'Our words, our voice'

Many Palestinians spoke of the loss of much more than a great poet.

"He was our words, our voice," many mourners told me. 


Mahmoud Darwish  

Darwish's coffin, strewn with garlands of flowers and draped in the Palestinian flag, was driven through the city's streets following an official ceremony at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority headquarters.

The revered poet was bestowed the first state funeral in the West Bank capital since the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader, in 2004.

Tens of thousands of people gathered on a hilltop near the Ramallah Cultural Palace, which is to be renamed after the poet and is his final resting place.

His poems resonated over loudspeakers as crowds carried aloft his photos, Palestinian flags and olive branches.

'An amazing person'

Just one month ago many of these people had come to the same place to hear Darwish recite a selection of new poetry which, unknown to him then, was to be his final reading.

The 67-year-old died last week following complications after undergoing open-heart surgery at a hospital in Houston, Texas.

Darwish was given a 21-gun salute. "It is the same as when Arafat died," said 48-year-old Mahmoud Njoum.

"All of our people will remember him as a hero, a big leader as well as a great poet."

Many Palestinians had travelled from Israel to pay their last respects.

"He is one of us, he knew what we feel and how we suffer, an amazing person," said Hajar Abu-Salih, 17, from Sakhnin in Israel’s north.

"I will cry and scream today, because we will miss him so much."

'Moral integrity'

Many Palestinians spoke of losing an icon.

One woman, from Ramallah, described the feeling amongst Palestinians of being "orphaned" by the death of Darwish, repeatedly referred to as their last great leader.

"The most important thing about him is that he maintained an unimpeachable moral integrity, political and intellectual authority," said Adila Laidi-Hanieh, a former director of the Khalil Sakanini Cultural centre, where Darwish worked.

"That was an unparalleled source of legitimacy and elevated his words to a higher plane."

Laidi-Hanieh described Darwish as a quiet, private person, whose daily routine in Ramallah consisted of writing from home and editing the leading Arab literary magazine, al-Karmel, at the Sakanini centre.

"He was very generous with his work," she said of the poet, who was always ready to make time for aspiring writers and those seeking to develop their talent.

"He was extremely encouraging and positive. He always had a definite opinion, but he was always very supportive."

Continuing influence

Some years ago, Darwish was so impressed by the poetry of one teenage girl, which featured in a Palestinian newspaper supplement, that he arranged a meeting with the young writer and her parents.

"I was so happy to know that my poetry was noticed by someone like Mahmoud Darwish," recalls 22-year-old Dalia Taha.

"He didn't instruct me, but told me that it is important to read and contemplate to produce good poetry," she said.

This young generation in the West Bank speak of Darwish with as much reverence as their elders.

"It is the end of a special part of our lives as Palestinians," said 16-year-old Hind Younis, a Ramallah resident. "Today I can’t help feeling a bit lost."

Darwish had moved to Ramallah in 1996, after the Israeli authorities revoked an entry ban on the poet.

But despite the grief in the city, many spoke also of Darwish's legacy and his continuing influence on scores of writers, poets and dramatists.

"He left a path, a model of being a politically committed artist with high artistic and aesthetic integrity – a way of achieving universality," said Adila Laidi-Hanieh. 

"Darwish is like our daily bread and water," said 53-year-old Bader Mahlees.

"He is not dead, because he is forever in our hearts."