Earth and Stones
Review of I Saw Ramallah, by Mourid Barghouti. 184pp, Bloomsbury, 2003.
The Guardian, 17 April 2004.
The literature on the Palestine question is usually so wrapped up in
partisanship and polemics as to obscure, or at least to relegate to a
secondary plane, the human and emotional side of the problem. It is
therefore particularly pleasing to come across a writer who dwells not
on politics but on the less familiar aspects of the Palestinian
predicament. Mourid Barghouti is a prominent Palestinian poet who
writes with great sensitivity and insight about his own experience of
exile. But while writing in an autobiographical vein, he throws a great
deal of light on the condition of his people.
I Saw Ramallah is an intensely lyrical account of the poet's return to
his hometown on the West Bank from protracted exile abroad. It had an
enthusiastic reception in the Arab world when it was first published in
1997. Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian novelist and critic, translated the
book into English. Edward Said wrote a foreword, rating it as "one of
the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now
have". So a great deal of literary talent went into the making of this
Having himself made a similar trip to Jerusalem (after an absence of 45
years), Said knew well the mixture of emotions - happiness, of course,
regret, sorrow, surprise, anger, among others - that accompanies such a
return. The great novelty and power of Barghouti's book, as Said notes,
is that it painstakingly chronicles the whirlwind of sensations and
thoughts that tend to overwhelm the visitor on such occasions.
Palestine after all is no ordinary place. Every Palestinian today is in
the unusual position, in Said's words, of "knowing that there was once
a Palestine and yet seeing that place with a new name, people, and
identity that deny Palestine altogether. A 'return' to Palestine is
therefore an unusual, not to say urgently fraught, occurrence."
Barghouti left his hometown in 1966, when he was 22 years old, to
return to university in Cairo. Then came the Six-Day war and he was
denied entry into Palestine. It was not until 30 years later that he
was allowed to return home following the conclusion of the ill-fated
Oslo accord between the PLO and Israel.
The narrative begins with Barghouti crossing from Jordan into the West
Bank over a rickety wooden bridge that stretches over a dried-up river.
Behind him is the world; ahead of him is his world. But at the point of
entry, he is assailed by self-doubt. What is he? A refugee? A citizen?
A guest? He does not know. The land ahead of him could be defined in so
many different ways: his homeland; the West Bank and Gaza; the Occupied
Territories; Judea and Samaria; the Autonomous Government; Israel;
Palestine. Last time he was there, everything was clear. Now everything
is ambiguous and vague.
The one thing that was not vague was the Israeli soldier in charge of
the crossing, wearing a yarmulke and carrying a gun. In the gun
Barghouti saw his personal history, the history of his estrangement:
"His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of
the land. In his hand he holds earth, and in our hands we hold a
mirage." Again and again, the poet confronts the harsh reality: "The
others are still the masters of the place."
Settlements built by Israel in the occupied territories in the
aftermath of the Six-Day war drive home the message and disfigure the
landscape. Yet these settlements are clearly there to stay: "These are
not children's fortresses of Lego or Meccano. These are Israel itself;
Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography and the trick and
the excuse. It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs
... The settlements are the Palestinian diaspora itself."
The joys of return and reunion with the homeland thus intermingle with
a pervasive and insurmountable feeling of loss. "The Occupation,"
writes Barghouti, "has created generations of us that have to adore an
unknown beloved: distant, difficult, surrounded by guards, by walls, by
nuclear missiles, by sheer terror. The long Occupation has succeeded in
changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of
Palestine." He believes that it is in the interest of an occupation,
any occupation, that the homeland should be transformed in the memory
of its people into a bouquet of symbols. Merely sym bols. Israel
evidently succeeded in this respect for even in the aftermath of Oslo
the Palestinians acquired only the symbols without the substance of
sovereignty and statehood.
Ramallah, the city of Barghouti's childhood, had changed beyond
recognition. From a sleepy suburb of Jerusalem it was transformed into
a bustling centre of Palestinian urban life. "She has gone her own
way," Barghouti observes, "sometimes as her people willed, and more
often as her enemies willed. She has suffered and she has endured. Is
she waiting to rest her head on your shoulder or is it you who seeks
refuge in her strength?" It was a characteristically confused encounter
but one that made it clear to the author that the events of 1967 had
made him permanently homeless. As he himself discovered the hard way,
"It is enough for a person to go through the first experience of
uprooting, to become uprooted for ever."
Much of this beautifully written and evocative book is a lamentation on
the conditions of exile. In the course of his enforced exile, Barghouti
moved from Cairo to Baghdad to Beirut to Budapest to Amman and to Cairo
again. It was impossible to hold on to a particular location. If his
will clashed with the will of the "masters of the place", it was always
his will that was exposed to breaking. Mild criticism of President
Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem led to Barghouti's expulsion from
Egypt. For 17 years he and his wife Radwa Ashour were forced to live
apart from each other, he as the PLO representative in Budapest, she
and their son Tamim in Cairo, where she is a professor of English at
Ain Shams University. Before Tamim was born, their friends used to joke
that Mourid and Radwa had decided to postpone having children until the
Middle East problem had been solved.
Considering the pain and the heartaches he had to endure in exile,
Barghouti writes about the Israelis with relative restraint, more in
sorrow than in anger. Occasionally, however, his anger bubbles up to
the surface, anger with the Zionists for taking over his country and
anger directed at his own people for failing to put up more effective
resistance. Professional politics have little appeal for him because,
by his own admission, he reacts to the world with feelings and
intuition. But politics inevitably enter into his narrative because
they have come to dominate the life of the Palestinians "since the
Zionist project started knocking on the glass of our windows with its
sharp nails and then on the doors, which it kicked down to enter all
the rooms of the house and throw us out into the desert".
The one trait of the Zionist movement that infuriates Barghouti above
all others is its tendency to arrogate to itself the status of victim
in this protracted struggle for Palestine. One example of this tendency
was Itzhak Rabin's speech at the signing ceremony of the Oslo accord in
the White House garden. In this speech Rabin presented Israel as the
victim of war and violence. On hearing Rabin's words, Barghouti felt a
sharp pang of pain. He knew that the Palestinians had been defeated
again: Rabin took everything, even the story of their death.