A Response to Barghouti’s “I Saw Ramallah” by Liz Burkemper
by Mark Chmiel
Liz Burkemper shared this with me, and I am happy to share it here. Liz is a sophomore at George Washington University.
“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.” Themes of land, identity, and displacement color I Saw Ramallah, a lyrical memoir of lament by Mourid Barghouti. A Palestinian poet and intellectual, Barghouti was born in the agrarian village of Deir Ghassanah outside of Ramallah four years before the birth of the State of Israel. The memoir explores Barghouti’s identity as one of the naziheen, or “displaced ones” — during his undergraduate study at Cairo University, Barghouti witnesses the fall of Ramallah to Israeli forces as part of the Six-Day War in 1967, leading to thirty years of exile from his homeland. When Mourid finally returns to Palestine in 1996, the complexities of his relationship with the land become discernible. Though he spends “a lifetime…trying to get here,” Mourid discovers that “it is enough for a person to go through the first experience of uprooting, to become uprooted forever.”
Barghouti’s story is told as much through his identity as a Palestinian exiled from the homeland for thirty years as it is through his naturally poetic soul. Even when writing in prose, Barghouti offers a unique lyricism that is made manifest in the text. At the beginning of the book, Mourid describes his first experience back in Palestine: “This then is the ‘Occupied Territory’?…When the eye sees it, it has all the clarity of earth and pebbles and hills and rocks…It stretches before me, as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well; visible as a field of chalk, as the prints of shoes.” This passage brings to the story’s center the disconnect between the land of Palestine and its people created through decades of Israeli occupation. While Palestine is called many words — the West Bank and Gaza, occupied Palestine, Israel, Judea and Samaria, the Areas — the land itself remains at once the Palestinian homeland and a concept talked about by actors who think that they know, a reality never to be known by Palestinians themselves. Mourid continues to poetically narrate his return to Palestine:
This soldier with the yarmulke is not vague. At least his gun is shiny. His gun is my personal history. It is the history of my estrangement. His gun took from us the land of the poem and left with us the poem of the land. In his hand he holds the earth, and in our hands we hold a mirage.
Barghouti’s use of metaphor further illuminates the lived experience of Palestinians who have seen only occupation or exile — loving the landscape without truly knowing it, seeing Jewish Israelis as military bodies behind a wall rather than neighbors with shared ties to the land. A poet at heart, Barghouti holds the capacity to translate difficult experience into language, and I Saw Ramallah thus constitutes a beautiful and singular expression of life as a displaced Palestinian.
To the extent that Barghouti’s memoir is political, it also necessarily centers on the ordinary, humanizing the lives of Palestinians both in exile and in occupied territories. Barghouti writes, “Politics is the family at breakfast. Who is there and who is absent and why…Where are your children who have gone forever from these their usual chairs?…What small act of forgiveness are you training yourself to perform today?…Staying away from politics is also politics. Politics is nothing and it is everything.” The life of a Palestinian person is inherently political — controversial, debated upon — from the moment of birth. Barghouti describes the visceral feeling when he hears that Ramallah has fallen to Israel, frequent trips to the Israeli Military Governor for permits, Israeli flag-topped settlements that dot Palestinian hillsides, and the anguish of purchasing olive oil from somewhere other than Palestine. The political figure for whom Barghouti holds the greatest respect is his mom in her revolution of motherhood: “a revolution realized every day, without fuss and without theorizing.” In one of the many poems dispersed throughout the book, Barghouti expresses,
Can the earth contain
The cruelty of a mother making her coffee alone
On a Diaspora morning?
The memoir finds its center in a family uprooted and separated by exile — Mourid’s brother Mounif is killed by the reality of being forbidden to return, Mourid has lived in thirty houses during his thirty years of exile, and Mourid’s deportation from Egypt means that “the telephone…[is] his permanent means of creating a relationship with a child of a few months.” These verses of poetry in particular reveal how agonizing the ordinary becomes for Palestinians through decades of displacement, and the extent to which the Occupation has destroyed a society built on the ties of family and community. In his poetic humanizing of the many Palestinians that he encounters throughout exile and return, Barghouti offers an alternate and necessary narrative about the Occupation to a world mostly ignorant to the voices of the oppressed.
In bringing both the heartbreaking poetry and the exquisite ordinariness of life under Israeli occupation to the center of the narrative, I Saw Ramallah finds its strength. Barghouti remains focused on his own lived experience, berating neither the State of Israel for its actions nor the Palestinian leadership for its failure to represent the people, occupied or not. Rather, Mourid Barghouti gives a case for Palestinian human rights, not in word but in capturing the experiences of an occupied people through his own narrative. Still, he does not allow Israel to be pardoned for being an occupier: “We [Palestinians] too have our faults; our share of shortsightedness. I am certain that we were not always a beautiful natural scene. But this truth does not absolve the enemy of his original crime that is the beginning and the end of this evil.” He says that Palestinians hate the Occupation because it “hinders their natural development” — Occupation prevents the ordinary, and all the good and bad that comes with it, from being a reality in the lives of Palestinians. Furthermore, Barghouti strengthens his story by recognizing not only that he is privileged among Palestinians, as his status as a ‘67 refugee allowed him to return while many from ‘48 are denied that right; but also that the plight of Palestine, though devastating, is not remarkable. On the experience of Palestinians, he writes, “We have suffered and we have sacrificed without limit, but we are no better or worse than others,” and at one point Barghouti remarks on the similarity of the Arab and African or African American experiences. Again, he connects Palestinian suffering to the rest of the world: “The experience of wounded Arabs taught me that my hurt as a Palestinian is only part of a larger whole…All those who have been destined to exile share the same features.” While the poetic language and lyricism present throughout I Saw Ramallah strengthen Barghouti’s narrative, some may argue that his poetry can only bring the book so far. While this may be so, Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah nevertheless finds a home in the vast corpus of literature on Palestinian and Israeli experiences, most of which adds argument but not the depth or humanity to discourse on the occupation of Palestine. Thus, the world is desperate for the eloquence and passionate humanity of Barghouti’s story.
Present throughout I Saw Ramallah is Barghouti’s torment at being a “displaced one”: “How do I sing for my homeland when I do not know it?…What love is it that does not know the beloved?” If Barghouti resents anything about Israel’s occupation of Palestine, he makes clear that it is his estrangement from his homeland and distance from his identity as a Palestinian. From his time as an undergraduate in Cairo during the ‘67 War to his long-awaited return to Palestine as a middle-aged father, Barghouti tells his narrative carefully: holding onto the poetry of this experience of displacement and allowing the story of Palestine to be told, but not unnecessarily centering his story knowing that it is one among millions of Palestinians and singular among countless of displaced, oppressed peoples. Mourid Barghouti’s stance on the Occupation is certain: “I cannot accept any talk of two equal rights to the land.” Nevertheless, Barghouti’s focused narrative on the ordinary politics of Palestinian life provides a magnificent and necessary addition to the body of human narratives of life in historical Palestine. In a world of hard facts, misunderstanding, dehumanization, and violence, I Saw Ramallah is a thing of agonizing beauty and magnificent heroism — one to read for all that desire to bring humanity into the discourse on Israel/Palestine.