“We lived the experience of our displacement in the lands of others, and we lived with other displaced people who looked like us. Did we write our displacement? Why should our story, our particular story deserve to be listened to by the world? And who listens to the stories of those men, women, and children who are taken by their displacement to that other shore from which no one ever returns? Our dead are scattered in every land. Sometimes we did not know where to go with their corpses; the capitals of the world refuse to receive us as corpses as they refuse to receive us alive. And if the dead by displacement and the dead by weapons and the dead by longing and the dead by simple death are martyrs, and if poems are true and each martyr is a rose, we can claim to have made a garden of the world.”
Part-memoir, part-reminiscence, part-history, part-elegy, part-jeremiad – but most of all, a paean to a lost nation, Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah is the story of a man who comes back to his occupied homeland after thirty years of exile. Much like the work of Primo Levi, this is a reflection, written after the fact, that tries to use the medium of language to understand the incomprehensible, to attempt a reconciliation with the irreconcilable. And, much like Levi, from the moment Barghouti sets foot upon Allenby Bridge that leads from Jordan to Occupied Palestine, his writing is shot through with agony and ambiguity in near-equal measure.
“At last! Here I am, walking, with my small bag, across the bridge. A bridge no longer than a few meters of wood and thirty years of exile.
How was this piece of dark wood able to distance a whole nation from its dreams? To prevent entire generations from taking their coffee in homes that were theirs? How did it deliver us to all this patience and all that death? How was it able to scatter us among exiles, and tents, and political parties, and frightened whispers?
I do not thank you, you short, unimportant bridge. You are not a sea or an ocean that we might find our excuses in your terrors. You are not a mountain range inhabited by wild beasts and fantastical monsters that we might summon our instincts to protect us from you. I would have thanked you, bridge, if you had been on another planet, at a spot the old Mercedes could not reach in thirty minutes. I would have thanked you had you been made by volcanoes and their thick, orange terror. But you were made by miserable carpenters, who held their nails in the corners of their mouths, and their cigarettes behind their ears. I do not say thank you, little bridge. Should I be ashamed in front of you? Or should you be ashamed in front of me? You are near like the stars of the naïve poet, far like the step of one paralyzes. What embarrassment is this? I do not forgive you and you do not forgive me. The sound of wood under my feet.
Fayruz calls it the Bridge of Return. The Jordanians call it the King Hussein Bridge. The Palestinian Authority calls it al-Karama crossing. The common people and the bus and taxi drivers call it the Allenby Bridge. My mother, and before her my grandmother and my father and my uncle’s wife, Umm Talal, call it simply: the Bridge.”
Allenby Bridge is a symbol – the most poignant symbol of Palestinian exile. And it is symbols – symbols and metaphors that fill Barghouti’s work. They are his primary means of communication, and of understanding. The many aspects of exile, displacement and loss are approached through metaphor. A hotel room, for instance, comes to embody rootlessness and transience – it absolves one from “immortalize the moment”, but also “provides a theater for short acts and surprises and a widening of the monotonous horizons of life…” That hotel room, then, is the shifting life in the refugee camps of Lebanon, portrayed so movingly by Elias Khoury in Gate of the Sun, and the temporary return to Kanafani’s Haifa – because transience and temporariness is what it means to be an exile. The Israeli soldier’s gun is – similarly – the symbol of loss and deprivation, loss of the homeland that itself has now become nothing more than a symbol under years of occupation. It is in this way that it is appropriate for Barghouti’s principal stylistic technique to be approaching truth through metaphor because, as he understands it, the occupation has transformed Palestine itself into insubstantiality, an image and a song: “His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land. In his hand he holds earth, and in our hands we hold a mirage.” But it is not just Palestine and the homeland that is a mirage – it is the occupation itself that is built upon a series of symbols, although grounded in the harsh actuality of the settlements:
“If you hear a speaker on some platform use the phrase ‘dismantling the settlements’, then laugh to your heart’s content. These are not children’s fortresses of Lego or Meccano. These are Israel itself; Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography and the trick and the excuse. It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs. The settlements are their book, their first form. They are our absence. The settlements are the Palestinian Diaspora itself.”
And it is precisely this abstraction, this world of ideas, images, symbols and metaphors that Barghouti is anxious to resist.
The Occupation has created generations without a place whose colours, smells, and sounds they can remember; a first place that belongs to them, that they can return to in their memories in their cobbled-together exiles. There is no childhood bed for them to remember, a bed on which they forgot a soft cloth doll, or whose white pillows – once the adults had gone out of an evening – were their weapons in a battle that had them shrieking with delight. This is it. 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.
The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine. I only started to believe in myself as a poet when I discovered how faded all abstracts and absolutes were. When I discovered the accuracy of the concrete detail and the truthfulness of the five senses, and the great gift, in particular, of sight. When I discovered the justice and genius of the language of the camera, which presents its view in an amazing whisper, however noisy this view was in fact or in history. Then I made the effort necessary to get rid of the poem that was an easy accompaniment to the anthem, to get rid of the badness of beginnings.
Resist because living through ideas can not only create a supine antipathy, and hold one in thrall to dangerous illusions, but it is precisely a mode of control:
I have always believed that it is in the interests of an occupation, any occupation, that the homeland should be transformed in the memory of its people into a bouquet of ‘symbols’. Merely symbols. They will not allow us to develop our village so that it shares features with the city, or to move with our city into a contemporary space. Let us be frank: when we lived in the village did we not long for the city? Did we not long to leave small, limited, simple Deir Ghassanah for Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Nablus? Did we not wish that those cities would become like Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut? The longing always for the new age.
The Occupation has forced us to remain with the old. That is its crime. It did not deprive us of the clay ovens of yesterday, but of the mystery of what we would invent tomorrow. I did not come here to reclaim Al-Abrash’s camel. 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, squatting in the sunshine in the village square, like a dog forgotten by its owners – or like a toy dog – I wanted to take hold of it, to kick it forward, to its coming days, to a better future, to tell it: “Run!”
These passage are almost Kundera-esque in their fierce denunciation of mythologizing and romanticizing, and their commitment to a brutal – if prosaic – realism. But where Kundera draws his motivation from seeing oppression justified in the name of abstraction, Barghouti is struggling with that perennial problem that we find in virtually all of Palestinian writing: the longing for a certain, remembered – yet unattainable – pre-colonial past, in tension with a desire for an uncertain, unknown – yet possibly achievable – post-colonial future. Like Kanafani, Khoury and all the rest, Barghouti is concerned with how to bring about the second; and it in that context that he feels the pressing, urgent need to inveigh against the symbolization of the Palestinian tragedy that also ensures its fossilization within a timeless, unchanging present.
Exile is understood by developing associations not with places – because “I am always without a place“, but with time – time, “a mist that never stops moving“. What one remembers, as an exile, are stretches of time: in Cairo, “wisps of fog that formed themselves into a shape that pleased me one morning“, and in ‘Ein al-Dir, the thorns of brambles scrambled through in days of childhood. And again, what one wants to retrieve is not a place, but a time: “Do I want to scramble through brambles now? No, what I want is the time of scrambling.” But of course, the tragedy of exile is precisely the impossibility of that – and indeed, the impossibility of any complete experience. “For all displacement is a semi-sentence, a semi-everything”, Barghouti writes, “they snatch you from your place suddenly, in a second. But you return very slowly. You watch yourself returning in silence. Always in silence. Your times in faraway places watch too; they are curious: what will the stranger do with the reclaimed place and what will the place do with the reclaimed stranger?” And we are back again to the ambiguity, the lack of closure, the absence of any fulfillment that characterizes this entire experience.
Lyrical and mellifluous, Barghouti’s writing is, I think, an exemplar of poetry in prose: appealing directly, as it does, to the primary imagination, its rhythm and its cadences alternatively beguiling and compelling, and all the while without losing the sharp edge of the substance – the indescribable nature of loss, displacement and exile – in the telling of it. That is why I have, in this review, given primary place to excerpts – this is a book that is best experienced, rather than described. And the closing is perhaps the best example of Barghouti’s art, and the point I’m trying to make:
I crossed the forbidden bridge and suddenly I bent to collect my scattered fragments as I would collect the flaps of my coat together on an icy day, or as a pupil would collect his papers scattered by the wind of the fields as he comes back from far away. On the pillow I collected the days and nights of laughter, of anger, or tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments for which a single lifetime cannot suffice to visit them all with an offering of silence and respect.
Tonight, with everyone in the house asleep and morning about to break, I ask a question that the days have never answered:
What deprives the spirit of its colours?
What is it other than the bullets of the invaders that have hit the body?