Every exiled writer must carry the sorrows of a spoiled history. But Palestinian authors now labour under an extra curse. They stand in danger of becoming – as individual voices – inaudible on every front. No one who backs the occupiers' case in this most polarising of disputes wants to hear the testimony of the dispossessed. In this conflict, literature has utterly failed to open minds or build bridges. As for sympathisers with the 60-year ordeal of a people stripped of both land and past, they usually crave the fire and fury of political rhetoric. Anger soothes, but true art may only sharpen pain.
Born near Ramallah in British-mandate Palestine in 1944, the poet Mourid Barghouti found himself houseless and stateless after the Six Day War of 1967. A winding road of exile took him through Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and – for many years – Budapest, before a return to Cairo, where he currently lives. His prose memoir of loss and displacement, I Saw Ramallah, is globally acknowledged as a classic journey through the homeless mind.
Midnight at last gathers into English a generous selection of his poetry in a bilingual edition, with original texts partnered by lean and supple translations from the Arabic by the Egyptian novelist and critic Radwa Ashour (the poet's wife). Guy Mannes-Abbott supplies a revealing essay, enriched by interviews with Barghouti, on this "taut and often tortured writing" that "emerges from the deepest realms of our humanity".
Both in the long, meditative title poem, and the compact lyrics that follow it, Barghouti speaks with a sort of glowing despair about the plight of souls stranded in an emotional – and existential – limbo. His efforts to rescue words of hope from the rubble of broken lives seem to shatter time and again against the walls of an implacable reality. "We were wounded," runs the refrain of "Narcissus Hat", "and trying to heal history".
There is not a single line of propaganda in this book. You will search in vain for any didactic message about Israel-Palestine politics. The only poem clearly prompted by a public event, the televised killing of a small boy by occupying forces on the West Bank, segues into a poignant ghost story in which dream – and dream alone – redeems an accursed time.
Instead of polemic and accusation, Barghouti fashions harrowing elegies, mordant ironies, and a gallows humour as bitter as the coffee grounds marking one of the small rituals that help make the days of dispossession bearable. He quotes Yeats and Shakespeare; he can sound, in his weary, sardonic pluck, much like Auden or Brecht.
This bone-bred sadness does not make Barghouti a detached or "neutral" voice. He bears witness to a people's tragedy that men, not fate, have made – but men in several different uniforms. And, in many poems, the life that coercion cannot kill – the memory of an orange grove, a woman's love, the creatures of the earth and the stars in the sky – kicks against the dark. Barghouti never openly indicts but, an emissary of the defeated, he does ask the victors – any of history's victors – why they find it so hard to sleep soundly.
As "The Pillow" puts it, "only I know the loser's dignity/ the winner's loneliness/ and the stupid coldness one feels/ when a wish has been granted". Midnight, a radiant cry from the vanquished, delivers its heavy load of thwarted wishes. In compensation, and as a balm for battered hearts and minds, Barghouti's insight and warmth grace every page of this precious collection.