‘Dear Darwish’: A poetically and politically brave book

Israeli-American poet Morani Kornberg-Weiss breaks with conventional poetics and mainstream politics. But who, exactly, is Dear Darwish for? 

Dear Darwish, Morani Kornberg-Weiss’s first collection of poetry, opens with a prose poem that that doubles as an indictment of Israeli society. Cleverly disguised as a letter, it is addressed to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Like the poems that follow it, “Dear Mahmoud” does many things at once. It captures the violence inherent in establishing and maintaining the Jewish state. It accurately depicts Israelis’ objectifying and dehumanizing view of Palestinians. It shows how the state’s violence against Palestinians has seeped into Israeli society, permeating all aspects of life.

It’s no short order to do all this without losing the poetry to polemics. But Kornberg-Weiss manages to stay true to the horrible, tragic content of this book—including the nakba, the occupation, torture, death, and dispossession—while rendering a beautiful collection. That doesn’t mean that she dresses things up or distorts reality to make it palatable. Rather, she uses the lyrical to strip things down and offer them up to the reader, who is unable to tear their eyes away from Kornberg-Weiss’s searing, heartbreaking images.

Take for example:

That marks one difference between Israelis and
Palestinians: so many Israelis walk around with blood on their
hands, hands soaked in red, red hands shaking, exchanging
blood, patting a bloody hand on one’s shoulder, leaving a trace of
a hand, a hand running through one’s hair, scratching a nose,
leaving creases of liquid clotted and dried up on the cheekbones,
taking a bath and then running a hand over one’s arms, arm pits,
breasts then thighs, genitals, feet all covered with blood, blood
trying to wash itself but it’s a blood so ordinary you cannot even
see it.
I write this letter.
Red fingerprints smear on the page.

But Dear Darwish isn’t just about confronting the occupation, nor does it fall into the “shooting and crying” genre. As the title of the book and the title of the first poem both suggest, this collection is about creating dialogue. While one reviewer slammed Kornberg-Weiss for writing the collection “to” Darwish, I would argue that Kornberg-Weiss is acknowledging the inescapable power dynamic of the occupier/occupied and the deeply narcissistic nature of Israeli society. In a poem titled “david antin talked about tuning,” she writes: “…i break away/from the ‘fantasy of understanding’/i barely/recognize myself in you mahmoud i/recount various experiences of misappropriation i/imagine no common knowing but my arrogant/fantasy of moving so close in you mahmoud”

'Dear Darwish' by Morani Kornberg-Weiss
‘Dear Darwish’ by Morani Kornberg-Weiss

So the question remains: who are these poems actually addressed to?

I struggled with this from the second page where Kornberg-Weiss asks Darwish in Hebrew, Arabic, and English what their common language should be. I was living in Bethlehem the first time I read the collection. When I ran into these sentences, I read the three questions aloud to my partner.

While he can read the Hebrew alphabet and speaks a bit, he didn’t have enough to get the question, which I translated for him. And he helped me, in turn, as I clumsily read the Arabic.

“Who’s her audience?” we both wondered aloud, in English. Forty-eighters who speak English? English-speakers who read Hebrew and Arabic? Hebrew-speakers who also speak English and Arabic? Arabic-speakers who speak English and Hebrew?

It might seem like I’m beating the language issue to death but poetry is all about language and, indeed, language is an issue that arises throughout collection. Language plays a central role in the conflict, as well. What sort of words one uses to discuss “the situation”—as well as one’s silences, what goes unsaid—reveals much about one’s feelings on the place and its politics. And the fight for public opinion is a war of words.

So, of course, it’s significant that the collection is written in English. Equally significant is the fact that Dear Darwish was written (and published) in the diaspora. In fact, the poems seem to me to be a collection that could only be written outside of Israel. I asked Kornberg-Weiss about this and she agreed, explaining to +972:

…my political journey began in Israel during Operation Cast Lead in late 2008. I remember seeing protestors who supported the operation and “Israel’s right to defend itself.” That slogan didn’t sound right at the time, although initially I couldn’t articulate why.

The collection itself was conceptualized and written in the U.S. after the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. I tried to make sense of how one Israeli solider could be released in exchange for over one thousand Palestinian lives. The project could only be written outside of Israel. I feel as though I wore blindfolds while living in Israel. I was not exposed to “the other side.” Both the Israeli education system and the media censor Palestinian history and even current events. Even now in “Operation Protective Edge” the media failed to expose the atrocities in the Gaza Strip as a result of Israeli attacks. The photographs in the Israeli newspapers focused primarily on the Israeli side, while sanitizing and censoring the destruction in the Gaza Strip.

Dear Darwish could be read as a series of letters to the Jewish diaspora, or as a sort of self-interrogation that the Jewish community is meant to overhear (and undertake). The collection seems intent on pushing the increasingly divisive conversation about Israel into more radical (dare I say anti-Zionist?) territory. And that Kornberg-Weiss quotes a line from a poem by the Canadian-Jewish Rachel Zolf on the very first page is also telling. Zolf is a poet who has been publicly critical of the occupation and the author of Neighbour Procedure, a collection of poems revolving around the occupation; Kornberg-Weiss is grounding her book in that conversation.

Both the content and the immediate alignment with Zolf make Dear Darwish brave writing that, as we have seen with the Salaita affair, could have an impact on Kornberg-Weiss’s career. Her exploration of form is equally bold and makes the collection worth reading regardless of one’s politics.

That Kornberg-Weiss, who tells me that she grew up in a “center-right” family, wrote Dear Darwish and that Blaze VOX had the courage and integrity to publish it are both encouraging signs that the conversation about Israel-Palestine is changing—at least in the diaspora.

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