Mahmoud Darwish was born on March 13, 1941 in Al Birweh, Palestine, into a land-owning Sunni Muslim family. During the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, his village was destroyed and his family fled to Lebanon. They returned the following year, secretly re-entering their homeland.
As a young man, Darwish faced house arrest and imprisonment for his political activism and for publicly reading his poetry. He joined the Rakah political party in the 1960s. In 1970, he left for Russia, where he attended the University of Moscow for one year, and then moved to Cairo. He lived in exile for twenty-six years, between Beirut and Paris, until 1996. He then settled in Ramallah in the West Bank.
Considered Palestine’s most eminent poet, Darwish published his first collection of poems, Leaves of Olives, in 1964, when he was twenty-two. Since then, Darwish has published approximately thirty poetry and prose collections, which have been translated into more than twenty-two languages.
Some of his more recent poetry titles include The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon Press, 2006); Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press, 2003); Stage of Siege, originally published in Arabic in 2002, then rereleased in English in 2010 (Syracuse University Press); The Adam of Two Edens (Syracuse University Press, 2000); Mural, first published in Arabic in 2000, then rereleased in English in 2017 (Verso Books); Psalms (Three Continents Press, 1994); Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, first published in Arabic in 1995, then rereleased in English in 2012 (Steerforth Press); and The Music of Human Flesh (Heinemann, 1980).
Darwish was an editor for a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) monthly journal and the director of the group’s research center. In 1987, he was appointed to the PLO executive committee, and resigned in 1993 in opposition to the Oslo Agreement. He served as the editor-in-chief and founder of the literary review Al-Karmel, published out of the Sakakini Centre since 1997
About Darwish’s work, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye has said, “Mahmoud Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart. What he speaks has been embraced by readers around the world—his in an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.”
His awards and honors include the Ibn Sina Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, the 1969 Lotus prize from the Union of Afro-Asian Writers, France’s Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres medal in 1997, the 2001 Prize for Cultural Freedom from the Lannan Foundation, the Moroccan Wissam of intellectual merit handed to him by King Mohammad VI of Morocco, and the USSR’s Stalin Peace Prize.
Darwish died on August 9, 2008, in Houston after complications from heart surgery.