March 14, 2014

Saudi Arabian book fair removes “blasphemous” works by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish



Mahmoud Darwish (center) with Yassir Arafat and George Habash. (via Wikimedia)

The works of revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008, have been removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair in Saudi Arabia after objections to the “blasphemous” nature of his work were aired. The theme of this year’s fair, “Books: An Arch-Bridge Connecting Civilizations,” now seems somewhat deflated.

According to Gulf News, “The publications administration at the book fair, one of the biggest of its kind in the Arab world, ordered the removal of all books containing Darwish’s work after youths from the religious police complained about the content of the books.”

It is unclear in the article what exactly is deemed blasphemous about Darwish’s writing; then again in cases of censorship what constitutes blasphemy, pornography, etc., is almost always vague. But one can assume it wasn’t merely Darwish’s lack of religious reverence that got his books repacked in cardboard but also his politics.

Born in 1941 to a landowning family in al-Birwa in Western Galilee, Darwish was forced to flee to Lebanon in 1948 after his village was invaded, and eventually destroyed, by Israeli forces. The uprooting and exile of his childhood informed the whole of Darwish’s life and career, from his political activism (he held membership in the Israeli communist party and then the Palestine Liberation Organization) to his poetics; see, for instance, his poem, “Passers Between the Passing Words,” which closes so vociferously with, “So leave our country/Our land, our sea/Our wheat, our salt, our wounds/Everything, and leave/The memories of memory/those who pass between fleeting words!” Though a clear opponent to the State of Israel, Darwish nonetheless expressed explicitly a desire to see the “eventual reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.”

Some resisted the removal of Darwish’s contentious texts. A verbal confrontation erupted between a stall owner and the “youths from the religious police,” attracting a crowd of onlookers. But fair security intervened, pacifying the conflict, breaking up the crowd and referring “all those who had gathered to the fair’s security committee.”

Darwish’s, “In Jerusalem”:

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.
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?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.

Spot the blasphemy?