The Role of Classics in Social and Political Movements with a focus on the Homeric Influences in Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural (2000) and the Palestinian Crisis 

The Homeric influences on Mahmoud Darwish reflect the continued and everlasting legacy of Classics upon modern literature, which can serve as a mirror for modern events. The literary legacy of Classics is perhaps easier to navigate than the less explicit or tangible cultural profundity. While the immediate importance of the tragedies of Sophocles or events in ancient history have been eroded within common culture, their remnants continue to thrive. Classics has integrated itself not only into the literary canon but also mainstream culture in its perseverance within political movements. It can provide a reflective portrait of contemporary issues and culture, but also expose the unchanging human condition. As Mönch comments:  

‘creative powers shift freely in the course of history from people to people… Poetry, painting, music exist today as they always have, and belong to the essence of the human race and are, as in every historical period, expressions of our spiritually creative humanity’.  

For this essay I will explore the effect of Classics on literature that fuels social and political movements, with the themes of identity and nationhood serving as a central thread in both. Darwish echoes the Homeric epic poetic form in Mural, contextualising Classical themes into his own social milieu through the Palestinian movement.  

Ghazoul states that: 

‘if the classical epic sang the glory of the nation and its triumphs, Darwish’s epic hymn sings of a world that has abandoned him and his people’.  

Darwish’s poetry taps into a national lamentation over the loss of their homeland, he paradoxically celebrates his nation whilst also writes in frustration over the paralysis of his people and their inability to effect change. The ‘mixing [of] lyrical reflections with a discontinuous verse narrative’ in Darwish’s Mural makes it a ‘hybrid epic’, one that echoes Homer’s celebration of nationhood and identity, adapting it for the Palestinian cause. Crucially, the poem documents the Palestinian struggle for an identity when nationless. Thus, the ‘broken’ epic becomes a symbol of the Palestinian plight: paradoxically existing and not-existing. The Homeric influences on Darwish are made clear by his own explanation of his aim as a poet: ‘there is no place for the Homeric poet, but there is a place for the poet of Troy… I try to be the poet of Troy’. Therefore, to some extent Darwish assumes the role of an anti-Homer, serving as a voice for the defeated. The parallel with Troy highlights the cultural profundity of Classics that drives modern movements, as the themes of war and nationhood perceiver into the current cultural and literary canon. This is evident in the multitude of writers who engage with Classics to navigate political struggles: through his 1948 adaptation of Antigone, Bertolt Brecht attempts to reconstruct a post-war Germany. The adaptation, rather than a new script, was chosen ‘because it could attain a certain present relevance from the standpoint of content’, demonstrative of the place of Classics in the social consciousness. Joyce (in a similar manner to Darwish) documents the Irish plight in Ulysses through a Homeric parallel. Like the works of Joyce and Darwish, the Homeric epic is in itself a preservation of Greek identity and culture, reflecting the importance of literature in the idea of nationhood. This is expressed by Bernard Knox (2010) who reiterates Giambattista Vico’s (1744) idea that ‘the Homeric poems were not the creation of one man but of the whole Greek people’, making Homer the greatest success in the preservation of a people’s culture and nation through art. Thus, Darwish’s ‘echo of an epic’, Joyce’s ‘everyman’s epic’, and Homer’s original, all fight against the cultural amnesia of a nation— Homer embodies the Greek spirit, Darwish the Palestinian.   

The words of Auden in Refugee Blues evince the most significant difference in the Palestinian movement: ‘once we had a country and we thought it fair, / Look at the atlas you’ll find it there’. Palestinian refugees cannot ‘look at the atlas’ to find their nation, their cause is against the fading of a people. Thus, the Palestinian movement can be attributed to a desperation to remember—where the arts are at the forefront in the preservation of identity, and the progression of the Palestinian cause. This is epitomised in the exile of Darwish by Israel, and the assassination of Naji al-Ali (a Palestinian cartoonist). The Palestinian movement is perhaps more uniquely dependent upon the role of poetry as a form of resistance than other political movements. The lack of organisation and effective military action places greater pressure on poetry as a cultural unification. It also successfully threatens Israeli power, which is reflected in the haunting words of Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan in an interview with Ma’areef newspaper (1967), ‘only one poem of Fadwa Tuqan is enough to create ten Palestinian terrorists.’ This in reference to the female poet Tuqan, who sparked a war through words against the horrific aggression of Isreali occupation, writing also with the experience of living under British colonialism. Therefore, Darwish was part of collection of Palestinian poets who attempted to alleviate the paralysis of their nation.  

Tahir Hamdi comments that Darwish’s ‘fight [is] against the annihilation and complete erasure of Palestinian land, culture, history, and national identity’. Therefore, the Palestinian movement is one of remembrance, to form a strong identity even when nationless. Darwish therefore, becomes a pivotal aspect of it. Ahmed Mahmoud comment alludes to this as he states that Darwish became ‘the founder of the literature of resistance… born as a reaction to the loss of the Palestinian homeland and identity’. Before Darwish Palestinian poetry served more as a war cry to incite revolution and voiced continuous belief in an ultimate victory; however, Darwish offered a more sublime melancholy reaction to the elimination of his culture and home. This ultimately served as more effective weapon, by producing poetry which garnered international attention and praise, Darwish was able dismantle the normalisation of the Zionism in a global context. In his poem Identity Card (1964) Darwish writes ‘Write it down!/I am an Arab’, which notes the pride and pain that comes with being Arab. Many of Darwish’s poems were written into music because they sing of an Arabic nostalgia and of homeland (which all Arab countries have had to fight for in some way or another). This was most famously done by Marcel Khalife a Lebanese composer, who sang the poem To My Mother (1973) in 1976. The simplicity of the poem which reflects upon days gone (‘yearn[ing] for my mother’s bread/ My mother’s coffee’), connects to a central Arabic culture, in which an increasing number of people live in alien countries, reminiscing over iconic memories of family and the making of coffee. Therefore, its adaptation into song constructs an Arab anthem, that instantly taps into a nostalgic sadness. For the new generation of Arabs born abroad, these songs present a nostalgia that they have never experienced and connects them to their culture. Thus, music serves to preserve a history of culture in the face of mass diaspora and memorialise an Arab emotion that transcends borders and generations. Political expression and themes of Arab identity within music is a key theme in Arabic composition; traditionally songs are composed from poems. Thus, poems become anthems and their reach widens. This is especially important in a time when literarcy rates in Palestine were low, due to Isreali occupation neglecting the progression of the education of Palestinian children. Therefore, like Joyce for the Irish movement, Darwish brings about a cultural rejuvenation, which inspires unity and a sense of ‘homeland’. 

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in The Ship compares the Palestinian exiles’ attempt to return with that of Ulysses’ in The Odyssey, which later becomes a traditional parallel in Arabic literature. This compulsion to connect with Classics is not concentrated within the Palestinian movement, or even modern literature; there appears to be a universal tradition in all artforms to connect us with our ancient past. It is perhaps an obvious remark to state that classical allusions create a greater sense of profundity, but the reasons why this is the case are more difficult to identify. One explanation is that we still struggle with similar issues humans struggled with thousands of years ago, which provides us with a greater sense of perspective, and a shared suffering.  

Language in both Homer and Darwish serves a central role in the concept of identity and nationhood. Edward Said comments that: 

‘in the Arab and specifically the Palestinian case, aesthetics and politics are intertwined…Another dynamic is the pressure of the Islamic and Arabic language tradition itself, which is very powerful. Language is the central cultural expression of the Arabs’.  

This can be argued for Homer’s Greek as well, written in kunstsprache, primarily to fit the dactylic hexameter, it can also be seen as a united Greek identity: uniting different periods and regions. Darwish comments ‘Go to the Arabic sentence, and you will find self and homeland’. This could easily be said about Homer’s Greek. Language acts as a placemark for communities, hence in his poetry Darwish attempts to reconstruct Palestine— preserving it eternally. This is alluded to as he comments, ‘I built my homeland, I even established a state, in my language’. The role of language in statehood does differ for Homer and Darwish: for Darwish it becomes the most effective weapon against a unified and organised state, whereas for Homer it serves to immortalise Greek victory and courage. To an extent, ancient victories are nothing if literature does not preserve them. This is reflected by Alexander the Great’s fear of going undocumented, to which Arrian later takes up the responsibility, serving as Alexander’s Xenophon. Therefore, language serves as a powerful vehicle for change in both the Classical and the modern era, with its ability to unite movements and philosophies remaining unchanged. 

Darwish engages with traditional Arabic themes and Classics within his poetry, offering greater spatial and temporal boundaries to his work. Paradoxically, while his poetry is very situated within Palestine and the Arab world, as well as a specific period, his voice permeates into the global consciousness, inspiring other movements. However, it is interesting to note that social and political movements also affect the way we engage with Classics, as much as Classics affects movements. For instance, the civil rights movement saw the rise of Black Classicism, and the feminist movement shifted focus onto the neglected role of women in Classics. It is also important to critically assess our own subjectivity and the effect of previous scholars on the way we currently view and evaluate Classics. Unfortunately, for the most part early Classicists favoured imperial and xenophobic narratives; while this does not undermine the contribution to the subject, it does mean we should continually reassess and review pre-accepted notions. This is perhaps most noticeable in the study of Ancient History, which focuses on Greece and Rome exclusively. Even when studying Persia, it is from the Greek preceptive. This is naturally not due to an absence of history and culture beyond the West. The very emphasis on Homer is interesting when considering the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, which is not as widely known, despite its importance having been compared with the Bible and the Quran in world civilisation by W. J. Johnson. This is evidence of how greatly historical narratives are affected by early scholarship and traditions, and what they deemed important or noteworthy. However, the focus on the Western civilisations could be a consequence of the earlier acceptance of the literary tradition in the region, providing more sources to study. The issue of a westernised history is tackled by Said, a contemporary of Darwish, in Orientalism (1978). It is interesting to consider their works as complementary, Darwish takes the poetic form, while Said the prose. They both write against the colonial narratives in the depictions of the ‘East’, contributing to a new era of historical and literary movements. Ultimately, it is important to have an awareness and understanding of one’s own subjectivity and what has affected it when we come to make conclusions. Our current view on Classics is heavily impacted by generations that are so different to our own. Rather than ignoring this, it is important to recognise the contribution by those who defined the field upon misconceptions and racial ignorance, in order to successfully progress.  

Classics plays a key role in the works of Darwish and is utilised to make a broader political statement. Tony Kushner rightly observes that ‘everything is personal; everything is political’, which corroborates the pattern of Classics in politics and politics in Classics. From Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, which serves as a commentary for the contemporary political climate in the background of the Athenian plague (430BCE), to Antigone’s revival by Brecht to serve as a commentary on post-war Germany, Classical themes permeate into the societal psyche. Classics in some sense belongs to all. While Homer is very much situated in Greece, it is an epic that transcends into world culture. This is perhaps a reason for their continued legacy: they are detached from reality whilst also paradoxically capturing the essence of a time. To some, extent movements are formed from intense emotions, and thus, while the context changes, the emotions captured by ancient writers remain equally as powerful today as they originally were.  


The war will end 

The leaders will shake hands  

The old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son 

The girl will wait for her beloved husband 

And those children will wait for their hero father  


I don’t know who sold our homeland 

But I saw who paid the price 

Written by Yasmine Hamud 


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