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I Saw Ramallah
by Mourid Barghouti
Translated by Ahdaf Soueif with Foreword by Edward W. Said
The American University in Cairo Press 180 pp. ISBN 977 424 499 0
The Homecoming of a Poet
The Oslo Accord of 1993 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization has made it possible for many Palestinians to go back home after decades of exile. Though generally sceptical towards the Accord itself, Palestinian writers who were permitted to return, or even to visit, saw this as an invitation which they could not afford to miss or turn down. Now, after years of being occupied with the task of telling the story of dispossession, displacement and exile, some of these writers are able to tell the story of the long-awaited return. A number of works (both fiction and non-fiction), which mainly relate accounts of this journey home, have appeared in the few years following Oslo.
Of all of these books, I Saw Ramallah, the account by Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, is by far the most noteworthy. It received considerable critical acclaim when first published in Arabic, and went on to win the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, which led to its current appearance in English under the guardianship of two heavyweights, Edward Said and Ahdaf Soueif , the former forewording it, the latter rendering it into English.
With meticulous attention to detail, Barghouti describes step by step his visit to Ramallah and Deir Ghassanah, the town and the village in which he was born and grew up. After thirty years of living in exile, the writer is home again in what must have been for him an exhilarating, yet saddening experience. There are so many things to see, and so many people to meet – places, relatives and friends from whom he was separated for many years, and who were reduced into selective images stored in the memory of the author. It is no surprise that, on more than one occasion, Barghouti discovers how limited, and sometimes, inaccurate, his memory has been.
Barghouti is not only making a passage from exile to homeland, but rather a leap from the land of literary imagination to the actual land: “It is no longer the beloved in the poetry of resistance, or an item on a political party program, it is not an argument or a metaphor. It stretches before me, as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well; visible as a field of chalk, as the prints of shoes.”
Being a poet whose output has emerged and matured in exile, Barghouti has always relied on both memory and imagination in depicting and conjuring his homeland, thus abstracting and mythologizing it. But now, confronting the world of fact, he realises how wide the gap is between the real land and the image in which it appears in his, and other’s, poems. Appropriately enough, he wonders whether all along he has been imagining a totally different country: “I used to tell my Egyptian friends at university that Palestine was green and covered with trees and shrubs and wild flowers. What are these hills? Bare and chalky. Had I been lying to people, then? Did I paint for strangers an ideal picture of Palestine because I had lost it?”
All through the journey, the writer never loses sight of the disparity between the literary image and the reality that he explores. And that is not a mere coincidence. For such disparity highlights a question pertinent to the poet and to Palestinian poetry and politics in general. If what was abstracted and mythologized has now, at least in the eyes the poet himself, recoverd its real self, then a question such as “Where do we go from here?” or “How do we write hence?” be-comes most urgent. But Barghouti seems to prefer evading the question, and up to now, so do most Palestinian writers.
Barghouti has no illusions about the Oslo Accord. For him the Israelis have managed to have it their own way. However, he is not there to condemn outrightly the outcome of the negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli representatives. He is there to confront the reality of the present. And there is no doubt that this reality is depressing and disappointing in so many ways and aspects, but there are also things which show that hope is not beyond the grasp of both those who have remained there and those who have just returned. One cannot fail to sense a relentless attachment to the idea of being there.
Barghouti’s journey is not a nostalgic one. Far from lamenting what has gone for ever, the writer often tends to revive the past in an amusing and funny anecdotal form. And, as for the things which have remained intact – and to his astonishment there are so many things which have been left as they were thirty years earlier – these are not a source of consolation. On the contrary, it is in their very existence that he sees the enormity of the damage caused by the long Israeli occupation: “The Occupation forced us to remain with the old. That is its crime. I used to long for the past in Deir Ghassanah as a child longs for precious, lost things. But when I saw that the past was still there . . . I wanted to take hold of it, to kick it forward, to its coming days, to a better future, to tell it: Run.”
Though the journey takes place in 1996, the beginning of the story of I Saw Ramallah goes back to June 1967, when Barghouti was still a student in Cairo. It was then, while doing his final university exams, that he realized that instead of going back home, where his room had been newly decorated, he had become a displaced person. The war had erupted and his home was to become an occupied territory.
All through the nine chapters of this book, the writer keeps moving from one decade to another, jumping from one place to the next, tracking back through times and places in which his life in exile was a fate which befell him and his family, making it impossible for them to to meet again without painstaking efforts and always in a foreign country. The misfortunes of exile were not limited to those which resulted from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but from residing in countries where one is susceptible to deportation without any justification. So it was that in 1977 Barghouti was deported from Egypt, and for the next 17 years he could only see his wife and child during annual holidays and largely out of Egypt. In spite of all that, the writer is seldom bitter or sentimental. In fact, he is often witty and satirical. Commenting on the fact that his wife and him had only one child, he says:
“And then the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, had a decisive role in defining our size of the family. His decision to deport me resulted in my remaining the father of an only child, Radwa and I not having a daughter, for example, to add to Tamim, or ten sons and daughters. I lived on one continent and Radwa on another; on her own she could not care for more than one child.”
The story of exile that Barghouti relates is not an unfamiliar one, particularly for Palestinians. However it does not fail to be moving – the story of his eldest brother who died at the age of fifty-one without being able to see his home again is certainly a heartbreaking story.
Having said that, I must add the painful fact that one cannot appreciate I Saw Ramallah without a considerable amount of sympathy and patience. Barghouti quite often tends to become excessively pensive and philosophical, the result of which a gratuitious successions of rhetorical questions, unilluminating analyses, and crude metaphors, all which overburden the pace of the narrative.
Barghouti is not the best of Arab prose writers. And Soueif’s translation makes us well aware of this fact. For some reason she has opted to a literal rendering of the Arabic, the result of which is too many odd and awkward expressions: “I walked entirely normally”; “Her desire to defy difficulty and fragmentation is so powerful it paints her tired face with a new vitality”; “His narrow eyes, black, do not reveal his heart except when he laughs”.
It is rather surprising, and disappointing that Soueif, the author of colossal novels in English, could only bring out such clumsy composition. What is more surprising, however, is that this very translation is praised by Edward Said as “elegant and compelling”. But then again, Said is known to be too complimentry towards his friends and admirers.