Earth and Stones

Review of I Saw Ramallah, by Mourid Barghouti. 184pp, Bloomsbury, 2003.

Avi Shlaim

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 English edition.

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.