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Poet’s village lives only in memory

The National – 13 August 2008

JUDEIDI, ISRAEL // There are few clues to help locate the cemetery of al Birwa. Its unmarked entrance is at the end of a dirt track, and most of the gravestones are strewn across untended, rocky ground. The brittle, sun-blasted stalks of Galilee thistle that shoot up from the ground here each spring are the only reliable visitors.

This is the spot, close to the coastal city of Acre in northern Israel, where the family of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s “national poet”, said he would have chosen to be buried.

Instead, after his death on Saturday at age 67 on the operating table of a Houston hospital, he is due to be laid to rest today in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Darwish’s body was to be flown to Amman from the United States in a plane sent by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, said Atallah Kheiry, the Palestinian ambassador to Jordan. A ceremony is to be held at Amman’s Marka military airport this morning before Darwish’s remains are flown to Ramallah on a Jordanian military helicopter for the funeral.

Al Birwa, the village where Darwish spent his earliest years, exists today as little more than a memory – even if one immortalised in his poetry. Its buildings were razed by the Israeli army during the war of 1948 that established the state of Israel by sending 750,000 Palestinians into exile. At age seven, Darwish and his family were forced to flee to Lebanon.

During his life Darwish was only too aware that he would not be allowed by the Israeli authorities to return to his village – even in death. For six decades, access to the cemetery has been controlled by two exclusive Jewish communities, Yasur and Achihud, which were given possession of the village’s extensive lands.

Darwish wrote simply in his will that he wished to be “buried in Palestine”.

In an interview last year, he recalled with fondness his boyhood in Birwa, suggesting how powerful an influence it was on the poetry of loss and exile that made him famous.

“I prefer to store the memories that still linger of open spaces, fields and watermelons, olive and almond trees,” he told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. “I remember the horse that was tied to the mulberry tree in the yard and how I climbed on to it and was thrown off and got a beating from my mother … I remember the butterflies and the clear feeling that everything was open. The village stood on a hill, and everything was spread out below.”

Since Darwish’s death, his family has sat in the traditional mourning tent in Judeidi, the Arab village in Israel that became their home. Only a few minutes by car from al Birwa, Judeidi was as close as the Darwishes could get to their former land.

Standing under tarpaulins stretched across the family’s yard, Ahmed, Darwish’s elder brother, greeted a steady flow of those wishing to pay their respects. “There has been much discussion about where Mahmoud should be laid to rest,” he said. “Before settling on Ramallah, the Palestinian leadership suggested a request should be made to Israel to let him be buried here in Judeidi. But Mahmoud was never a son of Judeidi. His soul belonged to Birwa.”

Darwish’s mother, Houriya, 85, said she had resigned herself to the fact that her son would not be allowed back to the Galilee countryside that fired his imagination. With a picture of a young Mahmoud looking down from the wall behind her, she said: “I would like my son to be buried here, but he isn’t just my son, he’s the entire Arab world’s son.”

Ahmed Darwish, 70, concurred: “Mahmoud and his poetry belonged to the whole Palestinian people, and it is better that his final resting place is where all Palestinians can visit him.”

Paradoxically, however, Darwish’s own family will struggle to attend his funeral in Ramallah today.

Under Israeli law, they, like all Arabs with Israeli citizenship, are barred from entering such Palestinian-controlled areas of the occupied territories as Ramallah. Behind the scenes, calls were being made to officials to find a way to bypass the checkpoints that restrict access into the West Bank.

Mahmoud Darwish left Galilee in 1971 to study abroad after repeated imprisonments and three continuous years of house arrest. Israel subsequently stripped him of citizenship, refusing him the right to see his family until the mid-1990s when the Oslo accords were signed.

In 1995, he was allowed to attend the funeral in Haifa of his friend Emil Habibi, a writer, and last year he was given a two-day permit to enter Israel for a public reading of his poetry. He seized these rare opportunities to see his family too, Ahmed Darwish said.

His mother has kept his room in the family home as he left it in 1971, with a wall of shelves stuffed with ageing books. Despite several attempts to have Darwish put on the Israeli curriculum, his work is banned from classrooms, including in the separate system for Israeli Arab schoolchildren.

Although Israel was prepared to make a few concessions to Darwish about visiting the Galilee when he was alive, it was never likely to compromise over his burial in al Birwa.

Israel has always insisted that refugees from the more than 400 Palestinian villages destroyed after the 1948 war – even those with Israeli citizenship – have no right to access their former lands. Such a move, it is feared, might create a precedent that the millions of Palestinian refugees still in camps across the Middle East would have a right to return.

Darwish joins a long list of other notable Palestinians denied the right to be buried in the place they were born, including Edward Said, a literary critic and Palestinian advocate, who was laid to rest in Lebanon, and Najil Ali, a Palestinian cartoonist, who is buried in London.

Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian, has observed that recognising the injustice done to the Palestinians in 1948 “raises a host of ethical questions that have inescapable implications for the future” of Israel.

Al Birwa’s refugees have been fighting for decades to be allowed to tend their former cemetery, over the opposition of state officials and the Jewish inhabitants who took their place.

Mohammed Kayyal, who heads a committee of local refugees, said no one had been allowed to be buried in al Birwa’s cemetery since 1948. For many years they had been trying to prevent the farmers of Achihud from grazing their cattle over the cemetery. A few years ago, the refugees were finally given permission to put up a barbed wire fence around what is left of the graves to protect them.

But Achihud’s farmers are slowly encroaching on the cemetery again. The structure of a large new metal cowshed under construction looms over the graves. “We were in the high court last week to stop them from obliterating the remains of the cemetery,” Mr Kayyal said. “They wanted to extend the shed right across the graves, but the courts have put a halt to the work for the time being.”

As the Darwish family sat in its mourning tent, a neighbour from Judeidi and a fellow refugee from al Birwa, Abdul Rahman Kayyal, 78, paced across the stones of the old village cemetery with his son and grandson.

Eighteen when the village was emptied by the Israeli army, he still keeps the rusting key of the family home that no longer exists. Once the house could be found next to the entrance of the cemetery and close by the home of Hussein Darwish, Mahmoud’s grandfather.

Of the many fruit trees that his family used to tend stands a solitary pomegranate tree. “The cows, it seems, have more of a right to this place than I do,” he said.

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