Mourid Barghouti’s 'I Saw Ramallah'

Kim Jensen

I Saw Ramallah

By Mourid Barghouti

Translated from the Arabic by Ahdaf Soueif

Foreword by Edward Said

American University in Cairo Press,  2000, 184 pp

Born in the village of Deir Ghassanah near Ramallah in 1944, well-known poet Mourid Barghouti was a literature student in Cairo when the 1967 war broke out. Within a few days, the whole of the West Bank had been occupied by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and Barghouti found himself one of the many “displaced” persons, barred for three decades from his home. The occasion of the Oslo Accords allowed some Palestinians, including Barghouti, to gain entry permits to the occupied territories. This momentous yet bittersweet return to his homeland provides a fitting context for this candid and poignant memoir of Barghouti’s 30 years of exile.

“I Saw Ramallah” begins naturally at the Allenby Bridge, which, to his consternation, remains essentially under Israeli control.  At this infamous “Bridge of No Return,” he encounters not a time warp, but rather a warped sense of his own relationship to a place that he has dreamed of for so long. It is an encounter fraught with questions, ambiguities, regret, and a joy that is diminished by the yawning abyss between the “Palestine” of longing and political symbols, and the very scarred, real terrain. The disquieting sense of ‘not yet being there’ sets the tone for the entire book, where the theme is not merely the physical violence of occupation, but rather occupation’s ability to rob the Palestinian of his simplest and even banal connections to self and place.

As Barghouti moves from the bridge to Ramallah, on to his village and then back to Ramallah, he records his impressions, compares his memories with the present day reality, and, most importantly, he begins to weave in the crucial stories of his life in Egypt, his subsequent deportation under Sadat, and his existence in Hungary where he lived, worked, and wrote for many years.

Throughout the book, Barghouti includes humorous folkloric tales from the past but also narrates some rather unhappy anecdotes, revealing the deep flaws that existed in the Palestine of his childhood. “True,” he admits, “life was not paradise before the occupation.” Nevertheless, he laments the fact that the occupation has prevented Palestinians from naturally developing their talents, their cities, their cultural life. “Occupation prevents you from managing your affairs in your own way… it interferes with longing and anger and walking in the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to the market, the emergency room, the beach, the bedroom, or a distant capital.”

The book is filled with these observations of the daily suffering of his own family and the people he meets, but it is also filled with poetic and eloquent descriptions of what displacement means to a conscious individual. “The stories of the wounded homelands are like the stories of safe exiles: nothing in either place is done according to the wishes of the victims… In exile the lump in the throat never ends for good; it always resumes. In exile, we do not get rid of terror; it transforms into fear of terror.”

For every moment of despair in “I Saw Ramallah” there is another full of humor or irony. For example, Barghouti relates a moment at a symposium in Geneva when he realizes the extent of the absurd situation. A group of his family members and others arrive at the French border and a patrolman asks for their passports. “We collected them and gave them to him, and he saw an amazing sight: in his hands were passports from all over the world — Jordan, Syria, the United States, Algeria, Britain, and even Belize — and the names in all of them showed that their holders were all from one family: all Barghoutis. Add to that Radwa’s Egyptian passport and Emil Habibi’s Israeli passport — for he had come from Nazareth to take part in the same Palestinian symposium in Geneva. I had invited him to Mounif’s house to eatqatayef in the land of the Franks…”

This is only one of Barghouti’s many anecdotes about the way in which Palestinian life has become dominated by exterior things such as permits, telephones, travel impediments, roadblocks, deportations, long hours of detainment in airports, and constant encounters with unfriendly borders.

Every page in this powerful memoir is skillfully written, moving gracefully back and forth from present to memory in a way that provides a fluid continuity in the narration. Barghouti discusses his marriage to noted Egyptian intellectual Radwa Ashour, and how for 17 years they were forced to live and raise their son Tamim apart. The untimely and violent death of Barghouti’s older brother, Mounif, in Paris is perhaps the single most painful fact haunting this memoir. It is clear that for Barghouti, his brother’s death represents the excruciating way that the personal and political combine in Palestinian lives.

“I Saw Ramallah” is inhabited by other violent deaths as well. The assassination of the famous cartoonist, Naji al-Ali, who was a close friend of Barghouti, is revisited in several places, as is Ghassan Kanafani’s murder in Beirut. Barghouti’s writing about these relationships is sad and powerful. He eschews melodrama and relies on a penetrating compassion that characterizes the entire book. His gentle tone is unforgettable. Even in the midst of horror, he somehow finds kernels of tenderness and humor. These life-affirming touches make this book so mature and profound.

It is important to comment on the irony that is embedded in the title of the book. The title “I Saw Ramallah” strikes one as slightly strange and off-balance. Something about the awkward way it falls off the tongue — as if it is loaded with an unseen burden. When we read the book we discover, only in passing, that Barghouti was refused a permit to visit Jerusalem. Of course, anyone returning to Palestine would want to make a visit to the capital, but he was not permitted to do so. Perhaps therein lies the barely perceptible irony. The title of the book might as well read: “I Saw Ramallah, But Not Jerusalem.”

Though “I Saw Ramallah” represents a fairly middle-class experience and has been critiqued as being “too soft” on Israel, it is insightful, beautifully written, and unapologetic about the “normality” and pleasure that a person can experience, even in exile. There is a wonderful passage, for example, in which he describes his son Tamim playing in the snow of Hungary.  “I used to see what Budapest gave him and say to myself that we owed it to our places of exile to remember the good things, if we did not wish to lie.” This kind of honesty is exemplary of the book as a whole.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in Egypt, is that it was not originally written in English. The translation by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif is more than convincing; it is elegant and, at times, astonishing. Soueif, who writes her novels in English, has performed an invaluable service by bringing us this simple but moving literary work. It enriches our understanding, humanizes our perspectives, and adds one more dimension to the Palestinian story of suffering and resistance.

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.7, no. 35, Spring 2001)
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid

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