I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti

The poetry of displacement

Tom Paulin
Friday 19 March 2004 01:00 GMT

The distinguished Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti was born on the West Bank near Ramallah in 1944. In 1966, he left home to return to university in Cairo. The Six Day War happened the following year, and Barghouti, like many Palestinians living abroad, was denied entry to Palestine. He joined the naziheen, the displaced ones, until he was finally allowed back, 30 years later.

I Saw Ramallah, beautifully translated by Ahdaf Soueif, is his account of his journey back. As he walks over the bridge that crosses the Jordan, he meditates on displacement, which a person gets "as he gets asthma". Then he looks down at the river: it was always a very thin river, but the surprise is that after these long years it had become "a river without water". Almost without water, he adds, noting that nature had colluded with Israel in stealing its water. It used to have a voice, now it was a silent river, "a river like a parked car".

The image is at once precise in its deliberate, slightly surreal, banality; on the other hand it is quietly ominous. Though friends had told him that they had wept on returning to the Jordan after a long absence, Barghouti does not weep. He feels numb as he looks out over the Occupied Territory and sees it stretching before him "as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well; visible as a field of chalk, as the prints of shoes". After 30 years of exile, he walks with his bag over a bridge "no longer than a few metres of wood".

As he crosses, Barghouti meditates on the nature of poetry, noting that people like "direct poetry" only in times of injustice. Poetry that "whispers and suggests" can only be felt by those who are free. What Barghouti offers, gently, subtly, without hatred of the Israelis, is a meditation on displacement, which is also a tribute to his scattered family who hold passports from all over the world. Living in exile, all have been changed from children of Palestine, to children of the idea of Palestine.

There is another grief at the centre of this meditation - the death of Mounif, Barghouti's beloved older brother, who was forbidden to return. After a day of waiting, he was sent back; he tried again a few months later and was sent back again. Tersely, Barghouti states: "being forbidden to return killed him". Another tragedy is that of 'Adli. Israeli soldiers attacked his school to disperse a demonstration: "One shot in the chest. One in the head. Blood on the iron gate, blood on the grass, on the shirts of his schoolmates who carried him back to his mother, who from that moment was completely alone in the world."

Barghouti's manner of recounting this and other terrible events has a delicacy quite other than an unrelenting polemical anger, which is why the late Edward Said (much missed, much lamented) in his characteristically eloquent foreword calls this memoir "one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now have".

The graceful cadences of Soueif's prose catch the ontological trauma of being a displaced person, who knows that the border he must cross is "unmatched in any of the world's five continents".

The many places the diaspora has forced Palestinians to live means "our places have lost their meaning". Moving between houses and apartments, he has become used to the passing and temporary. He gives up "possessions of displacement" in a routine way, without emotion.

Towards the end of his memoir, Barghouti says he has never been particularly interested in discussions around who has the right to Palestine, "because we did not lose Palestine to a debate, we lost it to force. When we were Palestine, we were not afraid of the Jews. We did not hate them, we did not make an enemy of them. Europe of the Middle Ages hated them, but not us. Ferdinand and Isabella hated them, but not us. Hitler hated them, but not us. But when they took our entire space and exiled us from it they put both us and themselves outside the law of equality."

Outside any political faction, Barghouti manages to be temperate, fair-minded, resilient and uniquely sad. This is an impressive addition to the literature of exile.

Tom Paulin's 'The Invasion Handbook' is published by Faber

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