I SAW RAMALLAH
When Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti died last month in Amman after spending most of his life in exile, tributes poured in from across the world. He has 12 poetry collections to his name, on love, loss, homeland, memory, but readers in English discovered him when Ahdaf Soueif translated his memoir, I Saw Ramallah, in 2000.
Banned from his homeland after the 1967 Six Day War, he spent 30 years as one of the naziheen or the displaced ones, till the summer of 1996, when in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, Barghouti travelled to Ramallah and his childhood home at Deir Ghassanah.
The crossing to Ramallah begins at the bridge on the Jordan river. It is a hot day, a drop of sweat mists his spectacles and blurs what he sees, expects and remembers. He walks towards Ramallah, "behind me the world, ahead of me my world." A short bus ride takes him to Jericho, from where taxis queue to carry the "arrivals" to cities like Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm, al-Khalil, Gaza and Jerusalem.
Finally in a cab, he sees the "bare and chalky" hills and remembers telling his friends in Egypt (where he went to university and lived) that Palestine "was green and covered with trees and shrubs and wild flowers."
Did he paint an ideal picture of Palestine because he had lost it? Barghouti is at a loss for words, has a lump in his throat and feels let down. He is overwhelmed by a rush of emotions - joy, sadness, disappointment, regret, anger too.
Politics confronts him at every turn. When Barghouti spots an Israeli flag in "our areas", he realises it is a settlement, "buildings of white stone… solid where they stand," and wonders what life looks like on the inside. The settlements, he says, are "Israel itself; Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography… It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs." Returning to the city of his childhood and youth, Barghouti tries to "coax joy" into his heart "as you would coax chickens to the barley." He is constantly reminded of his older brother Mounif, who died under tragic circumstances, and Barghouti treads the paths his brother could not. In the "window of joy," he is overcome by the "memory of elegies."
Barghouti narrates the story of a newspaperman, Abu al-Habayib, who was killed by shrapnel in June 1967. "Where had Abu al-Habayib come from? Where were his people? Everybody knew him and nobody knew him," writes Barghouti, opening up another strand in West Bank politics.
The people of the West Bank treated "our own people, banished by Israel from coastal cities in 1948… people who came to live in our cities and towns," as refugees. It is not enough only to count the faults of the occupier: "we too have our faults, our share of shortsightedness."
Before Israeli occupation, life was not paradise, he admits, "but we managed our affairs in our own way." Occupation, on the other hand, "interferes in every aspect of life and death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street."
The Occupation has created "generations of us that have to adore an unknown beloved: distant, difficult, surrounded by guards, by walls, by nuclear missiles, by sheer terror." There are mahsuns (the Hebrew word for barrier) everywhere. Barghouti, wanting to take all of Ramallah with him before he leaves, talks to friends, listens to them and asks many questions.
At his childhood home in Deir Ghassanah, a missing fig tree, solid in his memory, leads to more queries. His widowed aunt answers: "People have emigrated and people have died. To whom should I feed the figs, my son? It wearied me and I cut it down." There are poignant moments and long silences when he meets mothers who lost their children during the Intifada.
At a poetry reading at the village square, he begins with an elegy for his brother: "A motherly man/ Whose motherliness shaded his mother/ To see her smile,/ Who feared that in the wool of her coat/ There might be one sad thread./ Who dared to send this tremor/ Into the air around his shoulders?/ Who dared to kill beauty's last cry for help?"
In his foreword, Edward Said writes that the lyrical narrative "is one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement." I Saw Ramallah won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and prepared the way for I WasBorn There, I Was Born Here, where Barghouti returns to the Occupied Territories in 1998 with his Cairo-born son, Tamim, to introduce him to his Palestinian family.
Courtesy: THE HINDU