The veteran Palestinian poet gives an interview on the eve of publication of his new memoir, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.
Mourid Barghouti: a writer needs the precision of a surgeon
In the first chapter of his new book, Mourid Barghouti remembers a car journey from Ramallah to Jericho. His driver is Mahmoud, who takes a circuitous route through small villages, over unpaved roads and across open countryside in order to avoid Israeli checkpoints. Nothing, though, prepares the reader for what happens next.
Mahmoud comes to a large trench dug by the Israelis to stop cars passing. It seems as though the journey – fraught with uncertainty from the start – is finished. That is until a vast, dilapidated crane stoops over the car, slowly takes it in its grasp, occupants and all, and hoists it into the air. Mahmoud and his passengers – a handful, including Barghouti – are transported through the air over the trench as they gaze out of the car windows at the abyss below, until the crane gently sets them down on the other side, and they breath a heavy sigh of relief.
It is a moment that perfectly captures the inventiveness with which ordinary Palestinians must circumvent the restrictions placed on them by occupation. And one that serves as a metaphor for the circumstances of Barghouti’s life: since the 1967 Six Day War displaced him from his Palestinian homeland, he has been suspended in the air that is exile, between here and there, with no firm ground beneath him.
“The scene with the car and the crane is not a writing trick,” Barghouti says, when I put these ideas to him. “It was simply about being faithful to what happened in front of my eyes. I wrote it because I lived it.
“I already know, from the Arabic publication of this book, that for many readers it’s an early high-point. But for Palestinians, it’s the way they live.”
Barghouti is one of the most celebrated poets writing in Arabic today. In the English-speaking world, though, he is best known for his 2004 memoir I Saw Ramallah, which tells the story of his 1996 return to Palestine after 30 years of exile. That book achieved a large readership in English translation, and acclaim from those closest to the Palestinian cause. Edward Said called it “one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement we now have”.
Now Barghouti is in London for the publication of a follow-up memoir, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, in which he returns to Palestine with his son Tamim.
The book follows Mourid and Tamim – now himself a poet – as they move across the Occupied Territories. So was this book – inevitably seen as something of a sequel to I Saw Ramallah – one that Barghouti always knew he’d write?
“No,” he says, taking a drag on the first of a series of cigarettes. “I left about 10 years between that first memoir and this one. But that trip, the experience of taking my son to see Palestine, to meet relatives for the first time, pressed on my mind.
“So much has happened since then, to us, to Palestine, to the region. I just wanted to sit down and think about those days.”
No wonder, then, that the book weaves Barghouti’s reflections on his early life in Ramallah and on the future of the Palestinian cause around his travels with Tamim.
“Every human being lives so many moments in this present moment,” says Barghouti. “There are always reflections on the past, thoughts about the future. The present moment is never an innocent one.”
Barghouti’s life is one that would tend to impress upon him those truths. Born in Ramallah in 1944, Barghouti was studying in Cairo when the Six Day War prevented him from returning to his homeland. He made a home in Egypt, where he married the writer and academic Radwa Ashour, only to be deported in 1977 when Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel. There followed 17 years in Budapest, away from his wife and son. The Oslo Accords of 1993 made it possible for him to visit Ramallah for the first time in 30 years, but, crucially, Barghouti refuses to use the word “return” to describe that experience.
“For Palestinians, the return of individuals is not the issue,” he says. “The issue is the return of the Palestinian people who are scattered in all kinds of exiles. They are the people in the 1948 territories, in the Occupied Territories, in various diasporas.
“You should not confuse the chance to visit Palestine with the right to return. The first is personal, the second is political.”
That kind of linguistic precision is characteristic of Barghouti’s approach, also, to poetry. To be precise, to speak truthfully, he seems to say, is in itself to resist injustice.
“I often speak about the surgical precision of the writer. The alternative to that is the sweeping generalisations and the over-simplifications of the politician.”
These themes – of displacement and exile, power and truth – have been woven through Barghouti’s poetry since his first collection was published in 1972. Still, he dislikes the term often applied to his work: “resistance poetry”.
“These kinds of labels are the work of lazy critics,” he says. “You write a work of art, and that’s it. You have to read a work of art innocently, without any preconceptions. Don’t say, ‘I am reading a resistance poem’ or ‘I am reading a romantic poem’. Read the poem, and see where it takes you.
“I am not consciously writing against the language that Israel produces to justify itself. I am in my workshop, trying to express myself creatively.”
Still, Barghouti has paid a high personal price for his commitment to his work. During his 17 years in Budapest, he saw his wife and son only sporadically. “I don’t know any Palestinian who has not paid some price for being Palestinian,” he says. He is a vehement critic of the Oslo Accords, which he calls “catastrophic”.
Much has happened since then, and since the trip recounted in I Was Born There. So after an itinerant 30 years, is he hopeful that change will come? Will he ever be able to make an authentic return to Palestine? Barghouti smiles.
“What keeps me hopeful is that the justice of the Palestinian cause is stronger than the mistakes of our politicians,” he says. “I think our cause will win, in the end.
“I think I am too old now to expect any huge developments in my span of time. But I think my son’s generation will have a free Palestine. Israel is turning itself into a fortress. But look around the world, and you will see thousands of fortresses that are visited via a ticket for two dollars.”
I Was Born There, I Was Born Here is published today
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