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The Dice Player: A Symposium on the Life and Work of Mahmoud Darwish

ISSUE:  Winter 2009

Mahmoud Darwish was the most important Palestinian poet of our time. He was born in 1942 in the Western Galilee in the village of Birweh, before it was razed in the 1948 war that would lead to Israeli independence. As a young man, Darwish joined the Israeli Communist Party and wrote poems and editorials for left-wing newspapers. In 1964, he published his first collection of poems, titled Leaves of Olives, which included his seminal poem “Identity Card,” an impassioned polemic in the form of a response to an Israeli police officer who has stopped him to ask for his papers.

His vocal activism brought intense scrutiny from the Israeli government. Three times he was arrested for giving public readings of “inciting poems” and was finally placed under house arrest from 1968 to 1971. Upon his release, he left his homeland to become a writer for newspapers in Cairo and later Beirut. In exile, he became close with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In 1974, he wrote the speech in which Arafat told the United Nations: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” In 1988, he authored the declaration of independence in which Arafat proclaimed the state of Palestine.

Suffering from arterial disease, Darwish suffered a heart attack in 1984 followed by operations later that year and again in 1998—during which he was clinically dead before being revived by doctors. Last year, after being warned of a weakened artery, he traveled to Memorial Herman Hospital in Houston. He told friends he wanted to surprise death by electing the risky procedure to repair the artery, rather than waiting for death to surprise him when the artery ruptured. Ever the dice player, this time Darwish gambled and lost. He died from complications at the age of sixty-seven.


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