Poet of ‘national feeling’

Times Staff Writer

During the six years he spent in an Israeli prison, Haidar Jaradat read one poem over and over: “My Mother,” by Mahmoud Darwish.

“I long for my mother’s bread,” it begins. “My mother’s coffee/Her touch.”

“It brought me comfort and I thought about it a lot,” said Jaradat, who was 16 when he was imprisoned by the Israelis over what he terms “a security issue.”

Jaradat, now 24, recalled the solace Darwish’s words had offered him as he waited Wednesday outside Ramallah’s Palace of Culture for the coffin bearing the body of the Palestinian icon.


Amid pomp and circumstance just short of Yasser Arafat’s 2004 state funeral, more than 5,000 mourners braved the midday August heat here to pay their respects to Darwish, the revered poet who died Saturday in Houston at age 67 following complications from open heart surgery.

Darwish’s body was flown Wednesday from Jordan to Ramallah, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received the flag-draped coffin.

“He was the master of the word and wisdom, the symbol who expressed our national feeling, our human constitution, our declaration of independence,” Abbas said in a speech.

After eulogies at the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters, a procession of thousands moved across town to the Palace of Culture, where thousands more waited near Darwish’s burial plot.

“We loved him. He was a poet and true Palestinian patriot,” said Abdel Rahman Zabin, a 50-year-old laborer.

Zabin said he and many other Palestinians identified so strongly with Darwish because the poet’s life experiences, which he wrote about directly, mirrored much of the hardships of his people. His work resonated across political and generational lines for his ability to express the Palestinian sense of loss, anger and defiance.

Darwish’s family fled their home village when Israel was founded in 1948, then later returned and settled as part of the Arab minority in the new Jewish state. His poem “Identity Card” recounted the frustrations of that minority status.

A communist activist in his youth, Darwish was repeatedly imprisoned by Israel before leaving the country in 1970.

His exile included time in Beirut, where he lived through the 1982 Israeli siege of the Lebanese capital -- an experience that inspired him to write “Ode to Beirut.”

“He lived the whole Palestinian life from 1948 until now,” Zabin said.

The crowd that flocked to attend Darwish’s burial reflected the broad range of his appeal: The Palestinian political elite mingled with Communists who claim Darwish as one of their own and young hipsters wearing T-shirts bearing the poet’s image.

Shirina Rantisi, a 19-year-old college sophomore, said the poet’s status made him a kind of Palestinian Che Guevara: “He meant something to almost everyone.”