Memory for forgetfulness

Mahmoud Darwish, Tuesday 16 May 2023

Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1942 in the village of Birwe, in Upper Galilee. Birwe was destroyed in 1948 after its inhabitants were made to flee the village. The extract which follows is taken from a memoir Darwish wrote during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In it, he remembers his first encounter with Beirut in 1948, before his family stole back into what has since become Israel, where Darwish remained until 1972

Mahmoud Darwish
Mahmoud Darwish s ID issued by the Israeli authorities. Documenting his birthplace: Birwe in 1941


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 22 January 1998


The sky of Beirut is a huge dome made of dark sheet metal. All-encompassing noon spreads its leisure in the bones. The horizon is like a slate of clear grey, nothing colouring it save the playful jets. A Hiroshima sky. I can, if I want, take chalk in hand and write whatever I wish on the slate.


A whim takes hold of me. What would I write if I were to go up to the roof of a tall building? "They shall not pass"? It's already been said. "May we face death, but long live the homeland"? That's been said before. "Hiroshima"? That too has been said. The letters have all slipped out of my memory and fingers. I've forgotten the alphabet. All I remember are these six letters: B-E-I-R-U-T.


I came to Beirut thirty-four years ago. I was six years old then. They put a cap on my head and left me in Al-Burj Square. It had a streetcar, and I rode the streetcar. It ran on two parallel lines made of iron. The streetcar went up I didn't know where. It ran on two iron lines. It moved forward. I couldn't tell what made this big, noisy toy move: the lines of iron laid on the ground or the wheels that rolled.


I looked out the window of the streetcar. I saw many buildings and many windows, with many eyes peering out. I saw many trees. The streetcar was moving, the buildings were moving, and the trees were moving. Everything around the streetcar was moving as it moved. The streetcar came back to where they'd put the cap on my head. My grandfather took me up eagerly. He put me in a car, and we went to Damur.

Mahmoud Darwish in Cairo, 1971


Damur was smaller, and more beautiful than Beirut because the sea there was grander. But it didn't have a streetcar. Take me to the streetcar! So they took me to the streetcar. I don't remember anything of Damur except the sea and the banana plantations. How big the banana leaves were! How big they were! And the red flowers climbing the walls of the houses.


When I came back to Beirut ten years ago, the first thing I did was stop a taxi and say to the driver: "Take me to Damur." I had come from Cairo and was searching for the small footsteps of a boy who had taken steps larger than himself, not in keeping with his age and greater than his stride. What was I searching for? The footsteps, or the boy? Or for the folks who had crossed a rocky wilderness, only to reach that which they didn't find, just as Cavafy never found his Ithaca? The sea was in place, pushing against Damur to make it bigger. And I had grown up.

I had become a poet searching for the boy that used to be in him, whom he had left behind some place and forgotten.


The poet had grown older and didn't permit the forgotten boy to grow up. Here I had harvested my first impressions and here I had leaned the first lessons. Here the lady who owned the orchard had kissed me. And here I had stolen the first roses. Here my grandfather had waited for the return to be announced in the newspaper, but it never was.


We came from the villages of Galilee. We slept one night by the filthy Rmesh pool, next to pigs and cows. The following morning, we moved north, I picked mulberries in Tyre. Then our journey came to an end in Jizzine. I had never seen snow before. Jizzine was a snow farm, and it had a waterfall. I had never seen a waterfall before. And I had never know that apples hung from branches; I used to think they grew in boxes.


We took small bamboo baskets and picked apples from the trees. I want this one. I want that one. I washed them in streams flowing down from the foot of the mountain into channels between small houses crowned with red tiles. In winter we couldn't bear the biting cold of the wind, so we moved to Damur. The sunset stole time from time itself. The sea writhed like the bodies of women in love until it raised its cry in the night and for the night.


The boy went back to his family there, in the distance, in a distance he did not find there in the distance. My grandfather died counting sunsets, seasons, and heartbeats on the fingers of his withered hands. He dropped like a fruit forbidden a branch to lean its age against. They destroyed his heart. He wearied of waiting here, in Damur. He said goodbye to friends, water pipe, and children and took me and went back to find what was no longer his to find there. Here the number of aliens increased, and refugee camps got bigger. A war went by, then two, three, and four.


The homeland got farther and farther away, and the children got farther and farther from mother's milk after they had tasted the milk of UNRWA. So they bought guns to get closer to a homeland flying out of their reach. They brought their identity back into being, re-created the homeland, and followed their path, only to have it blocked by the guardians of civil wars. They defended their steps, but then path parted from path, the orphan lived in the skin of the orphan, and one refugee camp went into another.


* From Memory For Forgetfulness, translated from the Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi, University of California Press, 1996


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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