I Saw Ramallah-Mourid Barghouti
Non-fiction, Memoir in translation
Barred from his homeland after 1967’s Six-Day War, the poet Mourid Barghouti spent thirty years in exile—shuttling among the world’s cities, yet secure in none of them; separated from his family for years at a time; never certain whether he was a visitor, a refugee, a citizen, or a guest. As he returns home for the first time since the Israeli occupation, Barghouti crosses a wooden bridge over the Jordan River into Ramallah and is unable to recognize the city of his youth. Sifting through memories of the old Palestine as they come up against what he now encounters in this mere “idea of Palestine,” he discovers what it means to be deprived not only of a homeland but of “the habitual place and status of a person.”
It’s hard to blog about this book. Barghouti really is talking about a very complex situation, a very personal life, and yet there are threads of feeling that are universal.
Barghouti left Palestine for a college education at 22 and only recently has been allowed to go back home. His prose, even in translation, is ethereally poetic and his simple phrasing allows for ideas to hit hard. His struggle with exile and his sorrow for what he was forced to leave behind is almost palpable.
Let’s be frank, his themes hit hard for me personally. My mother returned to Cuba after over 40 years of exile in a homecoming I can perhaps best describe as bittersweet. I read echoes of this in Barghouti when he is talking about his visit back home to the house of his family. And Barghouti is constantly lamenting that his son will never understand his country of origin. I have to say that sometimes I wanted to tell Barghouti, “Listen, it’s not just a Palestinian thing-even if your son could visit Palestine and live there, he’d never know.” As a daughter of immigrants, I can tell you that their countries are as foreign to me as Barghouti laments Palestine is to his son. Couched in Barghouti’s delightful prose, were ideas, that I had thought of vaguely that I knew my father must have felt, fully realized on the page. The book is not all lamentation…just that I identified most with them. I’m an ex-patriot raised around people in exile so that makes sense.
Most of the rest of the book is about memory but Barghouti actually manages to avoid outright nostalgia. Instead there is a resilience that strengthens memory into something with a purpose.
Goodness, I’m not able to express any of this right. I can only capably talk of the parts I recognized in myself. I lack Barghouti’s clarity, vision, and strength of prose. He is like most Middle Eastern poets, capable of telling you so much in so few words. If you have any interest in the region, I think this is a must-read.