|Photo by Ahmad Al Nimer|
The Ultimate Dice Player
By Serene Huleileh
I come to say good-bye my son
But my heart holds back and stalls.
Houriye, mourning her son
Mahmoud Darwish quietly left us on Saturday, 9 August 2008. He retired from life in the prime of his poetic career: a beautiful human being and clairvoyant poet. When he chose surgery over the uncertainty of waiting for a sudden burst of the artery, there was a chance that he would survive imminent death, like he did twice before. If not, someone had to pull the plugs to let him rest in peace. His baseera or prophetic insight could see his “ghost coming from afar.”
Despite the hope that he diligently nurtured within us, death was the hero of his latest poems. On a personal level, he was talking about his internal “time bomb” waiting to explode. “I feel nothing, I feel fine, but I know that there is a time bomb ticking inside me, and I don’t know when and where it will explode.” He said it with such serenity that it was hard to believe: how could Mahmoud Darwish ever die? We were in denial. It’s true that he looked frail as he walked, and the meeting with his French doctor left him deeply distraught; but seeing him standing and reading poetry with such vigour and strength misled us to believe that he could be “braver than a fool, and stronger than Hercules.” Only he chose to “tell the Absence: you are missing me, here I come to complete you…” The Abyss is all the more content, and we are the more lacking.
Saed and I belong to Generation M, an identity we invented several years ago. I grew up on the West Bank under Israeli occupation, Saed as an Israeli citizen. Both of us Palestinian, we had completely different lives. But underneath, we discovered we shared a similar deprivation, a hunger for freedom, for a more beautiful world. We filled our hunger with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, and we called ourselves Generation M.
I come from the same generation; we were born into the Israeli occupation and Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry: we don’t know any other life. We don’t know freedom on our land, though we yearn and struggle for it, nor do we know how to live without Mahmoud Darwish, much as we hoped he would be immortal.
In life, he contained our language to the extent that no event or brochure or publication or love story or act of resistance could articulate itself without an excerpt from Mahmoud Darwish. Now he has released his language to each and every one of us, all over the world, resulting in an unprecedented flood of tributes to Mahmoud Darwish, all personal and deeply poetic.
He wasn’t simply a poet, he was more of a philosopher. He didn’t use the Arabic language; he kept inventing it, over and over again. Listening to him reading his poems is a spiritual experience: you may not fully understand what he’s saying but the lyrics seep into your skin like love potions, giving you tingles for reasons you cannot completely comprehend. Later, as you re-read the poetry, you recognise the moments that touched you. And as years go by, you are reminded once again of those words; and if you want to express love, pain, fear, resistance, or a simple existential angst, Darwish will have the right verse or poem to say exactly what you feel. Or is it that we feel exactly what he writes?
Poetry recitals are not really performances, except when it comes to Mahmoud Darwish. The full house, even in Italy during the European football championship quarterfinal game between Italy and Spain, consists usually of a wide array of people, reaching thousands to fill a football stadium, of different ages, backgrounds, and social classes. He signed his books at Al Balad theatre in Amman three years in a row, each time spending over three hours signing the books, with a lot of patience and smiles for his audience. Young girls standing speechless in his presence, older men discussing his works sombrely, children telling him how they love him, upper class women in fur coats haggling their way through the crowds just to shake his hand and extend an invitation, and young students telling him about their poetry and asking for advice.
I once asked him what advice he would give to a young poet. He said that the most important skill is self-criticism: how to be your own strictest editor and scratch out more than half of what you write before even thinking of publishing it. Discipline was the second most important point; writing is not a pastime, it is daily work, hard work combined with talent: neither one alone is enough. He lived what he believed, said what he believed, and wrote what he believed, fearing no one. He once said: “I thought that poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanise … Now I think that poetry changes only the poet.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I proposed to him that he should have his own website years ago, he protested strongly. A year or so later he came back to ask: “So what happened with that website you mentioned?” I was surprised and answered: “I thought you rejected the whole idea!” “Well it seems that it’s necessary these days,” he replied, “so why don’t you start working on it?” And so it was … but I had to deal with his “censorship”; he didn’t want certain poems or audio recordings or even certain photos to be posted on the site. He refused to look at the site, except for one time when we needed his approval of the design. I didn’t have much time to develop it as fast as he wanted, and he was too polite to insist. Instead he would complain to my friends and family, never directly to me. When I read Fawaz Traboulsi’s tribute to Mahmoud the man, I realised how typical this was of him:
I was always amazed at how Mahmoud is different from any other poet, or at least unlike the stereotypical image of the poet. There is nothing bohemian about him: no beard, no moustache, clean shaven all the time. He is neither sad nor melancholy, or at least he doesn’t show it. Extremely elegant, clean, beautiful, and courteous, highly organized and incredibly precise in his appointments, regular in his daily routines. He writes in the morning at his desk … he doesn’t hesitate to tear up a poem that does not reach the level he wishes. He doesn’t hesitate to neglect a poem if he reads a better one … After lunch and a nap he reads avidly, especially novels … in the evening, he practices friendship … but doesn’t stay up late. Here is a poet who has no other profession but poetry. Rarely does he leave behind a hand-written text. Rarely does he write letters. He doesn’t want anything left behind except his poetry.
A shy man, he loved to playfully appear as a male chauvinist. He had an aversion to marriage, but not to women whom he adored and admired, rather to the inherent contradiction he sensed between the writer’s life and the institution of marriage. Married and divorced twice, he came to the conclusion that no woman should have to suffer because of his “muse,” and vice versa. He might have chosen a life of “loneliness,” but he certainly wasn’t alone; he had his dice, his poetry, and his friends.
Inspiration is the good fortune of the lonely
The poem is a throw of dice
On a patch of darkness
It shines, or it may not shine
And the words fall
Like feathers on the sand*
He was bidding us farewell for the last ten years, but it is in “The Dice Player,” which he read in Ramallah on 1 July 2008, that he said his final goodbye. On 2 July I asked him for a DVD of the recital to upload on the website, and he promised to send it to me as soon as he received it. I thought that it would take a while as usual, but was surprised to return to Amman and find a package that contained the DVD waiting for me. He called from the United States to make sure that I got it. It was the quickest response I have ever received, and the last. As usual, he was prepared, and soared smiling to his death like the martyrs he describes in “This Land Is Worth Living for”; we were the ones who were taken by surprise ... and not for lack of forewarning.
Fortunately, I sleep alone
And listen to my body
And believe my talent in discovering the pain
And call the doctor, ten minutes
Ten minutes suffice for me to live
And disappoint oblivion
Who am I to disappoint oblivion?*
*Excerpts from “The Dice Player.”
Serene Huleileh is a Ramallah-grown Palestinian cultural activist, writer, and interpreter who currently resides in Amman, Jordan. She manages the official Mahmoud Darwish website (www.mahmouddarwish.com).