talking about poetry with the enemy koldo izagirreren itzulpena   The Palestinian Mahmud Darwish and the Israeli Helit Yeshurun, both poets, talked about their lives in 1996, when the peace process of the time had just started. They chatted in Hebrew. Tel-Aviv’s Hadarim magazine published the results in the spring and Paris’es Revue d’etudes palestiniennes did too in the autumn. Some later conversations were collected in Mahmoud Darwich: la Palestine comme metaphore (Actes Sud, 1997).
Here are some passages from those dialectical sessions. As well as Darwish’es thoughts on poetry, they may also help our perception of the intellectual relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Helit Yeshurun. In your poem “The Soldier who dreamed of White Lilies”, written in 1967, the soldier’s asked if he’ll go as far a dying for his country. His reply is: “No! [...] They’ve taught me to love my country. But I haven’t felt its heart melting in mine. [...] The rifle’s my way towards love [...]” The soldier wants to live in peace for his children’s good and for him his country is no more than “tasting Mum’s coffee” - it’s different for the Arabs, “grass, roots and branches are their breath” Do you despise the Israelis’ attachment to this land?

Mahmud Darwish. I can half see what’s hidden behind your question. I don’t deny the answer, but I would like to remind you that some Arab artists replied violently to me, even though the poem is very different to the stereotype about Israelis. That was a soldier I knew. He told me his life story one afternoon. He hated the State and the Ministry of Defence - that was incredibly normal at that time, after the ‘67 war. The poem was a response to the stereotype. I should have seen that Israeli soldier in a tank, but I saw hi as a living human being. It was terrible treason. It’s a true story. That soldier fled after the war ended. There is a feeling of rootlessness in Israeli society. It’s a new society. Not all Israelis were born in Israel. The State was twenty years old in 1967. It’s impossible to create roots and cultural references for a society in a generation or two. That’s why Israeli education teaches children to love their country. There were no Jewish farmers in Russia. It’s a new patriotic way of life created in Israel. That’s what the kibbutz were organised for. I don’t criticise it. There was no real physical connection between the Jewish spirit and the land of Israel. The Zionist movement tried to connect the Jews to the land, and it’s still trying to do that. What is it you want me to say? What I’m saying is that this was the first Arab poem to give an Israeli a platform.

H. Y. And what does that voice say? For that soldier, tasting his mother’s coffee is his homeland.

M. D. The voice says he’s a person. He’s a person, and not a rifle. It’s a search for his place of birth, so he can peacefully drink his coffee in the morning. Nowadays it’s the dream I have for Palestine.

H. Y. That’s new.

M. D. And yet it’s true. Where do you see me despising the relationships the Jews have with their country? That isn’t the poem’s main subject. The central issue of the poem is that society is a soldier. You can’t take my place and see the image my readers haveof that
soldier in their consciences. I don’t adorn things, but I was especially affected by that young man, he’d gone through war’s horrors and he hoped to hear the cooing of doves on the roof of the Ministry of Defence. Even so, I’m not lying and I won’t tell you I’ll get angry hearing people speaking against the State of Israel. I still don’t love it. And I think you should have listened to me: you don’t ask a Palestinian to love the State of Israel.

H. Y. You’ve mentioned the relationship with the country. Not the relationship with the State.

M. D. For Palestinians, this isn’t the Land of Israel. A foreign body is a foreign body. Nowadays it’s very hard to find a Palestinian who’ll tell you his or her thoughts. We’re in a peace process, we have to change our version of history completely, but don’t be offended if all Palestinians believe that Palestine’s theirs. They’ve just realised that they have a partner. That’s incredible progress. Don’t take that lightly. And don’t be amazed when you find out they think Palestine’s theirs. What is their country? It was created here. They know no other. From their point of view, you’re foreigners. How many years ago did you come here? You’ve arrived here, but they can’t count the number of years they’ve been in this country. And they don’t know if it was you or not, as if nobody was there and the land had only one thing to do: wait for you to turn up. I don’t want you to impose your version on me and I don’t want to impose my version on you. We must recognise each other’s right to tell our History. And History has mocked both of us. History has no time for either Jews or Arabs. Many peoples have been left in the past because of that. History’s cynical, and so much the better.

H. Y. “The rifle’s my way towards love” that soldier says.

M. D. It’s the soldier’s job. Without rifles, their would be no State of Israel. If we’re going to be sincere, we must say the truth. Though that hurts coming from an Arab.

H. Y. And what’s your way towards love? There’s lots of violence in your love too: “And the heart I love, this land, it’s a guillotine? Hasn’t hate misled you?”

M. D. No. Poetry’s my way towards love. When I see the shadow of hate in a poem, I change it. We should never write with hatred as our starting point. It’s literature’s adversary. The sentence you’ve quoted is a summit of love: even though this land is a guillotine for me, I love it.