From a review I wrote years ago of Mahmoud Darwish's book Memory for Forgetfulness:
Memory for Forgetfulness records the poet's experience during one day in August 1982, in Beirut under siege, but from the first few pages it becomes apparent that this is more than a war diary. Through a juxtaposition of dream and reality, poetry and prose, past and present, Darwish probes issues that have been central concerns in his writing: the proper role of the intellectual at a time of war, the tensions between poetic and political expression, the relationship between memory and history. He looks at these issues through the prism of the Palestinian diasporan experience, which he chronicles, interrogates, and, more importantly, lives. His description of himself stranded in the hallway of his exposed apartment under intense bombardment one August morning is also a description of the collective Palestinian condition of exile at a particular moment in history, when the only places possible are intermediary and constantly narrowing, while the only space expanding is the minefield between "here" and "there," between exile and homeland.
The "here" in Darwish's text, and its obsessive center, is Beirut. No ordinary city of exile, it is at once a poem and a dilemma: "I try to unravel Beirut, and I become more and more ignorant of myself. Is it a city or a mask? A place of exile or a song?" As he sings of Beirut, Darwish movingly sings of his guilty yet defiant love for a city that is not his. His song is like his book (as he himself describes it): "nervous, tense, taut, on edge." Part of his uneasiness stems from his uncertainty about what the poet's role is in wartime. He rejects writing the kind of poetry that "liberated the land line by line," but also resists following the path of the poet who killed himself during the siege of Beirut when he realized that song is no longer possible. Although Darwish declares that the poet is marginal in war and can only write his silence, he continues to search for a new, ideal language in which "the private voice and the public voice become one."
Until that language is possible, he resists death in a myriad of small ways: by remembering the sounds and smells of an ordinary morning before the shelling started; by preparing with exquisite care a cup of coffee; by making love on the balcony in view of the murderous sea; and by designing, in his mind's eye, his own funeral, down to the last detail. The poet's ability to dream, however, does not obscure his vision of a grim future: "Hiroshima is tomorrow," he chillingly announces, and tomorrow is another journey with no shore in sight.
World Literature Today (1997)