Last word on Mahmoud Darwish

From The National

A friend remembers…

In our final phone conversation, Mahmoud Darwish asked my opinion of his last poem, The Dice Player, and I said to him – it was my habit to tease him this way – that he had started writing the way the poets do, and I referred to the great Abbasid poet Abul Alaa al Maarri. In his literary criticism Maarri refers to all the poets by name – until he comes to his contemporary Abu at Tayyib al Mutanabbi, the greatest of all Arab poets, whom he simply calls The Poet, always including the definite article. I could hear Darwish’s laugh coming all the way from America.

When I asked him about the surgery he was about to undergo, he told me the doctor had assured him the risk of death did not exceed one per cent.

Did The Poet believe his doctor, or did he walk to his death rather than wait for it?

No one possesses the answer to this question, for the Poet had the innocence of children, which conceals their slyness. He did not divulge his last secret to anyone. He told his friends that he could no longer bear the time bomb in his chest; this is why he decided to have the operation, despite the advice of the French doctor who, in 1998, performed an equally risky heart surgery on The Poet, a near-death experience that led to a great poem, Mural.

For a decade Darwish lived “in the presence of absence”. He was helpless against his impaired artery, writing his most beautiful collections and verses in preparation for death.

“What will we write when you’re dead?” I asked him. And he told me a story about the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani.

Darwish recalled that he was taken by surprise when the Palestinian poet Kamal Nasser walked angrily into his office at the Palestinian Research Centre in 1972, holding the obituary The Poet had written for Kanafani. Nasser threw the article on the desk and demanded, gently, “What will you write about my death, now that you’ve written everything in this article?”

Less than a year later, when Nasser too was assassinated by Israel, Darwish wrote the poem Palestinian Wedding, in which:

Never will lover reach lover
Except as martyr or fugitive

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