to songs by famous Arab singers.

Darwish’s story begins in the middle of the 20th century. In the war over Israel’s creation in 1948, 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians are expelled from or flee their homeland. Darwish’s family choose to wait out the war in Lebanon.

Prevented from returning to what becomes Israel, they sneak back in. But that hardly ends their woes. “They called us ‘present-absentees’ so we would have no legal right to anything,” complains Darwish of the Israeli authorities. He leaves Israel in 1970 and later joins the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which prompts Israel to bar him from returning for decades.

There is much rage in his book. Darwish condemns Nazism as inexcusable, but proceeds to compare Israeli actions to those of Nazis. There are reasons for his fury. One incident is the Kufr Qasem massacre of 1956, when 49 unarmed Israeli Arab civilians – including women and children – are murdered by Israeli border police for having violated a recently imposed curfew of which they were unaware.

The perpetrators are tried and convicted but pardoned shortly thereafter.

Despite his faith in armed resistance, one of Darwish’s strengths is his humanistic approach to Israeli Jewish society. He has Jewish friends, knows Hebrew, and is conversant with Israeli literature. During the 1967 Six-Day War – in which Israel captures East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip – Darwish’s thoughts turn to his Jewish ex-girlfriend: “She may be in Nablus, or another city, carrying a light rifle as one of the conquerors, and perhaps at this moment giving orders to some men to raise their arms or kneel on the ground.”

Darwish muses that the Palestinians should respond to the national challenge they face in such a manner that they feel an even greater connection to Palestine, for the only alternative is to acquiesce in the denial of their identity.

“This is your homeland,” observes Darwish, “and the response to the conquerors enhances your love for it because any weak point in the relationship between you and it is an opening for them.”


Journal of an Ordinary Grief By Mahmoud Darwish Translated from the Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi Archipelago 177 pp.

Revised version of review in The Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2010

Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Rayyan Al-Shawaf on December 15, 2010 at 7:39 pm


    I’ve noticed that you’ve altered my review of Mahmoud Darwish’s book and posted it on your website. By indicating that this is a “revised version” of a review which originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, you seem to think that what you have done is permissible. I assure you that it is not. As you have not obtained permission from me or The Monitor to republish my article, what you have done is an infringement of copyright law.

    (In fact, even before the egregious issue of alteration, your mere posting of the article more-or-less in its entirety–instead of the first paragraph followed by a link–violates copyright law. Generally, a publication will buy exclusive rights from a writer for a period of 90 days, meaning that during those 90 days the publication has sole discretion when it comes to publication and display of the article in its entirety. Following this period, the writer has the right to resell his article to others. )

    Please take down your “revised version” of my article. If you would like to encourage your readers to read my article, consider posting the first paragraph–without alterations–followed by a link to the original source. This is standard practice in such instances.

    In fact, I urge you to follow this practice with any article that piques your interest, as I’ve noticed that you’ve taken to “revising” other pieces–presumably also without permission from the author or the original source–and posting them on your website.

    Without Prejudice,
    Rayyan Al-Shawaf


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