The Palestinian poet on representing his identity authentically, the ‘genocide’ in Gaza, how Israel is a colonial scheme, and why the story of Jesus Christ resembles that of the people of Palestine
“A poet should be a good historian as he goes through the human experience in its entirety, including the untold history,” says Najwan Darwish, one of the most outspoken Arab poets from Palestine. Darwish (45), who was born in Jerusalem, is among the leading contemporary Arab poets. With eight books published in Arabic, his poetry has been translated into over 20 languages. His latest book in English translation, Exhausted on the Cross, was released by NYRB Poets in 2021.
According to him, when a genocide is occurring, there’s no role for literary writers; the primary need is to stop the genocide. Darwish also notes the collaboration between neoliberalism and neo-fascism, describing it as a ‘pandemic’. He shared these thoughts with The Federal on the sidelines of the International Literature Festival of Kerala, held in Thrissur from January 28 to February 3. Excerpts:
What does it mean to be Palestinian, let alone poet, after the 7th of October, 2023?
To be Palestinian is to confront genocide. This reality became painfully clear after the events of October 7, yet the Palestinian people have been subjected to political genocide since the early 20th century when international imperialism bestowed their homeland upon the Zionist colonial movement. This initial act of political genocide has been marked by several subsequent attempts, notably the events of 1948 which entailed a mixture of ethnic cleansing and genocidal actions. Today, what unfolds in Gaza constitutes a form of genocide unprecedented in its visibility. Unlike before, this genocide is witnessed by people worldwide through the lens of smartphones and TVs, transforming it into a horrifying spectacle. This moment is not only harrowing for Palestinians but for humanity at large, for allowing such atrocities to occur sets a dangerous precedent. If the world tolerates this genocide, it paves the way for normalisation, endangering all individuals regardless of their perceived safety. In the face of such disregard for human life, colonial regimes prioritise their economic and political interests, perpetuating a cycle of victimhood.
Do you think that life in Palestine would ever return to what it was before October 7?
The damage inflicted upon the world is immense. Presently, our world grapples with one of its darkest periods, characterized by corrupt leadership unseen in history. Those in positions of power across borders and cultures embody a toxic blend of fascist streaks and corruption.
In a previous interview, you expressed a disinterest in ‘concerns for the coloniser’. Could you elaborate on that?
In a conversation with my Indian friend, a poet and intellectual, we observed a peculiar syndrome among intellectuals from the so-called Third World nations. Referring to countries like India as the ‘Third World’ fails to acknowledge their rich cultural heritage and deep history. Conversely, Western nations, lacking such depth, should be reevaluated as the true ‘Third World.’ My focus lies not on catering to colonial powers but on advocating for my people and engaging with global issues. I am not oriented towards the West; rather, I embrace and celebrate my oriental heritage, spanning from Persia to India. While I am open to engagements with Western cultures, my allegiance lies with my own.
You reside in Jerusalem. Do you hold an Israeli passport?
No, I do not. Jerusalemites hold a unique status, deemed Jordanian by Israel, despite not being of Jordanian origin. This refusal to recognize us as Palestinians perpetuates a colonial narrative, evident in the need to periodically renew our residency status. Meanwhile, individuals of Jewish descent enjoy privileged status within Israel, regardless of their actual birthplace or background. The colonial settler project is sustained by incentivized immigration which perpetuates injustice.
Do you believe art and literature have a significant role to play in these turbulent times? What is the role of a poet at such a juncture?
Literature serves a distinct purpose; it’s there not merely to entertain but also to document history. As a poet, my role is similar to a historian’s: capturing truths through art. While activism has its place, my focus remains on my craft. Literature transcends boundaries and speaks to the human experience. But having said this, I must emphasize: There is no role for literary writers when a genocide is happening. The only imperative is to stop the genocide. Poets are very fragile during a genocide; we cannot stop it. Poets cannot save any child from being killed.
Some Israeli poets perceive Palestinian writers as biased and overly political. How do you respond to such criticism?
Stereotypes abound, fuelled by preconceived notions and political agendas. The Palestinian cause, spanning a century, necessitates a heightened sense of duty among writers and artists. While our struggle informs our work, it does not define it. I am first and foremost a poet, who expresses universal truths through his art.
You’ve written about ‘writing the land.’ Could you elaborate on this concept?
‘Writing the land’ is a poetic approach in which the writer does not describe but embodies the subject matter. Rather than writing about Palestinians, I write as a Palestinian, channelling the essence of our collective experience. My aim is not to be a spokesperson but to authentically represent my identity.
In one of your poems, you liken yourself to ‘a statue carved by the Romans and forgotten by the Arabs:’ I want to write the land, / I want the words / to be the land itself. / But I’m just a statue the Romans carved/and the Arabs forgot. / Colonizers stole my severed hand/and stuck it in a museum. / No matter. I still want to write it – / the land. /My words are everywhere / and silence is my story. / (I write the Land). Could you explain this metaphor?
This metaphor symbolizes the poet’s plight: an object yearning to express itself. Like a forgotten statue, the poet exists in silence, longing to impart wisdom and insight. The reference to colonial theft underscores the loss of heritage and the struggle for cultural preservation. Most of our heritage is stored in European museums. When I first visited the British Museum in my life, I was astonished at how they managed to steal all these pieces. Some of them are very huge. In the Egyptian section, they have brought things which weighed tonnes.
What’s your identity about now in the present? Has it changed after October 7?
I didn’t quit on October 7 to see the world as it is. Even the things I was writing before, whether it’s poetry, prose, or interviews. I’m saying the same things. I have not changed much. Whenever you have this system of injustice and colonialism, you should expect the worst. We are facing genocide. Till now, I think we have something like 40,000 martyrs. Probably half of them are children and teenagers, and 99% of the ones who were killed were civilians.
Again, coming to your poetry, you have written that Judas didn’t betray Christ but he sold him: (Judas did not mean to “betray” me — he never even knew such a big word / He was simply “a man of the market”/ and all he did—when the buyers came— was sell me- A clarification, trans. 2012). Can you explain this?
Part of my work revolves around the Christian faith and Christian mythologies. In these poems, particularly the one you mentioned, I speak in the name of Jesus. I’m essentially rewriting his autobiography. Why do I do this? Because it’s important to remember that Jesus Christ was a man from Palestine. The world seems to have forgotten this small fact. They overlook that he was born in Bethlehem and crucified in Jerusalem. His story bears resemblance to the story of the Palestinian people. Whenever I see a mother in Palestine hugging her martyred son or child, I see Mary and Jesus in them. To overlook this connection would be blindness.
The image of the cross is constantly repeated in many of your poems.
Yes, indeed. The image of the cross consistently appears. In this specific poem or in the poems in the autobiography of Christ series, I’m crafting smaller narratives within the main narrative based on my meditations and observations. I don’t consciously blend them, but by nature, they intertwine with my own autobiography and that of my people.
So, how’s the Palestinian cultural and literary scene like these days?
Well, Palestinian culture is still all about being progressive and inclusive. Even with our ongoing struggle against the Zionist movement, we’re not about to turn it into some religious showdown like they do. We’ve always seen Palestine as a place of diversity, where your race or religion doesn’t define you. That’s why we’re so adamant about rejecting colonialism and any project that tries to impose it on our land. For us, Israel is just another colonial scheme that we’re not buying into, and we’re sticking to that stance.
But doesn’t Israel have the right to exist? And, honestly, it’s a fair question, don’t you think? After all, they are a community that went through the Holocaust.
Some Europeans will try to guilt-trip you by saying that you don’t respect Israel’s right to exist. I don’t think any colonial project should exist, not just Israel. We need to break this false link between Israel and the Jewish people. Israel doesn’t represent Jews worldwide. Judaism is a religion, and we should respect everyone’s beliefs. But Israel is trying to make a state based on religion? That’s just not right. A state should be neutral, without any religious or gender bias. But Israel is calling itself a state of one religion. That’s backward and dangerous. The Zionist movement uses the Holocaust to defend themselves. But just because you suffered in the past doesn’t give you the right to take someone else’s land or commit genocide. That’s just insane. Jews live all over the world, but isolating them and putting them in a military-run ghetto like Israel, that’s insane.
What are your thoughts about India?
When I talk about India, I’m talking about the Indian people. I’m not a fan of governments anywhere, really. I never have anything good to say about any government. But I have a strong connection with the Indian people. When I’m in India, it feels like home. I feel like I’m among my own people, and I really appreciate that. But what’s happening politically in India right now is really concerning, not just for us, but for the Indian people too, because it goes against what India stands for.
The relationship between the Indian government and the Israeli government is harmful to the Indian people. It’s just another disaster waiting to happen. I think Israel is tricking them into buying outdated weapons and intrusive surveillance software. I believe any respectable government should steer clear of these shady deals with Israel.