SHAFAQNA – Onetime friend and colleague of Mahmoud Darwish, noted fellow Palestinian poet Ahmad Dahbour passed away in a Ramallah hospital on the Saturday afternoon of April 8 at the age of 72. Gathering biographical and artistic information on Dahbour is a time-consuming endeavor, as, like his fractured homeland, bits and pieces of his biography are strewn haphazardly through a small handful of academic articles and books and then come to a full stop. Mentioned in passing, in relation to other people’s stories, as a listing in a collection of Arab poets along with a handful of his free verse poems, in academic footnotes or in part of his biography found in death notices, the greatest amount of links online in English are the obituaries in English-language media dedicated to Palestine commemorating him upon his death. And similarly, like his homeland, he has been mentioned in the English-speaking world more in his death than in life.
This article hopes to be a small portrait of the poet in full, at the very least as full as it can be in the English language, at this point, attempting to fill in the gaps and sew the tapestry of his life back together.
Ahmad Dahbour was born on April 26, 1946 in Haifa, Palestine, from its largest remaining Arab enclave, Wadi al-Nisnas, a place where Jewish visitors take “safari-like tours to be entertained by the artistic productions of a very few Arab and many Jewish artists displayed on the walls or sealed-up windows of emptied homes in the neighborhood,” writes Khaled Furani in his book, “Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry. “The visibility of the Israeli (essentially Jewish) presence lives in the invisibility of things Palestinian.”
Known as one of the most cherished Palestinian poets, his poem, “Hekayat al-Walad al-Filisteeni,” or “The Story of the Palestinian Boy,” is memorized by every Palestinian student. The poem begins:
Because roses do not hurt
I killed the roses
Because whispering does not expose
I will knead all my secrets with the flesh of thunder
I am the Palestinian boy
However, he himself did not receive much formal education due to the tremendous poverty of his family, his only education being confined to the refugee camp school in Southern Lebanon where he had once lived for several years. Instead, he was an avid reader and recipient of his mother’s creative storytelling about their homeland, specifically their ancestral city of Haifa.
After his family had been forcibly exiled to Lebanon as refugees after Zionist forces took the city of Haifa, amid the illegal creation of the state of Israel and the occupation of 78% of historical Palestine, Dahbour, his siblings, his parents and his blind grandmother found themselves in a hut in a refugee camp near Homs, Syria. It was a place, he said, not fit for human existence. Without any electricity, family would gather in the evenings and tell stories. His father made a small income washing the dead and reciting the Quran at their burials.
At age nine he discovered the pre-Islamic Arabian epic Al-Zeer Saalim, also known as The Epic of Adi, which recounts the exploits of the poet-king Abu Layla al-Muhalhil (aka ‘Adi ibn Rabi’ah, d. 531 CE), who left his early adventures chasing women to avenge the murder of his brother, Kulayb, whose killing took place amidst the forty year bedouin tribal war of vengeance called Harb al-Basous fought in the 5th and 6th century.
Meanwhile, his mother told stories of about a “magickal, parallel city called Haifa. ‘Why do you need to see the wonder box [likely derived from the German wunderkammer]?,’ she asked him when he could not join the Syrian kids to see the wonder box on display at town fairs. She promised him that she would bring him instead the sea on a mule from the Mules’ Court in Haifa. She told him that there was no need for swings for which he could not pay, not even with bread, which substituted for money among penniless kids on Eid. She reminded him that the Carmel Mountain in Haifa moves when children mount it. When clothes were torn and shoes split open, she asked him not to care about clothes, for in Haifa clothes were impervious to rain. There, she told him, rain fell only on plants and soil, not humans. Dahbour recovered his mother’s tales and many more as he sought to account for his childhood entry into the kingdom of poetry. Her stories became the soil that nursed his ability to create, his poiesis,”’ wrote Khaled Furani in 2012.
If we had wandered in Diaspora, we did take a
a chance for which we were blamed.
We’d summoned the earthquake
and committed countries made of fruits and
Once or twice we lived as we fancied.
How then should we be branded as a ‘generation
from “Fruits or Copper,” translated by Hassan Hilmy, Contemporary Palestinian Poetry, edited by Michael Smith, Free Verse: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics, Issue 14, Summer 20008.
Most of his poetic works have been published in Beirut, one of the literary capitals of the Middle East. In the 70s and 80s, when the PLO was based out of Lebanon, many of his poems were set to music and turned into songs for the Palestinian revolution, such as “The Green Almond,” “O World, Be Witness to Us and to Beirut,” “The Streets of the Refugee Camp,” “The Fire Broke Out,” and “O Children of Palestine,” the latter of which was sang by the Dawaween ensemble in Gaza. He also wrote many poems for the Palestinian band, Asheqeen.
One of his poems, “We Died for Kafr Kan[n]a to Live,” was immortalized on the square column of the martyrs monument in Kafr Kanna, an Arab town in the Galilee, formerly the ancient Biblical city of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. The monument commemorates all the martyrs of the village since 1936, including the rebellion of 1936-1939, the Nakba (Catastrophe), when almost a quarter of a million Palestinians left or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Palestine War, and the martyrs from the demonstrations on March 30, 1976, known henceforward as Land Day, which originated in response to Israeli plans to expropriate and resettle large amounts of land in the area.
Our name is a symbol and meaning
And our death is a birth
We are the wedding of the Galilee
And the holidays
We are a plain of wheat
This monument begins from us
We wrote our motherland by (our) wound(s)
During his colorful life, the elegant and gentle-voiced poet worked as a reporter for the Fateh Movement newspaper and was the political editor for the Palestinian Broadcast Agency in Syria. He was the Editor-in-Chief for Lotus (Magazine) Journal and Director-General for the Cultural Department of the PLO, and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union. He won both the Tawfiq Zayyad Poetry Award and the Palestine Award for Poetry in 1988.
Dahbour returned back to his Palestinian homeland following the Oslo Accords in 1993. Prior to evacuation from Palestine in 1948, Dahbour’s family owned a bakery and a house. He was finally able to see his family home when he went back to Palestine in the 90s. He settled with his family in Gaza, the “ancient city of modern refugees,” where he would spend the rest of his life. Previously he had been studied in Baghdad, and before that he lived in Tunisia, living the gypsy life of the Palestinian refugee and intellectual.
Upon the poet’s passing, the Palestinian Ministry of Culture released a statement, which said, “Palestine has lost not only one of the giants of literature and Palestinian creativity, but rather a landmark that has always been directed to Palestine.”
By Kawther Rahmani exclusively for Shafaqna