In Our Homeland

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(HOST) Commentator Jay Parini reflects on a recent trip to the Middle East.

(PARINI) A few weeks ago I returned from Jordan, a hauntingly beautiful country of vast desert valleys and stony outcrops. Bedouin tribesmen still wander across the sand in some of the more remote regions, as they have for centuries, tending their goats and camels.

Today 60% of Jordan’s population are Palestinians whose families were run off their ancestral land by the Israelis half a century ago. A fair number of them still live in dilapidated refugee camps, refusing to assimilate, wistfully looking forward to the day of their return to Palestine. I was in Jordan as a guest of the U.S. State Department, which asked me to give some lectures and readings at several universities. The State Department, for many years, has tried to encourage cultural contacts.

I rarely got more than half way through a reading or lecture on American literature before hands rose in the audience, and the questions were always political. Why did the Americans take such a one-sided position on the Palestian question? Why had we invaded Iraq, when most of the world opposed such an intervention? Indeed, did I personally support the Bush Administration’s policies in the Middle East since the U.S. government had sponsored my visit?

There was always some surprise when I said, openly, that I had never supported the policies of the Bush Administration. I explained that the U.S. government did not censor what I said, and that I spoke as a free citizen, with my own ideas and opinions. At nearly every occasion, I cited the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet.

Now in his sixties, living in Amman, Darwish is widely admired throughout the Arab-speaking world. In a poem of his called “In Our Homeland”, he evokes the plight of Palestian people: “In our homeland, / which eludes adjectives, / there’s a map of absence,” he writes. That map of absence has been beautifully drawn by Darwish in many volumes of verse over the past four decades.

Through a mutual friend, I was invited to dinner with Darwish one evening at the home of another poet, Tahar Riad. As usual, the conversation turned to politics. Darwish argued, quite sensibly, that the Palestinian crisis lies at the heart of the Middle East conflict, and that it has only been intensified by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He was, in fact, very glum about the prospects of peace in the near future.

Back in my hotel room, I was awakened by the five a.m. call to prayers that sang out from every mosque in Amman. Unable to drift back to sleep, I picked up a volume of poems by Darwish, and read again his “In Our Homeland”. The poem concludes:

In our homeland,
chained and surrounded by torn hills,
the past is ambushed.
In our captive homeland there is
the freedom of death in longing and burning,
and our homeland,
in its bloody night,
is a jewel shining distantly,
illuminating what surrounds it
…and those of us inside
suffocate that much more.

This is Jay Parini, in Weybridge.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury College. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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