According to the Collins English Dictionary, the word “existence” means something or someone is “present in the world as a real thing.” It has been the official policy of those who occupy to pretend that the Palestinians are not present in the world. They are not human, they don’t have souls. It makes it easier then to deny them water, beat them, imprison them, raze entire villages to the ground, fell their olive trees, arrest and torture their nonexistent children, and execute them at checkpoints they have set up to control and denigrate these invisible beings. So much easier. It makes it easier then to declare an ancient city like Jerusalem as only belonging to the ones who do exist in this world. There are others who help perpetuate this notion and stand with them, point to the horizon and say, I don’t see them either.
I say this because on December 6th, 2017, President Donald Trump stood up in front of the world and declared that there was no such land as Palestine. He recognised Jerusalem as the capital of only Israel. To me, he effectively turned his face away from tens of millions of people who had inhabited that nonexistent land since before Christ and rendered them officially invisible as far as America was concerned. Jerusalem only belonged to one group, he said. Hence, I pose this question, say, for argument’s sake, to people like Trump and Netanyahu and their supporters: If Palestine doesn’t actually exist then how does one explain Mahmoud Darwish?
Darwish was a poet. Once a poet declares himself or herself as being from a place then it officially must exist because their poetry will come from that place, be it a physical or spiritual space. And poetry says, I am here, you are here, this is what happened to me, to us. Poetry gives shape to our own realities or what we struggle to articulate. It renders our pain and happiness real. For decades, Darwish hauntingly, plaintively and lyrically gave voice to his pain and created songs of exile for his people.
It simply said Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Not occupied, internal refugee, absent – present alien, terrorist, poet.
He was exiled from his home, but first he was expelled – he and his family moving from place to place. He was born in a village called Al-Birwa in Galilee, where Jesus was born. The occupiers took over the village and then they razed it to the ground. His family missed the official Israeli census, and were declared internal refugees, a poetic way to describe the reality of the entire Palestinian people if it weren’t so heartbreaking. Another poetic, yet painful irony: His name. Darwish is derived from the word dervish, which, in Persian means “one who goes from door to door.” In ancient Zoroastrian scripture, it means “visitor from many doors.” Dervishes don’t rest in one place. Their very rootlessness makes them who they are and allows them to be in service to those who are spiritually and existentially bereft. Darwish would not have wished this rootlessness upon himself or his people but his poetry was certainly informed by it.
A few days after Trump’s declaration, I stumbled across a photo of the poet when he was young. He was in motion, naturally; lanky and sharply dressed in a dark suit, snapped while striding with casual purpose through an old market. He was physically striking, which gave even more credence to my crush on him. I had never seen him before, only read his words. I decided he was striding through a market within the ancient section of Jerusalem, though I don’t know where the photo was taken. It simply said Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Not occupied, internal refugee, absent – present alien, terrorist, poet.
In his haunting and prescient poem “In Jerusalem,” Darwish writes, “I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone? Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?” (The Butterfly’s Burden
The entire poem is a plaintive meditation on the ancient city, sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike:
“In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy ... ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.”
The words, “I walk from one epoch to another without a memory to guide me,” made me think of the generations of Palestinian children who have not known anything other than occupation or exile. In his poem “Mural,” he says:
“I couldn't find
anyone to ask: Where is my where now?
Where is the city of the dead,
and where am I? Here
in this no-here, in this no-time,
there's no being, nor nothingness.”
As I read his words I am transported to morning light through the canvas of a tent, stirring a child awake. They blink and look around, slightly confused, having just arrived the night before, the images and sounds of a bulldozer razing their home to the ground, still fresh in their mind. Where is my where now? This is the question they would ask.
If the Palestinians don’t exist, then how do these questions arise? If they are only savages, as some would have you believe, how do they write?
“I have traversed the land before swords turned bodies into banquets.
I come from there, I return the sky to its mother when for its mother the sky cries, and I weep for a returning cloud to know me.
I have learned the words of blood-stained courts in order to break the rules.
I have learned and dismantled all the words to construct a single one:
Home” (“I Am There”).
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. Her debut short story collection, The Ocean of Mrs Nagai: Stories (Daily Star Books) was published in 2013. Her first novel, Dust Under Our Feet, is forthcoming. She also writes for TV and films.