Mourid Barghouti. I Saw Ramallah. Translated from the Arabic by Ahdaf Soueif. 2000. Anchor Books, Random House. USA and Canada.

Review by Theresa Wolfwood. Director of the Barnard-Boecker Center Foundation, Victoria, BC, Canada.

In his introduction to this beautiful memoir the late Edward Said says: what gives this book an unmistakeable stamp of profound authenticity is its life-affirming poetic texture . This is no surprise as Barghouti is indeed a poet of great sensitivity, he is the author of nine books of poetry; few of his poems are translated into English. For us in the English-speaking minority world, the idea that there is a body of Palestinian literature is probably as remote and unbelievable as the idea that there is a land and history of a country called Palestine. It is our loss in more ways than one.

This memoir of the painful consciousness of displacement is the first of his books to be published and widely available in English.   The series of vignettes of his life as a child in Ramallah, his student days in Egypt, years of exile in Europe and Asia, and his return to his birth city after thirty years, all in no particular order, read like prose poems.

Throughout the book are fragments of his poetry, scattered like the dead members of his family to whom the poems are dedicated. The poem about his grandmother is the most beautiful and serene:

On her last day
Death sat in her arms.
She was tender to him and pampered him
And told him a story
And they fell asleep together .

Other poems and stories reflect the bitterness of loss and exile as people die without their families to support and love them. He starts his tale when he reaches the border between Jordan and Palestine, in reality, Israel’s Occupied Territory. Waiting for hours in uncertainty beside the small narrow Jordan (it is neither wide nor deep in spite of the Christian songs) almost without water. “ 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.” He reflects that return to his home will not cure the permanent condition of displacement even as he realizes that his changed homeland is no longer a poem or abstraction; it is real soil, trees, people and homes.

Even as he muses and sometimes agonizes about the plight of an exile, Barghouti colours the pages with the vivid detail of daily life in a real land that is not a real country, reinforced by the border soldier in his yarmulke carrying a shiny gun. Barghouti says: His poem is my personal history. His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land . He sees the faults of the victim, he says: we were not always a beautiful scene, but this does not absolve the enemy of his original crime. The occupation means that although life was not paradise before, the occupation means powerlessness now, the absence of ability to mange one’s own affairs – from walking in the street to access to food and water, the lack of freedom to travel to relatives and friends in a nearby village – and if one leaves this land, the possibility of return denied

Politics is the family at breakfast, he says. It includes the missing, the absent children, and the price of food. Real politics are thyme cakes and beans. The looming missing figure is the poet’s older brother who died young, alone, in Paris.

“A motherly man….Who dared to kill beauty’s last cry for help?

The story becomes an elegy for this loved brother, every corner and gateway is a tribute to his lost genius. When he reads his poetry to villagers, one asks him: What I the most beautiful thing you saw since your return to the homeland?” He replies : your faces. The faces of his lost family are always with him .

In those faces he has found the truth of his displacement; this is where he has been displaced from. He knows it. A prize for school work, a tea set, the subject of historic jokes, has disappeared. Return from exile always means irrevocable change. The river changes as well as drying up.   But it also means the joy of old friends, shared reminiscence, learning of the secret goodness of the brother who paid school fee for girls from poor families, the pleasure of reading poetry to the people assembled in the square of his home village. But he says: The Occupation has created generations of us that have to adore an unknown beloved; distant, difficult, and surrounded by guards, by walls, by nuclear missiles, by sheer terror . This I can understand, in a global and more removed sense, we all live this way.

But it is for many of us, far removed beyond daily reality. I can leave my country, travel to nearly every nation in the world on a respected passport and always know I can return “home”, even though I organize and engage in public acts of resistance for social justice and peace. I was not born here, I came as a war refugee in my mother’s arms, but I can call Canada home.

Barghouti knows these bricks, trees, family faces, old friends are his home, but his country has disappeared. But he finds the joy in Palestine; the book has many funny stories. He says tragedy cannot produce only tragic writing. We are living in a time of historical and geographic farce. There is still dance, song, music and poetry – even TV- in a land where bookshops do not sell books.

In its very personalness and poetic expression, this is a very political book; it is an unanswered question for Barghouti and for us. For us the question is what are we doing to rid the world of military cancer? Where were we when it erupted in Palestine? Where are we now?

For Barghouti, it is to understand the reality of oppression and to express the truth that will overcome the violence and brutality, and yet to be rooted, even in exile, in the daily history of home. And finally, for the poet, it is the “life affirming” certainty that his son, born in exile, will see his father’s homeland. But for us all it leaves the responsibility of the uncertain future of the millions of Palestinians in Diaspora, dreaming of the day they can return to a liberated homeland.

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Theresa Wolfwood

Theresa Wolfwood is a writer and activist in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her poetry collection: Love and Resistance was published by Smallberry Press, UK. She serves as the director of the Barnard-Boecker Centre Foundation (BBCF), Canada.

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