I Was Born There, I Was Born Here
By Mourid Barghouti, Translated by Humphrey Davies
Walker & Company, New York, 2011
In 2003, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti published a memoir of his return, after an absence of 30 years, to Palestine. Indeed, “I Saw Ramallah” remains one of the most penetrating and insightful analyses of the travails of exile, as well as a perspicacious assessment – in personal tones – of the political issues that plague Palestine. His second memoir, “I Was Born There, I Was Born Here,” explores these subjects in greater depth, offering more details of his personal journey as a husband, a father, and an exile. It examines the vexing paradox of the political exile who finds his or her long-dreamed-of return to be as complicated as the initial separation.
Barghouti was living in Cairo as a student when the disastrous 1967 war drew the barrier between himself and his country. He made a home and a life in Egypt, marrying novelist Radwa Ashour – the first person to whom he read his earliest attempts at poetry. They had a son, Tamim, who would become a political scientist as well as a poet in his own right. Some of Tamim’s poems about Palestine and Iraq have made him one of the most well known and beloved contemporary poets writing in Arabic.
“I Was Born There, I Was Born Here” puts on full display the skill of the father. Barghouti’s ability to describe individual personality traits with detail and sincerity gives this memoir the same emotional depth that no doubt earned his first memoir the Naguib Mahfouz medal for literature. Eschewing grandiose and broad generalizations, he rejects the cliché metaphors and imagery of exile and loneliness, as well as the joy of return; instead, his eye is drawn to the specific, the local, the tangible, and most of all, the inherently contradictory nature of this experience.
For example, the first chapter, entitled “The Driver Mahmoud,” is devoted to a description of a young driver from al-Amari refugee camp, who escorted Barghouti and other passengers through a rough journey to the Jericho Bridge the day before the invasion of Ramallah. Mahmoud’s grim tenacity during the difficult drive stands in stark contrast with his cheerful attitude. First, he announces to his passengers, “The army’s on alert, the roads are closed, and there are flying checkpoints everywhere. The weather as you can see is bad but we’ll definitely make it to the bridge, with God’s help.” In the next breath, his hospitality overshadows this dire message, as he reaches for a thermos between his feet: “Coffee? Pour a cup for everyone… Please, have some coffee.” This charming opening is a most creative way of surmounting the pernicious and incessant obstacles the occupation conjures up for restricting the most basic aspects of daily life in Palestine.
Much of Barghouti’s memoir follows this early vignette: the aforementioned individuals, with their almost banal means of coping with the occupation, are depicted as microcosms of resistance (as they struggle for dignity) against a greater oppression. The memoir makes a clear and unequivocal statement that Palestinians have had their history stolen from them, and so writing this history becomes a defiant act of re-appropriation: “I shall make of every feeling that ever shook my heart an historic event,” he says, “and I shall write it.” Later, he expands on this thought: “The cruelest degree of exile is invisibility, being forbidden to tell one’s story for oneself.” Barghouti’s story brings together the voices of those in exile and those who remain in Palestine, slowly unweaving this veil of invisibility through his words. As a man who has been away from his homeland for decades, he often feels lost and uncertain, as well as amazed by the courage of those who never left Palestine. Their insightfulness and savvy, in contrast to the reluctance and corruption of the Palestinian Authority, are refreshing: “I think to myself, if only our leadership, petrified of Israel as it is, could grasp the truth of Israel’s dilemma the way these passengers have.” The memoir stands as a testament to Palestinian strength, as well as a vivid depiction of the ways in which occupation has forced many people to redesign their dreams, to simplify their ambitions from, say, finding a good job to getting the medication one’s child requires during a curfew.
Indeed, many have marveled at how the Palestinians have managed to survive, both physically and psychologically, during the decades of loss and upheaval, and Barghouti does a marvelous job of sharing the spirit of the Palestinian people in the sad but encouraging way his characters deal with disappointment and grief. Both memoirs feature the characters complaining as they try to get a handle on their situation. For example, locals have nicknames for the grueling Qalandya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem “Qalandahar.” While Barghouti’s memoir is personal, it is also a document that gives form and shape to the mood of Palestinians living under occupation, capturing the shared jokes, quickly spread gossip, and long nights spent together with friends and family over good food and wonderful conversation.
Barghouti, then, with the eye of a poet, chooses to write the specific and the personal. He ponders the reasons why the symbols of a people, of a nation, often fail to communicate the richness of the culture they purport to represent. When his friend Emile Touma died in Budapest, Barghouti draped a homemade Palestinian flag over his coffin as it was being prepared for the flight back to Nazareth. A friend gently cautioned him: “They will never let that flag into Ben Gurion Airport. Emile Touma was an Israeli citizen with Israeli nationality.” As Barghouti reminds the reader repeatedly, life at the behest of such mechanized cruelty cannot be reduced or simplified, but retains a complex vibrancy that epitomizes the spirit of resistance.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 65, 2011.
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