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Tawfik Zayyad, politician and poet

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.01.2009:

Tawfik Zayyad: Voice of His People

By Riad Masarwi

The British writer Oscar Wilde once said that characters make history. Although this is true, there seems to be a dialectic relation between history and character because one produces the other. Temporal history has produced a number of eminent figures that have left indelible traces in global human culture, and it is through these figures that history is known and remembered.

Throughout Palestinian history a number of charismatic and unforgettable characters have emerged, including poets and historians such as Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, Mueen Bseiso, and Emil Touma, and political figures such as Yasser Arafat. Each of these has left behind a permanent heritage that will always be revered by future generations. Each of them has made history and contributed to the making of Palestinian history.

Likewise, Tawfik Zayyad has distinguished himself as a revolutionary poet who has carved himself an immortal name in the monument of Palestinian history. He was born in Nazareth in 1929 and since his childhood had a very strong and close relationship with his parents. Zayyad used to say, “I learned kindness and meekness from my mother and courage from my father.”

Zayyad was indeed courageous and determined, and these two traits remained with him until his death in July 1994. Driving back from his first visit to Arafat in Jericho and heading to the Israeli Parliament session in Jerusalem, Zayyad had a tragic car accident that put an end to his life.

At school, Zayyad was influenced by his teachers, and at a young age he demonstrated a talent for writing poetry and leadership. In 1946, he led a student demonstration protesting British colonialism in Palestine and calling for Palestinian independence. Following the Nakba in 1948 and the establishment of Israel, Zayyad and his family opted to stay in their homeland and resisted all attempts to throw them out of Nazareth. At that time he officially joined the Communist Party, whose main undertaking was to resist the transfer of Palestinian civilians. As a result, he was targeted by the Israeli authorities and subjected to strict military orders that forbade Palestinian civilians from moving from one place to another without a special permit. A few years after the June 1967 War he was elected member of the Israeli Parliament and subsequently all restrictions imposed on him were relaxed.

On many occasions Zayyad was incarcerated and tortured, but while in jail his behaviour was almost legendary. Following a popular meeting in one of the Palestinian villages in the north, he was arrested for incitement and taken to Tiberias Detention Camp. He was beaten, tortured, and humiliated, but he did not give in. Even while he was in jail his spirit was as free as a bird.

Zayyad wrote his best poems while in jail. He did not write about himself or his own suffering but about the suffering of his own people in Israeli jails. When he was released from jail he was more adamant and called for active national resistance.

In 1973 Zayyad became a member of the Israeli Parliament and a few months later the Israelis engaged in the October War. Zayyad then wrote a poem called “Crossing,” in which he referred to the crossing of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian army. As a result, all the Israeli members of Parliament incited against him calling for his death, but he stood up and challenged the Parliament asking Israeli leaders to put an end to their arrogance and deadly military policy.

Zayyad was a very popular poet, and the fame he achieved was not achieved by any other Palestinian poet. He was meek and sincere in his call for the revolution. He shunned the superficial and material luxuries of life. He was a politician who lived among his people and among children, whom he adored. Writing about children, Zayyad said, “I give half of my life/To anyone who makes a weeping child laugh/And I give my other half to shield a green plant from withering.”

The people of Nazareth elected Zayyad mayor in 1975, and he did all he could in order to restore to his city its historical prestige. He introduced a development and humanitarian project called “Voluntary Work Camps” that attracted local and international volunteers who worked together to develop the infrastructure in the city of Nazareth.

At the same time, the Israeli government decided to confiscate thousands of acres of Palestinian land occupied in 1948, and Palestinians held a public strike in protest of the Israeli decision. In addition, clashes occurred between Palestinian civilians and Israeli military forces resulting in the death of six Palestinians and the injury of more than thirty. Moreover, the Israeli military forces attempted to assassinate Zayyad but failed.

Several Palestinian poets were influenced by Zayyad, especially Mahmoud Darwish and Sami Al-Qassem. Darwish elegized Zayyad saying, “He moved from the poem to the demonstration, to the cell, to the space of language. Zayyad was phenomenal, inspiring people with zeal and gusto. He was the urge to life and to the ecstatic love of life.”

Zayyad was indeed ecstatic in his political resistance and his love for life and humanity. He wrote:

I call on you,

And hold your hands;

I kiss the ground under your feet,

And say: I will sacrifice my life for you,

And give you the light of my eye

And the warmth of my heart;

The tragedy that I live

Is my share of your tragedy.

These words sum up the whole life and history of Tawfik Zayyad, the poet and human.

Riad Masarwi is the director of the Tawfik Zayyad Institute for National Culture and Creativity. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

Jan 2009

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