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The Poet And The People

I know little enough Hebrew and no Arabic at all.  But two very recent articles in the Times (one last Thursday the other on Sunday) relating to both languages caught my eye.

The first, about the revolutionary re-emergence and the subsequent development of modern Hebrew, was the umpteenth instance of Isabel Kershner's published doubts about the very future of Israel. It's a strangely obsessive trope for one of the Times' chief correspondents in the country.  But doubt about Zionism goes back in the history of the Times for maybe a century. Actually, the piece is not a mustering of thought and certainly not a narration of fact. It is a disconnected set of free associations. In fact, it is not about its stated topic, the quandaries of Hebrew, at all.

It's about poor Isabel's anxieties about living in Israel. In the end, she says, "the anxiety may stem less from the state of Hebrew and more from the Israeli state of mind."  "It comes from a lack of security," she opines, citing another observer, "The state of Israel has no confidence of its continued existence."  And here, her own conclusion: "The language may have moved on since the days of the prophets, but perhaps the sense of doom has not."

Now, Isabel knows Hebrew and I really do not.  But, frankly, I think this is mostly the kind of loose free associations that goes for heavy thinking among a few Israelis and among Times readers on the Upper West Side of New York.

The second article in the Times on Sunday is by my friend Ethan Bronner, an obituary for the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The Boston Globe, also Sunday, printed an Associated Press news dispatch about the plans for the poet's funeral. Let me admit up front I have been stirred by some of Darwish's poetry, his poetry of memory and of loss.

But the tender poetry is not what endears him to his public. There is a poem by Darwish, "Those Who Pass Fleeting Words,” not at all so tender but in fact aggressive:

The time has come for you to go away
And dwell where you wish but do not dwell among us
The time has come for you to go away
And die where you wish but do not die among us
For we have what to do in our land
The past here is ours
Ours the first cry of life
Ours the present, the present, and the future
Ours the world here...and the world to come...
So leave our land

TNR published its own translation of this poem in 1988. "A poem does not bruise, of course, the way a truncheon bruises," Leon Wieseltier wrote at the time. "But the maximalist mood in the Palestinian community will matter much for the outcome, and Darwish's poem is a document of that mood." Even Israelis very sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians were repelled.Bronner realizes that, while Darwish was known best for his political sentiments, he was "proudest of his personal verses."  "When I write a poem about my mother Palestinians think my mother is a symbol for Palestine. But I write as a poet, and my mother is my mother. She is not a symbol."

Nonetheless, Darwish couldn't keep his poetic priorities in order...or, rather, his political life for a time overwhelmed his 
poetry. After all, he was the poet who handed pistol-toting Yassir Arafat for his appearance at the U.N. General Assembly the infamous slogan: "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun." Of course, the olive branch was entirely metaphorical and the gun was metaphorical not at all.

Darwish followed Arafat and his P.L.O. rag-tag army wherever it went. Ousted from Jordan, the Palestinian revolution subdued the Shi'ite peasants of southern Lebanon and established a tyrannous mini-state there, with Beirut as its command post. Darwish followed, like a camp-follower, in torrid pursuit.  When Ariel Sharon had Arafat pinned down in Beirut in 1982, the great powers exiled him and his men to Tunis. And again Darwish docilely followed.

After the White House handshake of 1993, with a proto-state at hand, Arafat had at last landed in the promised land and made his capitol in Ramallah. Darwish was not far behind. But Palestine could not sustain him, and like other poets he moved to Paris. How disillusioned was he with emerging Palestine? I do not know.

But, as Bronner reports, close friends of the poet sought to have him buried in Israel, near his home village. Presumably they knew where he wanted to be buried. It was not to be. The Palestinian Authority took command of his death. Darwish will be interred in Ramallah, like Arafat himself.

So to wrap up the two strands of my posting: Within four days the Times has established its view of both the culture of Israel and the culture of the Palestinians.

Israel's is shaky, fearful of its own survival, according to Ms. Kershner, who is one of the Israelis I know most anxious about her country's future.  How sad!  How very cosmopolitan!

Now, I don't want to pick another argument with friend Bronner. I saw him a month ago at dinner in Jerusalem and we talked amiably and energetically about our differences in perceptions of Israel. I want rehash any of that.  You know my views and, presumably, most of you also know his.

But I do want to question his evidence for the following assertion in his obit for the poet: "His death was received among Palestinians with shock and despair." How many Palestinians read and knew Darwish's poetry? A thousand, five thousand, even ten thousand?  Of course, it is true that poetry among the Arabs is like philosophy among the Jews, music among the Germans, drama among the Irish, the novel among the French and the (dissident) Russians.  But really. We do have the testimony of Mahmoud Abbas: "Words cannot describe the depth of sadness in our hearts." I'm always skeptical when I read that "words cannot describe" anything.

And what do the Palestinians make of Darwish's exile from them and their suffering to Paris?