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Return of the native

Over the last decade or so, we have seen moves to dismantle colonial legacies in places like South Africa and East Timor, Northern Ireland and Palestine. The success of attempts to redress personal and societal fractures in such places has been mixed, but there have been some significant homecomings. The Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti, has now published a powerful and moving chronicle of return in I Saw Ramallah. Prefaced by the late Edward Said and translated by the Egyptian novelist, Adhaf Soueif, I Saw Ramallah is the record of one man’s journey back to Palestine.

Barghouti begins his account on the ‘prohibited wooden planks’ of the Allenby Bridge, which crosses the Jordan River to the West Bank. We learn that he last crossed this bridge 30 years ago, on his way back to Cairo University to take his final exams. Around this time, the 1967 six-day war broke out and he became part of the naziheen, ‘the displaced ones’, a stranger and outsider living in distant and fraught relationship to various places of exile. With the so-called ‘peace process’ making it possible for him to visit the occupied territories, Barghouti must now face the fraught and intense feelings that he has also come to feel towards Palestine.

Exile and displacement do not form a coherent and continuous narrative: we have instead ‘scenes from an untidy life, a memory that bangs backward and forward like a shuttle’. As Barghouti crosses the border, memories and ghosts begin to crowd him: his dead brother, Manouf, who spent a day waiting on this bridge three years ago, but was eventually refused and turned back; the Palestinian novelist, Ghassan Kanafani, whose powerful voice was halted by a bomb; the still raw pain felt at the London grave of his friend, the political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali. Barghouti wants to recall those now absent and reconnect them as part of his return home. Clearly though, bereavement and mourning shadow the hopeful anticipation of his homecoming.

Edward Said argued for seeing Palestinian and Israeli histories and geographies as linked and intertwined. Barghouti wonders about the family of the Israeli soldier on the bridge: Did they come from Dachau? Were they from Brooklyn? Or were they dissident Russian émigrés? He contemplates these histories, but he contemplates also how their settlement and presence is based on the removal and denial of the Palestinians. He looks into the young soldier’s face for some sign of recognition, but sees only boredom and vague discontent. The agreements have placed Palestinian officers on the bridge also, but there is no question as to who is currently in control. In any case, repelled by the indignities of imposed borders and limits, Barghouti asks whether Palestinian-controlled boundaries would be any better than Israeli ones?

A strong self-critical impulse running through this book resists any temptation towards the tribal. Barghouti realises that it is insufficient to note only the fault of others, and asks himself whether ‘attachment to the homeland can reach a sophistication that is reflected in my song for it’. While the defeated cannot really escape politics, he feels ambivalent about his place within the Palestinian movement and admits to not understanding the notion of ‘unconditional support’. This is a text unapologetic at bringing the aesthetic measure of the poet rather than taking the supposedly factual approach of the politician. Its concern with emotions and states of being is intended to make us see the difference between ‘facts’ and a more encompassing conception of ‘reality’.

As he travels from Ramallah to his home village of Deir Ghassanah, Barghouti is surprised at how much he had forgotten. He wonders: ‘How did I sing for my homeland when I did not know it?’ He refers to the ridiculous ‘absentee love’ held by those who are displaced from a land that is essentially unknown, a land surrounded by walls and terror. He doesn’t want to shed tears for the past; it is in the interest of the occupiers to turn memory into a ‘bouquet of symbols’. Part of the work of Barghouti’s book is to break down the walls and allow the ‘truthfulness of the five senses’ to disturb what he thought he knew. And what he discovers is a village under occupation, which failed to grow and develop.

Barghouti is familiar with the difficulties that return brings. He was permitted to return from Budapest to Cairo after his name was removed from the Egyptian Government’s list of proscribed persons. After 17 years separated from his wife, Radwa Ashour, the Egyptian novelist and academic, and their son, Tanim, he came to understand that physical return sees merely the beginning of a much slower process of stitching past, present and future together. This patching continues now in Deir Ghassanah. He is to give a poetry reading in the village square, and is anxious about whether he will be understood or whether he will understand those to whom he is reading. The stitching together of fragments from childhood and maturity, artist and people, exile and homeland, presence and absence, begins anxiously but hopefully.

Barghouti’s careful objectivism sees him admit that he has ‘become used to the passing and the temporary’. Perhaps he should have hated the hotels he often found himself in while abroad, but in truth he welcomed their freedom and transience. Writing, he observes later, is itself a form of displacement from the inherited and the merely given. He also recalls the less pleasant aspects of village life: his grandmother was threatened with expulsion from her home after she became widowed with two small children; his mother was denied an education because of her gender. Yet, it is this very refusal to overemphasise the negativity of exile or idealise the world he left behind that seems to add power to his assertion that: ‘It is our life and their lives, with the good and the bad. We have the right to live it and not defend it’.

There is no doubt that a pervasive sense of the temporary and of continual postponement has disfigured Palestinian life. Palestinian land and homes were saved by exiles registering their property in the name of relatives. However, some of these caretakers regarded the return of Palestinians as the ‘miracle that would never happen’, and came to assume ownership. Still now, questions of the rights of refugees and those made homeless over the longer history of the Israeli State remain unresolved. Barghouti finds hopeful examples of local endeavour in the projects and groups creating jobs and nurturing the talents of young people. Nevertheless, the damage of the occupation is evident in the way it arrests normal growth and deprives the Palestinians of futures they would have created for themselves.

It is difficult to blame Barghouti for contemplating, at one point, the ‘shadows of mockery and nihilism’ that attend a long history of defeat. He is angry with the Palestinian authority representatives, whose personal power and aggrandisement sits strangely and pathetically with the lack of national power they managed to secure at Oslo. He despairs at the eloquence of Rabin and his representation of Israel as absolute victim: ‘The Israelis occupy our homes as victims and present us to the world as killers’. The audience in the White House garden applauded Rabin’s willingness to forgive the Palestinians. This prompts Barghouti to wonder whether it was the Palestinians who asked for their homes to be bulldozed, or for their bones to break, or for their bodies to lie in graves?

Yet, it is necessary, finally, to concur with Said when he notes in his preface that this book is remarkable for its lack of bitterness and recrimination. In its closing pages, Barghouti allows doubt to sit alongside anger. Lying awake in his bed, during his last night in Ramallah, he submits his story to the judgment of the pillow. Certainties become notions; fragments of a lifetime are unpicked and examined. While this book risks a heart laid bare, its unsentimental and dry-eyed perspective urges us to the edge of what may yet be possible. Rather than reach for easy rhetoric or blame, this is a work that adds to the collective resources of hope.

Dr Gary Pearce is a librarian at RMIT University.

I Saw Ramallah, Mourid Barghouti. Bloomsbury, 2004. isbn 0 747 56927 4, rrp $35



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