Page last updated at 20:30 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 21:30 UK

Fitting farewell to Palestinian poet

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Ramallah

Mourners at Darwish's funeral
Young and old gathered in Ramallah to pay their last respects to the poet

From a formal honour guard in the presidential compound to a jostling crowd around a hillside gravesite, Mahmoud Darwish's final journey reflected his place in the emotions of Palestinians.

His poetry on the Palestinian identity earned him a Palestinian Authority-sponsored funeral with a fanfare second only to late leader Yasser Arafat's.

But with youths in jeans and sunglasses and security guards sharing emotional hugs, among the thousands who turned out to pay their respects, the massive popular following of his simple, evocative writing was evident.

"I have cried four times - after my father died, after Arafat died, after the fall of Baghdad, and when Darwish died," said Assad Salim Kayyal, 50, a construction worker from near Acre (Akko in Arabic) in northern Israel.

He and his family had travelled from Jdeideh, the Israeli-Arab village where Darwish lived as a child, a few kilometres away from his birthplace Birweh, which was razed in the wake of the 1948 Israeli-Arab war.

Refugee poet

Many mourners from the area expressed sadness that Darwish was buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah, rather than the home area he had been exiled from for much of his life.

Stripped of his Israeli-Arab citizenship after being active in the Israeli Communist Party and then joining the Palestine Liberation Organisation, he moved to Cairo and then Beirut in the early 1970s.

Assad Salim Kayyal
Assad Salim Kayyal says he wept at Darwish's funeral

He later moved on to Paris and the US, returning to his Palestinian roots when Israel gave him permission in the late 1990s - but even then only to the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Exile was a major theme in his life and his poetry, as Leila Jammal - also from the Acre area originally but long resident in the US - recalled as she walked behind the coffin clutching a single white lily.

After two high-profile speaking engagements in American universities, the man who once wrote "my homeland is not a suitcase" had asked to go with her to "eat fish and remember Akko".

"We are refugees. Wherever we go, deep inside, we feel like refugees," she said.

Some also shared the sadness Darwish expressed in his later years over the fighting between Palestinian political factions and the decline of a unified Palestinian voice.

"Now we have lost everyone. There are very few to speak for us now," said one mourner who preferred not to be named.

Israeli reaction

Since the poet's death after open-heart surgery in Texas on Saturday, candle-lit vigils have been held in Ramallah, while radio stations have broadcast Darwish's recitals and the widely-loved songs written from his best-known poems.

Arab writers and commentators described him as "an epoch-making poet", a "symbolic figure" whose death had left Palestinians "orphaned", and as the "essential breath" of the Palestinian people.

Leila Jammal
Leila Jammal also originally came from Acre, like Darwish

But in Israel there has been mixed feeling. Many respected his abilities as a writer, but others saw some of his writing as anti-Semitic and even racist - in one poem he urged Israelis to "leave our land / Our shore, our sea / Our wheat, our salt, our wound" and "take with you your dead".

However, acclaimed Israeli writer Avraham B Yehoshua said he was deeply saddened by Darwish's death.

"Of course there were poems that were very much aggressive," he said, "but it's important that we know what they are thinking - you have to know your enemy because your enemy is your neighbour and future friend."

Haunting sound

Waiting at the Palestinian Authority's presidential compound to meet the helicopter from Jordan bearing Darwish's wreath-topped coffin were some of the PA's biggest names, clad in dark suits and ties.

Peace negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo wept as the poet's body was carried along a red carpet stretched across the tarmac, and long-time legislator and academic Hanan Ashrawi gave an interview in soft, emotional tones.

Mahmoud Darwish
Darwish won many international prizes for his work

After a private ceremony for dignitaries and family members, including Darwish's octogenarian mother, mourners from across the West Bank and Arab-populated areas of Israel lined the coffin's route to the burial site at the Cultural Palace.

Mona al-Zuhairi, 24, stood tearfully near the graveside after failing to push her way through the tight scrum that formed around the coffin.

But she felt Darwish would have liked the emotional, jostling crowd, where bystanders squeezed up against sobbing relatives and only a cordon of a few security officers holding hands kept the mourners back from the coffin itself.

"He loved life, and all the contradictions between death and living," she said.

Wreath after wreath was passed over the heads of the crowd and placed on the coffin.

But even those struggling for photos were momentarily stilled as the haunting sound of Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifa, singing Darwish's words, echoed over the Palestinian hillside where the late poet was laid to rest - in the soil of his homeland, if not the village of his birth.

Palestinian 'national poet' dies
09 Aug 08 |  Middle East
Your tributes to Mahmoud Darwish
13 Aug 08 |  Middle East
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