Mourid Barghouti: A Giant of Plain Words
The memory of how I met Mourid Barghouti rushed back to me recently when I heard that he had died.
It was 2006. Barghouti was sitting a few seats away from me at a conference on Palestinian literature at the University of Manchester.
I didn’t recognize him at first.
He seemed like an ordinary guy. He looked quite Western to me then, though he would probably not have been happy to be described as Western-looking.
He could have been a supporter of the Palestinian cause, a journalist, or more likely an academic at the university.
When I got up to present a paper – part of my PhD research – on Palestinian literature of resistance, it was clear that the topic interested him. He started writing things in his small notebook.
He smiled when I returned to my seat and said “well done.”
Then the chair of the conference introduced Barghouti. The introduction was long.
Barghouti didn’t even make eye contact with the chair until the last moment – when he was given the floor.
Barghouti then stood up calmly and walked to the stage to talk about Palestinian writing in exile.
He read parts of his book I Saw Ramallah. Translated into several languages, it brought him critical acclaim and various international awards.
Immediately after Barghouti had finished his presentation, somebody in the audience started heckling him.
It was a rude interruption, not the sort of interjection that normally occurs during conferences with established academics and writers.
Yet Barghouti did not appear in any way shocked. He picked up his papers and book and looked up slowly, removing his reading glasses.
The heckler was trying to make the point that Palestinians should accept their situation and not reminisce about an idealized homeland that never existed. It was the Palestinians’ fault for leaving their homes in the first place, the heckler said.
Barghouti remained calm and let the man finish.
When the heckler finally stopped, Barghouti responded with some succinct questions.
He asked what would happen if Palestinians simply accepted the situation they were in.
Why should Palestinians give their oppressors the legitimacy they are seeking? And why are Israel and its allies so obsessed that Palestinians just accept everything?
Barghouti did not wait to see if the heckler had more to say. He returned to his seat as the audience applauded.
“Hidden silent spot”
We had lunch afterwards.
Barghouti asked about my experience of leaving Gaza and coming to the UK to do a PhD in English.
I wanted to quote him his own words from I Saw Ramallah:
“The stranger is the person who renews his residence permit … He is the one whose relationship with places is distorted, he gets attached to them and repulsed by them at the same time. He is the one who cannot tell his story in a continuous narrative and lives hours in every single moment … He lives essentially in that hidden silent spot with himself.”
Instead, I told him that I wanted to be a writer just like him, that one day I would write about Gaza the same way he wrote about Ramallah.
Unlike Barghouti, I have never written a memoir or a book of poetry in Arabic.
Like him, I am an exiled writer. And I share with him an aversion to being pigeonholed by being labeled an “exiled writer.”
I never moved to Beirut during a civil war like Barghouti did, only to be ostracized because of his critical views and then leave for Budapest.
I have never been a nomad searching for a home.
I reread his 12 books of poetry in Arabic and quoted some of them in my own work.
His poem “You and Me” begins:
You are as beautiful as a liberated homeland
And I am as tired as an occupied one
You are sad like a betrayed person who continues to resist
And I am anguished like a war about to happen.
The third line of that poem struck me most.
It felt like he was writing about my beloved Gaza.
A strip of land on the Mediterranean that is beautiful yet besieged.
A place that has been battered by Israeli force yet continues to resist despite the betrayal of everyone around it.
Refuge in names
When Barghouti wrote about a particular place, he captured its essence.
He was searching for home and identity within a complex matrix of exile, memory and disdain for the political reality confronting him.
Landmarks and the names of places around him became very important as he searched. They gave him refuge.
Born in 1944, Barghouti left his village of Deir Ghassana in the West Bank during the 1960s. He went in search of a university degree from Cairo and hoped that he could go back and be with his people.
But – with the West Bank under Israel’s military occupation since June 1967 – he never was able to go home.
His home became his words and the places he passed by.
In his poem “Radwa,” Barghouti wrote:
When I left
Knocking on the door had a different meaning
My home address changed.
Those beautiful and simple words resonate so deeply with anyone who has experienced exile or needs to address questions of identity.
I remember reading those lines a few years after I had arrived in London and feeling nostalgia hitting me hard like a punch in the gut.
I no longer knocked on anyone’s door.
I was exiled. I had no family to visit and no unannounced visitors who wanted to come and drink Arabic coffee with me.
I sat alone in a flat and read lots of books while watching Gaza being bombarded on the news.
Thirty years after his exile began, Barghouti went back to Ramallah for the first time in 1996.
It was the era of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Numerous commentators were talking about peace in the Middle East yet Barghouti was under no illusions.
In I Saw Ramallah, he writes: “The others are still masters of the place. They give you a permit. They check your papers. They start files on you. They make you wait.”
It was his plain words that made Barghouti one of the giants of Palestinian literature.
He resorted to metaphor much less than Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, Sahar Khalifeh and so many other brilliant Palestinian writers.
He didn’t even try to paint a picture with his words. He instead created a tapestry of feeling that all Palestinians have experienced.
A mosaic of pain, irony and cynicism. A mosaic of real life.
I have tried to follow Barghouti’s lead with my own writing. But the English language always fails me.
Expressions like “knocking on the door” and “drinking coffee” do not have the same weight in English as in Arabic.
Perhaps it is too late for me to write in Arabic. But it is never too late for me to describe places in Palestine like Barghouti did.
It is never too late to examine how these connections create an existential dilemma for Palestinian writers.
Our homeland has shaped us. No matter where we travel and no matter what we imagine, we are always connected to Palestine and the struggle for its liberation.
Excerpts from “You and Me” and “Radwa” are translated by Ahmed Masoud.
Ahmed Masoud is a writer, director and academic based in the UK.
Republished courtesy of The Electronic Intifada, where the article appeared on 10 March 2021.
Ahmed Masoud is a Palestinian born and raised writer, director and academic based in the UK.
But I don’t miss them
they are here: under the buttons of this light shirt.
It is a shy spring day and the rays of a veiled sun illuminates the landscape. My sister and I feel so tiny and full of wonder looking at that beautiful Villa on the hills of Bellagio. We are waiting for him, already touched and grateful, deeply moved, silent, like the lake in front of us. He welcomes us: his calm face inlaid with good, playful, great eyes immediately hit me. It feels like home: Mourid.
I will never forget those hours of pure grace. It is so hard to find the words when you meet a man like Mourid Barghouthi. His person embodies his works and vice versa; Mourid could never be anything but a poet. His works are him and he is his works, a thought that fills me with both relief and melancholy and may be expressed in one word: immortality. And this is the word that I found on the very first page of his last book of poetry, the one he wrote right on those hills, in front of that lake:
Lonely, elevated, my balcony is a cloud caressed by the sky,
I look down at a shore, a paradise
The forest rests on cliffs that touch
The silence of the lake
Who was Mourid Barghouthi? He was a husband and father in love. He never wrote easy and obvious words, from the first poems dedicated to Radwa during the years at the University in Cairo, to the novels about his returns to Palestine. He did something new, as every poet must do: “A poet” – he said – “before starting to write, needs to brush away all the words that have already been said. Then, only then, can he begin to write. Poetry belongs to the ground, it’s not all butterflies, it’s ground, it’s everyday life.”
Love is not a dream
It’s not a soul
And it’s not an idea
Love is a body
Two hands, two feet
a thinking head, and two big eyes
Mourid Barghouthi is known around the world because for his first novel, I saw Ramallah, but poetry is his soul. When he speaks, when he writes, the depth of his spirit and thoughts is rooted in reality and on paper, and leaves fertile seeds in the heart and mind of the reader. When reading Mourid Barghouthi you experience the sublime: a walk on the thick rope of reality in the middle of a heavenly sky.
And though you can’t recall the details,
Your extravagant joy, now mellowed,
Comes back again to you.
Slowly and slyly,
It has kept its charms for you alone,
As if it were a bolt of lightning in the skies,
Descends to strike, electrifying you
From head to toe, from left to right,
Snatching away your cane.
Though you sought to avoid it,
It returns to strike you, because,
But for the hundred aches and pains
Nagging at your window
Like the beggars at the traffic light,
You were born for joy.[i]
A man rooted in the present time, a person with authority and sweetness, a father. I think back to my journey to Jordan, two years ago. If I close my eyes, I go back to Mourid’s house and garden in Amman. That was a gift I will always hold in my heart. I could feel his strong and sweet presence just by walking around his empty house, breathing the air among the trees and a garden plastic sofa. I was walking in one of the places that maybe Mourid had been able to call “home” in a life constantly in mid-air.
Has the coarse hands of those who live
To put their life in order.
My love, when she pleases, is a doe,
my love when she pleases, is a tiger.
When she gets angry with me, I give in,
When I get angry with her, she makes me laugh
And I make her laugh.
I take her from my exile to my exile,
She takes me out of my own hands into her hands.
This is your home.1
The greatest power of literature is its immortality. Mourid will always live. He will live on the pages, especially the most creased, overused, even ripped out and swept away by the wind: where is life, true life, ground, pain and love, you will always find an open door to visit the soul of Mourid Barghouthi.
[i] Translation by Radwa Ashour
This piece appeared originally in Italian on May 1, 2021 in La Macchina Sognante, courtesy of Sana Darghmouni.
Angela Mainini was born in 1993 In Reggio Emilia, Italy. Since childhood she began to develop a passion for languages, theater and other cultures through music and dance. Combining all these different interests she decided to undertake translation as a profession, as it allows for the creation of bridges between cultures and different ways of thinking. She was trained in translation at the universities of Bologna and Turin, and presented the translation into Italian of a whole poetry book written by Mourid Barghouti. She is currently continuing her translation studies at the university of Vicenza. She is a regular contributor to the Arab literature website “Parole dal mondo arabo”
Cover image: Photo of Mourid Barghouti, courtesy of Dia Saleh