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Identity Card by Mahmoud Darwish

“Identity Card,” also known as “Bitaqat huwiyya,” is one of the most famous poems of Mahmoud Darwish. It was first published in the collection Leaves of Olives (Arabic, Awraq Al-Zaytun) in 1964, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. When 24-years-old Darwish first read the poem publically, there was a tumultuous reaction amongst the Palestinians without “identity,” officially termed as IDPs – internally displaced persons. In 2016, when the poem was broadcast on Israeli Army Radio (Galei Tzahal), it enraged the defense minister Liberman. He compared the poem Hitler’s Mein Kampf by partially referencing the last few lines of the poem: “ … if I were to become hungry/ I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.”

Quoting a few lines, which are actually spoken out of the primal urge of hunger, is a distortion of the main idea of the poem. No matter how the government still views Darwish as a poet or his poem “Identity Card,” they, indeed, have failed to notice the difference between anti-semitism and anti-inhumanity. When the physical, as well as abstract belongings of a group of people, are taken away forcefully and later demanded to prove that they are who they assert to be, their identity becomes a burden and a curse. Frustration outpours, and anger turns into helplessness, as evident in the speaker of this poem.

  • Read the full text of “Identity Card” below:
People Are a People by Design
People Are a People by Design | Poemotopia
Identity Card
by Mahmoud Darwish

Put it on record.
I am an Arab
And the number of my card is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is due after summer.
What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab
Working with comrades of toil in a quarry.
I have eight children
For them I wrest the loaf of bread,
The clothes and exercise books
From the rocks
And beg for no alms at your door,
Lower not myself at your doorstep.
What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.
I am a name without a title,
Patient in a country where everything
Lives in a whirlpool of anger.
My roots
Took hold before the birth of time
Before the burgeoning of the ages,
Before cypress and olive trees,
Before the proliferation of weeds.
My father is from the family of the plough
Not from highborn nobles.
And my grandfather was a peasant
Without line or genealogy.
My house is a watchman's hut
Made of sticks and reeds.
Does my status satisfy you?
I am a name without a surname.

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.
Colour of hair: jet black.
Colour of eyes: brown.
My distinguishing features:
On my head the `iqal cords over a keffiyeh
Scratching him who touches it.
My address:
I'm from a village, remote, forgotten,
Its streets without name
And all its men in the fields and quarry.
What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.
You stole my forefathers' vineyards
And land I used to till,
I and all my children,
And you left us and all my grandchildren
Nothing but these rocks.
Will your government be taking them too
As is being said?

So!
Put it on record at the top of page one:
I don't hate people,
I trespass on no one's property.
And yet, if I were to become hungry
I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware, beware of my hunger
And of my anger!

- from Leaves of Olives (1964), translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
Analysis of Identity Card by Mahmoud Darwish


Summary

“Identity Card” is a poem about an aged Palestinian Arab who asserts his identity or details about himself, family, ancestral history, etc., throughout the poem. He asks the Israeli officials to note that he is an Arab, which he is no longer proud of. His ID card is numbered fifty thousand. He has eight children, and the ninth will be born after summer. Along with other Palestinians, he works in a quarry to provide for all the basic necessities of his family. He never asked for any sort of relief from the rulers. His family (or name) has no title. They were simple farmers until their lands and vineyards were taken away.

Furthermore, the speaker discloses his “distinguishing features” that mark him an Arab, sparking suspicion in the officials. In the end, he humbly says he does not hate people, nor does he encroach on others’ properties. If he is denied basic necessities further, he would fiercely express his “anger,” triggered by raging “hunger.”

Meaning

The Arabic title “Bitaqat huwiyya” hints at the official document that Palestinians had to produce if asked by Israeli officials. It was compulsory for each Arab to carry an ID card. If they failed to do so, they were punished. This poem shows how a speaker becomes utterly frustrated upon being asked a thousand times to show his identity card previously. This frustration mixed with anger and shame is reflected through the reiteration of the lines, “Put it on record./ I am an Arab.” The speaker becomes a voice to those who were displaced from their own land or were forced to leave after 1948. Those who stayed in Israel were made to feel they were no longer part of their homeland. The constant humiliation and denial of fundamental rights force Darwish’s speaker to the finale of ethnic evaporation.

Structure & Form

“Identity Card” is a free-verse dramatic monologue told from the perspective of a lyrical persona, a displaced Palestinian. The speaker addresses an Israeli official in the poem who remains a silent listener throughout the poem. There is no regular rhyme scheme or meter. The translated text consists of sixty-three lines and can be separated into six sections. Each section begins with a refrain: “Put it on record./ I am an Arab.” It ends with either a rhetorical question or an exclamation of frustration. Such repetition incorporates a lyrical quality in the poem. Besides, the poem has several end-stopped lines that sound like an agitated speaker’s proclamation of his identity.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Darwish uses a number of poetic devices present throughout the poem. The main figurative devices are exemplified below:

Refrain

The lines “Put it on record./ I am an Arab” are repeated five times in the poem, “Identity Card”. It’s a use of refrain. Besides, the line “What’s there to be angry about?” is repeated thrice. The refrain of the first two lines is used to proclaim the speaker’s identity.

Repetition

It is the second most crucial poetic device used in the poem. In the first two sections, the line “I have eight children” is repeated twice. The speaker does so to portray the gloomy road ahead for his future generation. In the penultimate line, “Beware, beware of my hunger,” a repetition of the term “Beware” is used as a note of warning.

Anaphora

The recurrence of the same word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive lines is called anaphora. It occurs in the following instances:

  • Lines 18-19:I am an Arab./ I am a name without a title.”
  • Lines 24-26:Before the burgeoning of the ages,/ Before cypress and olive trees,/ Before the proliferation of weeds.”
  • Lines 37-38:Colour of hair: jet black./ Colour of eyes: brown.”
  • Lines 58-59:I don’t hate people,/ I trespass on no one’s property.”

Rhetorical Question

The line “What’s there to be angry about?” is an example of a rhetorical question. It is also used in “Does my status satisfy you?” and “Will your government be taking them too/ As is being said?”.

Metaphor

There is a metaphor in the lines, “For them I wrest the loaf of bread,/ The clothes and exercise books/ From the rocks”. The idea of earning money is compared to wrestling bread from the rocks as the speaker works in a quarry.

The “whirlpool of anger” is another metaphor. It is a comparison between the people’s anger to a whirlpool. After the independence, Israel turned into a whirlpool due to the tension between the Jews and Arabs.

In the following lines, the speaker compares himself to a tree whose “roots” were embedded in the land long before one can imagine.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-6

Put it on record.

I am an Arab

And the number of my card is fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth is due after summer.

What’s there to be angry about?

Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Identity Card” begins with a Palestinian Arab’s proclamation of his identity. Upon being asked to show his “Bitaqat huwiyya” or official ID card, he tells the Israeli official to note that he is an Arab. He does not talk about his name as, for the officer, it is important to know his ethnicity. For this reason, the ID card system was made in order to systematically oppress and castigate the internal refugees.

His ID number is fifty thousand, which shows how many Palestinians were turned into refugees. The speaker’s number is in the big thousands; therefore, one can imagine how many refugees were there during the 1960s. Besides, the speaker has eight children, and the ninth will be born after summer. He has quite a big family, and it seems he is the only earning head of the family. Therefore, if something grave happens, his family will come to the streets.

Lastly, he ironically asks what’s there to be angry about. He asks explicitly why the official is angry about his identity. He is just another human being like them, who, for political tensions, turned into a refugee. Being a stateless person, he gets constantly harassed and is made to compulsorily carry a valid ID card which bears the mark of shame (another instrument of psychological ostracism).

Lines 7-16

Put it on record.

I am an Arab

Working with comrades of toil in a quarry.

I have eight children

For them I wrest the loaf of bread,

The clothes and exercise books

From the rocks

And beg for no alms at your door,

Lower not myself at your doorstep.

What’s there to be angry about?

After reiterating the first two lines, the speaker gives more details about his profession. He works in a quarry with his “comrades of toil,” a metaphorical reference to other displaced Palestinians. He has eight children to provide for. It is important to note that he takes due care for their education, even knowing their future in the country is not secured. There is also a sense of pride in his tone as he says he does not beg at their doors nor lower his self-esteem in order to provide for his family. Naturally, his dignity makes the representative angry as they want to break the Arabs.

Lines 17-34

Put it on record.

I am an Arab.

I am a name without a title,

Patient in a country where everything

Lives in a whirlpool of anger.

My roots

Took hold before the birth of time

Before the burgeoning of the ages,

Before cypress and olive trees,

Before the proliferation of weeds.

My father is from the family of the plough

Not from highborn nobles.

And my grandfather was a peasant

Without line or genealogy.

My house is a watchman’s hut

Made of sticks and reeds.

Does my status satisfy you?

I am a name without a surname.

This long section of “Identity Card” is about the family history and genealogy of the speaker. He does not have a title like the noble or ruling classes. No matter what the political situation of the country, he leads a peaceful life and only cares about how to support his family. The country once his own is now a “whirlpool of anger.”

His family roots took hold long before the enquirer could imagine. By referring to the “birth of time,” “burgeoning of ages,” and before the birth of the cypress and olive trees, the speaker tries to say that their ancestors lived in this country for a long time. The cultural and psychological ties with the land called Palestine are more substantial than the Israelites’ claim. Besides, the reference to the “weeds” is ironic. It seems to be a reference to Arabs as they were treated similarly after 1948.

The speaker belongs to a simple farming family. His father and grandfather were peasants without a noble bloodline or genealogy. He lives in a house made of sticks and reeds that looks like a watchman’s hut. They are oppressed to the degree that the entire family with eight children and a wife have to live in that hut after their home was demolished and the land was confiscated.

At the end of this section, he asks whether his status in society can satisfy the Israeli official. He poses no threat to their system as he has nothing to fight for. Even his ancestral identity, his surname, has been confiscated. What’s been left to fight for?

Lines 35-46

Put it on record.

I am an Arab.

Colour of hair: jet black.

Colour of eyes: brown.

My distinguishing features:

On my head the `iqal cords over a keffiyeh

Scratching him who touches it.

My address:

I’m from a village, remote, forgotten,

Its streets without name

And all its men in the fields and quarry.

What’s there to be angry about?

In these lines, the speaker discloses his distinguishing features and his address. He has jet black hair and brown eyes. He wears a keffiyeh on his head tied with ‘iqal cords. The cloth is so coarse that it can scratch whoever touches it. His ancestral home was in a village. It was wiped out of the map after independence. Thus, its streets are nameless. All the villagers now work as laborers in the fields and quarry. This section ends with the same rhetorical question posed at the official.

Lines 47-55

Put it on record.

I am an Arab.

You stole my forefathers’ vineyards

And land I used to till,

I and all my children,

And you left us and all my grandchildren

Nothing but these rocks.

Will your government be taking them too

As is being said?

From this section, the speaker’s helpless voice becomes firm as he holds the government responsible for their tragedy. He accuses them of stealing his ancestral vineyards and lands he used to plough. They snatched their belongings away and left them with mere rocks. These “rocks” symbolize the hardships of the Palestinian Arabs. Furthermore, the speaker ironically asks if the government will be taking these rocks from them too. He is aware that the officials have been talking about this to make them leave the country.

Lines 56-63

So!

Put it on record at the top of page one:

I don’t hate people,

I trespass on no one’s property.

And yet, if I were to become hungry

I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.

Beware, beware of my hunger

And of my anger!

In the last section of “Identity Card,” the speaker’s frustration solidifies as anger. He tells the personnel to put it on record on the first page that after suffering all these events, he still does not hate those who did it. Neither does he infringe on another’s property. He fights and will be fighting for livelihood. Still, if the government snatches away the rocks, the only source of income from him, he will fight back.

Hunger is the worst feeling standing between humanity and inhumanity. It drives a person to the degree that he can turn to cannibalism, as evident in other historical events from across the globe. Therefore, he warns them not to force him to do such things. The “anger” fuelled by “hunger” is blinder than the discontent arising out of ethnic erasure.

Theme

The main theme of Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card” is displacement and injustice. This poem is about a displaced Palestinian Arab who is asked to show his ID card. Throughout the poem, he shares everything that is available officially and what is not. He talks about his family, work, his forefathers, and past address. Through these details, he makes it clear that he has deep relations with the country; no matter what the government does, he would cling to his roots. This is the land where his ancestors lived. So, it is impossible for anyone to cut the bond. The final lines of the poem portray his anger due to injustice caused to his family. He warns the government not to take further tests of his patience or else he will fight back.

Historical Context

The poem “Identity Card” was first published in Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry collection Leaves of Olives (1964). Darwish first read this poem to a crowd on 1 May 1965. Within a few days, the poem spread throughout the Arab world. In July 2016, the broadcast of the poem on Israeli Army Radio enraged the Israeli government. The first two lines of the poem became the title of the 2014 documentary on Darwish, Write Down, I Am an Arab. Such is the power of this poem that reflects the emotional crisis within a displaced Arab seeking shelter in his country, which he cannot consider as his own any longer.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “Identity Card” by Mahmoud Darwish about?

“Identity Card” (1964) by Mahmoud Darwish is about an Arab refugee’s conversation (one-sided) with an Israeli official. Upon being asked to show his ID card, the speaker tells him about who he is, where he lives, what he does, etc., in order to satisfy him. It was customary for an Arab to provide his ID or disclose his whereabouts not once but to every official, if asked. So, there is an underlying frustration that enrages the speaker. By disclosing his details, he demands implicit answers to the oppression caused to them. For its appeal and strong rhetoric, this poem is considered one of the best poems of Mahmoud Darwish.

Write an appreciation of “Identity Card” by Mahmoud Darwish as a poem of resistance.

Darwish’s “Identity Card” is indeed a poem of resistance that voices a refugee’s spirit of fighting back in the face of the crisis. His voice is firm and dignified, even though jostled to a degree of evaporation. The government has confiscated his ancestral land, compelled him to make a living from rocks, and erased his cultural identity. Still, he has not done anything nor stepped up to demand what is his own. Therefore, he warns the official who asked him to show the ID not to snatch their only source of living. Otherwise, their hunger will turn them to resist further encroachment on their lives.

What is the central idea of the poem “Identity Card” by Mahmoud Darwish?

The central idea of the poem concerns a Palestinian Arab speaker’s proclamation of his identity. This poem features their sufferings, frustration, and hardships to earn bread in a country that considers them as external elements even if they lived there for generations.

Who translated Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Identity Card” from Arabic to English?

“Identity Card” or “Bitaqat huwiyya” was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies from Arabic to English. It was published in Darwish’s Leaves of Olives in 1964.

What is the form of the poem “Identity Card”?

The poem was written in the form of a dramatic monologue where a speaker talks with a silent listener whose presence can be felt through the constant repetitions of the first two lines and the rhetorical question. There is no regular rhyme scheme or meter, which makes this poem a free-verse lyric.

Which lines are repeated throughout “Identity Card” to express the poet’s frustration?

The lines “Put it on record./ I am an Arab” are repeated throughout the poem to express the poet’s frustration to live as a refugee in his own country.

What nationality does Mahmoud Darwish consider himself?

Mahmoud Darwish considered himself as Palestinian. According to him, he was not a lover nor an enemy of Israel. He excelled in Hebrew, which was the official language of Israel. 


Similar Poems about Identity

  • Africa” by David Diop — In this poem, Diop shares his love for Africa and hopes for its better future.
  • Evolution” by Sherman Alexie — This ironic poem is about how Native American culture was gradually destroyed and misappropriated.
  • Visitors to the Black Belt” by Langston Hughes — This piece presents how the white upper class perpetuates the world of African-Americans.
  • To a Dark Girl” by Gwendolyn Bennett — This poem highlights a sense of black consciousness and glorifies the black identity.


External Resources

  • Check out If I Were Another — This Mahmoud Darwish collection is constructed from the cadence and imagery of the Palestinian struggle, the burdens of history, collective memory.
  • The Poem Aloud — Listen to this emotional reading of Darwish’s “Identity Card” by Souhad Zendah in both languages at Harvard University.
  • About Palestinian Refugees — Read how the citizens of Palestine fled or were expelled from their country over the course of years.
  • About Mahmoud Darwish — Learn about the poet and his works.

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