RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Reuters) – The body of Mahmoud Darwish, whose poetry gave voice to Palestinian national aspirations, arrived on Wednesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where mourners assembled for his funeral.
A helicopter brought Darwish’s body from Jordan, where it had been flown from the United States. Darwish died on Saturday from complications after heart surgery in Houston, Texas.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, along with scores of officials and dignitaries, received the flower-strewn coffin, draped in a Palestinian flag, at his Ramallah headquarters.
Eight uniformed pall-bearers carried his coffin from the helicopter across the courtyard as a military band played. The coffin was to be taken in procession to Darwish’s grave about 4 km (2.5 miles) away. People gathered in the city’s main square to bid the Palestinian literary giant farewell.
Palestinians are staging the equivalent of a state funeral for Darwish, 67, an honour previously accorded only to Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004.
Darwish’s award-winning poetry, translated into more than 20 languages, has served as an eloquent witness of Palestinian exile and loss of homeland. “He did not die, because he left a legacy of poetry behind him. He is immortal in our hearts,” businessman Mohammad Saqf al-Heit said beside the plot where Darwish is to be buried.
During the three days of national mourning, portraits of the poet lined the streets of Ramallah, together with his famous line: “There is much on this land worth living for”.
In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior leader of the Islamist group, described Darwish as a symbol of Palestinian culture and literature whose poetry crossed psychological and geographical boundaries. “Darwish has managed to break many of the taboos between the occupier and the people who resist the occupation,” he said. Many ordinary Gazans were saddened by Darwish’s death. “Darwish was Palestine personified in a man… A man full of love, nationalism and passion,” said teacher Menna Ali.
“I wept as I never did before and I will weep every time I read or recall one of his great poems,” she told Reuters.
Born in territory that is now in Israel, Darwish was jailed several times by the Israelis for his political activities. He left in 1971 for the Soviet Union. Exile in Cairo, Beirut, Tunis and Paris followed. He made his home in Ramallah in the 1990s. While abroad he rose to prominence in the PLO, but resigned in 1993 after Arafat signed the Oslo accords with Israel.
Friends of Darwish said he opposed the interim peace deal for its failure to meet Palestinian demands that Israel return all land occupied in a 1967 Middle East war and recognise the right of Palestinian refugees to return.
Darwish’s grave is set on a hill near the Ramallah Cultural Palace, where he read his latest poems in July.