“I had no say in who I was” – Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural

Mahmoud Darwish Exhibit at Bin Matar House

The Arab world has a long tradition of poetry.

In the pre-Islamic era, in Northern Arabia, Bedouin poets challenged each other to verbal duels.  Before a panel of esteemed judges, they described their nomadic life.  Their poems typically began with a lament for an abandoned camp and a lost love.  In the second verse they praised their camel or horse and described their difficult desert journey to the fair.  The finale was a tribute to the poets’ tribes while their enemies were vilified. ( Al-Bab.com)

The most beautiful poems, the Mou’allaqat, became the Hanging Ones.  The poems inscribed in gold letters were hung on the Ka’ba – the sacred stone in modern Mecca.

In the Arab world, Mahmoud Darwish is the modern day Moudhahhabat or Gilded One.

The “savior of the Arab language” his thirty volumes of poetry have sold over two million copies.  Reporters wrote whether he read his poems in Cairo or Damascus thousands of people, from college professors to cab drivers, attended.

“He could not walk out in public without being recognized.”

Like his Bedouin predecessors, his poets are laments for his lost land and love, Palestine.  They describe his difficult journey to Lebanon after his upper Galilee village was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in 1948.  When his horse finally found its way back to Ramallah in the newly formed state of Israel, he began to write poetry reflecting his experience of exile.

Imprisoned several times for reading his poems, he eventually moved to the Soviet Union, Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, and Paris.  There he continued to lament Palestinian uprootedness while finding the courage, and humanity, to write about his Jewish friends, lovers and Israeli jailors in “tender, nuanced portraits”.

After a life-threatening heart surgery, Darwish’s focus changed to the personal experience that transcends all emotions and politics – death.

The Mural excerpts I posted,

Someday I will become a thought, a bird and a poet,

show Darwish became more metaphysical or Sufi-like.  Like others who are confronted with their own mortality, Darwish described his near-death experience;

I came before my hour so no angel approaches to ask:

what did you do over there in the world?

I don’t hear the chorus of the righteous or wailing of the sinners

I am alone in whiteness

alone …

Alone, in the center of a room at the Bin Mattar House is a 4×2 meter concrete wall echoing the Ka’ba.  Layered on gold sheets, a photographic print of the Mural manuscript is embossed onto its walls.

Until I visited the exhibit last week, Darwish was unknown to me.

His first book, Wingless Birds was published in 1960.  But it wasn’t until 2001 when he won the $350,000 Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom that his works were widely translated into English.  After awarding his prize, this American foundation began translating his work and publishing it through the University of California Press.

“His courage in speaking out against injustice and oppression, while eloquently arguing for a peaceful and equitable co-existence between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews is what motivated Lannan Foundation to honor him.”

French artists Marie-Francoise Rouy and Luc Martinez created this exhibit before Darwish’s death in 2008.  Normally Darwish destroyed his manuscripts.  But when this project was proposed, he agreed to write out the last lines.  This living wall is a place people can gather to hear him reading and feel his words with their hands.

Despite the fact that pre-Islamic poetry is etched into the Ka’ba,  its existence causes controversy and Imams debate its significance.  Darwish’s life and work written at this particular moment in time will continue to be a thorn in the side of those in power.

His elegy written on cement walls in Bahrain will probably be the closest this Moudhahhabat’s work will come to hanging alongside his Bedouin predecessors.

Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural  is a multimedia and interactive art installation by artists Marie-Francoise Rouy and Luc Martinez.  It will continue through 31 June 2012 at the Bin Mattar House in Muharraq, Bahrain.

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