Bridging Divides & Transgressing Boundaries in Morani Kornberg-Weiss’s Dear Darwish
Dylan Krieger

Dear DarwishAs its epistolary title suggests, Morani Kornberg-Weiss’s Dear Darwish is a book about bridging divides through writing. As an Israeli-American writer addressing Mahmoud Darwish, a renowned Palestinian poet, Kornberg-Weiss seeks to negotiate an “end” to the longstanding conflict between the two authors’ peoples, even if it means raising a white flag of surrender, as the book’s illustrated cover depicts (93). From the very first pages of Dear Darwish, the speaker adopts a respectfully subservient tone to address the late literary figure, formally asking “permission” to use his words and proposing humbly that they “work together” to forge a common “IsraelPalestine” narrative, in which the “share[d]…blood” on their hands teaches both sides finally to live together rather than die divided (18-19).

Despite the speaker’s explicit peace-making intentions and admissions of mutual guilt, she takes great pains to extricate herself from the conflict’s underlying motivations, even positioning herself as a helpless victim through the analogies of a “hostage,” a puppet, and a “kill[ed]…messenger” (21-23). Kornberg-Weiss clarifies that her poems’ proactive diplomacy should not be taken as an avowal of personal responsibility; on the contrary, both she and Darwish inherited their bloody hands at birth, entering the world already “torture”-bound prisoners whose only sin was simply “learn[ing] to live / with the darkness” (26).

This vision of history as a self-perpetuating prison reappears in the book’s final section, “Nakba Museum,” in which the speaker imagines a museum constructed to commemorate the competing displacement efforts that have typified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over a century, especially since Israel’s reinstatement as a nation in 1948 (known to Palestinians as “Nakba Day” or “Day of the Catastrophe”). The only way to escape this historical prison, according to Kornberg-Weiss, is to “speak counter-histories” to the museum’s shadowy exhibits and wait until “one tiny light” grows large enough to quell the darkness and “end” the “Nakba…era” once and for all (85, 88, 93).

In this same section, the speaker claims to “hear” Darwish finally respond to her book-long homage. He echoes her hopeful sentiments by reciting the names of children killed in the Holocaust through the museum’s “overhead speaker” (88, 92). In order to see this device as something other than Kornberg-Weiss putting words into the late Darwish’s unsuspecting mouth, it’s helpful to hear Darwish’s own description of the Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation for which he hoped. In “Poetry’s State of Siege,” author and activist Almog Behar cites Darwish’s optimistic prediction: “the Jew will not be ashamed to find an Arab element in himself, and the Arab will not be ashamed to declare that he incorporates Jewish elements.” [1] In Dear Darwish, Kornberg-Weiss enacts this dream of reciprocal Israeli-Palestinian “de-othering” by lamenting her addressee’s deceased or dispossessed Palestinian brethren, and imagining the late poet mourn Israel’s lost children in turn.

However, one could question whether the book’s multidirectional sensitivity overlooks the very cruelty it’s meant to renounce. After all, if the poet/speaker is merely the “messenger” and the addressee/reader merely the recipient, then who is the sender? Who founded this particular historical prison? Who is the torturer? Who is to blame? In the text’s rendering, the enemy becomes the environs themselves—the museum, the prison, the room—just as the tensions that still persist today between Jews and Arabs are perpetuated by their respective allegiances to a surrounding “homeland” both enshrined and blood-soaked (25). Dear Darwish seems to imagine an “IsraelPalestine” beyond these four walls, where former enemies unite to help each other “scrub” the blood from their bodies even if it means the evisceration of all corporeal inhabitance (18-19).

Here, we arrive at the dark side of Kornberg-Weiss’s transgressive optimism, where she confronts Darwish’s haunting question: “Who Am I, Without Exile?” (19). Her response recalls Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot” soliloquy, portraying the trauma of exile as an ineradicable bloodstain seeped so disruptively deep into the fabric of the body that even the “bones” bear its mark (19). However, since loss of embodiment leads to loss of identity, the speaker must acknowledge that in the body she finds a “room” that cannot hope to be fled or reconstructed like the “museum” of history. Instead, restoration for the exiled body comes precisely in the form of encountering and engaging otherness, just as the speaker seeks to do through her letters to and quotations from Darwish. As a result of this attempt to initiate respectful dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian literatures, Kornberg-Weiss envisions that even if they cannot wash away the blood of history from their bodies, they can at least learn from each other “how to” live “with these stains” (19).

With all of this said, some readers may find the extended metaphor of the historical prison somewhat overexerted. This might appear to be so in the bitter sarcasm of lines like “Let’s say you don’t think about / …having your eyelids / sewn into your cheeks / so that—God forbid—you / dare open them,” where the author seems to sacrifice the image’s freshness for the sake of its thematic resonance and visual clarity (25). However, Kornberg-Weiss’s daunting project to address and redress Israeli-Palestinian relations by reaching out beyond enemy lines—and even beyond the grave—may necessitate cross-culturally accessible metaphors to ensure that readers can grasp the full weight of its message before deciding whether or not to “kill the messenger” (23).

Although the book’s peace-making agenda is poignantly apparent, the manner and directions of its occasional finger-pointing is not. What historical context and social mindset underlie the warmongering atrocities of the “Nakba…era”? Can we ever settle such conflicts and escape the prisons of a culture’s history without first targeting and eliminating such vengeful militarism at its source? And what of the moral implications of collaborating across enemy lines only after your collaborator is already dead? Dear Darwish relates a one-sided attempt at communication between two tortured captives still in the dark as to these questions’ answers. Yet somehow both authors are convinced that speaking “counter-histories” of kindness and reconciliation is the writer’s only way to undercut her captors, forgive her enemies, and ultimately reverse the deadly downward spiral that “museum” life inspires: the all-too-human habit of historically justifying hate.

Dear Darwish
By Morani Kornberg-Weiss
BlazeVOX, 2014


[1] Behar, Almog. “Mahmoud Darwish: Poetry’s Stage of Siege.” Journal of Levantine Studies 1 (2011): 193.