On a winter night in Beirut twenty-two years ago, a physician working among Palestinians in southern Lebanon whispered to me that I had arrived too late, that the poets had left Beirut the year before, Mahmoud Darwish among them, and in the darkness of a black-out he spoke of how unsettling it was for the people to know that the poets were no longer there, most especially Darwish— whose work was beloved by millions in the Arab world and beyond, whose lyrics were sung by heart, set to the music of their ancient oud, whose poetry readings filled stadiums. Having survived a life of imprisonment, house arrest and exile, he wrote of love, survival and our common humanity. Now Mahmoud Darwish is no longer among us, this poet who made of his language a homeland, who dwelled in exilic being—this solitary, private man who became the voice of a people, and who, in a language of fig trees, olives and flute music, exile and longing, re-built in poetry the four hundred and seventeen invisible villages of Palestine, such as Al-Birweh—which he was forced to flee as a boy—the village to which his empty, symbolic coffin was carried to be set among the stones of what may have once been his house, near a prickly pear bush, in a dry wind. At that same moment in Ramallah, tens of thousands attended his state funeral and laid him to rest on a hillside with Jerusalem visible in the distance. Those who carried the second coffin to Al-Birweh knew that their poet had to be buried twice, once for his presence and once for his absence.
Almost twenty years after Beirut, I came to know Mahmoud Darwish as one of his collaborative translators and then as his friend, and would come to understand why the people of that besieged city were so bereft at his loss. No other poet of his time gave voice to an entire people, no other poet was so beloved, and yet he also cleaved to his art, and carried within himself the solitude it demanded. He seemed to know and accept his destiny, and desired only to finish the work under his pen. A year before his death, we were together at Struga in Macedonia, the oldest poetry festival in the world, and as he stood on a bridge over the River Drim, he read his poems to the thousands who crowded its banks and drew their flotilla of boats as close as they could to him beneath the bridge. During the festival, the sky flowered with fireworks in his honor, torches were lit, songs sung, and he was presented with the Golden Wreath Award, one of the highest honors given to a poet. A few days later, we were taken by boat across a spring-fed pool near Lake Ohrid. There was no sound but that of the oar rising and falling. Mahmoud was pensive as he leaned over to touch the water, while telling me very quietly that his heart was giving way. I didn’t understand at the time that he was saying goodbye, and now I must say goodbye to him, who realized his wish to be a candle in the darkness of the times in which he lived, and by whose poetry, memory and light we must now find our way.