The speech that Mahmoud Darwish delivered at the occasion of the presentation of the 2004 Prince Claus Awards on 1 December 2004 in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. Darwish died two years ago, today, in Houston, TX.
Your Majesty…Your Royal Highnesses…Ladies and Gentlemen…
It is my pleasure and honour to find a place amongst you in this elegant celebration of poetry, at a time when poetry seems alien and isolated. I am, however, apprehensive to speak on behalf of that poet who is being honoured here today, simply because, in this case, he is the person addressing you. How can I simultaneously be, and not be,
him? Isn’t poetry, at the end of the day, the voice of the encounter between the “I” and its “Other” in the language of the poet?
When a writer receives such an international award it does not solely denote recognition of his personal efforts, but is also a celebration of the bridge that the literary text has established with the others; an acknowledgement of its aesthetic and human values that may offer a different perspective of world literature that does not grant hegemony to a centre nor does it marginalize a distant periphery.
This esteemed prize is given to me yet at the same time it is not mine. I receive it because I signed my name on the poem. Yet it is not mine because the poem contains several voices and broken places that do not meet in a map… It is not my voice, but the discourse of the victim to himself and to the world that he will not concede to silence or death, nor does he wish to heal from the ailment of hope in freedom, justice and peace. My individual voice is no more than the poet’s way of keeping the rhythm!
A person can only be born in one place; however, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be re-born out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace… with life.
You know, of course, that I am from Palestine. What an exciting name; ambiguous, open to every possible interpretation, it evokes a certain longing and counter-longing, and triggers emotions of pity or anger. But the imaginary ancient Palestine, called “the land of love and peace”, mother of the prophets, and the meeting point of earth and sky, does not resemble the real Palestine flooding with blood and tears. It is denied peace because its people are deprived of freedom; denied love because its people are deprived of justice; denied a better tomorrow close at hand because its occupied present is surrounded by walls of hatred that deprive its people of hope.
It is so difficult to be a Palestinian! And even more difficult for a Palestinian to be a poet! How can he sing without disturbing the harmony between words and things? How can he achieve beauty and utility at the same time? How can he pin down the place in language without transforming the language into topography? How can he protect reality from the pressure of the legend, and how can he protect his legend from the pressures of reality, to be part of history and witness to history’s actions towards him, all at the same time? Time teaches us wisdom, but history teaches us irony. How can the poet fight a war using a counter-language? How can he convert exile into a latent memory? How can he, as René Char says, transform the enemy into a rival? And how can he then convince him
to memorize two lines of poetry by Yeats:
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love
Such difficult questions… Maybe literature has the answers … I don’t know… and what a thrill it is not to know, for poetry is the endless journey towards the unknown.