‘Who Would Dare to Make It into an Abstraction’
‘Who Would Dare to Make It into an Abstraction’
Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti’s account of his visit to the West Bank in 1996 after a thirty-year absence. It argues that Barghouti counters Edward Said’s emphasis on the exilic character of Palestinian national identity, which persists even in his foreword to Barghouti’s text. Instead, Barghouti’s narrative foregrounds the contrast between his own experience of exile and the experiences of Palestinians who continue to live in the West Bank. In order to represent this localized dimension of contemporary Palestinian experience, Barghouti develops an existential materialist aesthetic which privileges the ‘truthfulness’ of sensory experience over the idea that all Palestinians share a certain set of experiences and sense of identity. I read this effort as an attempt to recognize the contemporary fragmentation of the Palestinian collective, and thus to construct a new ground on which a coalitional nationalist politics might be built.
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.’
– Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah
While he does not have the visibility of his near contemporaries Edward Said or Mahmoud Darwish, in the last decade the poet Mourid Barghouti has joined the short list of Palestinian authors who are widely recognized among an Anglophone metropolitan readership. Barghouti has published a number of books in English translation, among them two collections of poetry and two memoirs, but it is his first work to be translated into English, Raʾaytu Rām Allāh (1997, Eng. I Saw Ramallah, 2000/3), that is chiefly responsible for his current prominence.1 Part memoir, part essay, and part prose poem, I Saw Ramallah (ISR, 2003a) is a poignant account of Barghouti’s first return trip to Palestine after thirty years of enforced absence, a result of the Israeli conquest of the West Bank in 1967. Barghouti’s account of his life outside of Palestine is interspersed with his impressions of the changes that have taken place in Ramallah and Deir Ghassanah, the neighbouring village where he spent his early childhood, creating a narrative that moves self-consciously between past and present in the pursuit of an accurate portrait of the hometown that the author is no longer legally allowed to call home.
The book was immediately and enthusiastically recognized by the Arabic literary establishment, winning Barghouti the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 1997 and the Palestine Prize for Poetry in 2000. The book’s (p.68) subsequent publication in English by the American University in Cairo Press (2000) was also a significant literary event.2 Translated by the English-language Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif and with a foreword written by Edward Said, the English edition of I Saw Ramallah linked Barghouti with two of the best-known Arab writers in the English-speaking world and so established him as a writer of international standing. Following its American release by Random House (2003) and its UK release by Bloomsbury (2004), the book has enjoyed a significant afterlife on university curricula and reading lists aiming to introduce English speakers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has recently begun to attract a measure of English-language scholarly attention as well (Mullaney, 2010, 96–98; Bugeja, 2012; Farrier, 2013).
The book’s metropolitan reception was characterized from the outset by assumptions about its national representativeness, in a vivid demonstration of the use of national allegory as a reading practice. Barghouti’s early reviewers took I Saw Ramallah as a confirmation of their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in line with the political stance of the publications in which their reviews appeared. In the UK, for instance, Tom Paulin, writing in the Independent, claimed, ‘Outside any political faction, Barghouti manages to be temperate, fair-minded, resilient and uniquely sad’ (2004), while David Pryce-Jones argued in the Daily Telegraph that ‘[t]hose who claim to be speaking for Palestinians regularly incite them in this insidious manner to hate Israel […] The population has more to fear from their own intellectuals who promote and justify [violence] than from the Israelis’ (2004). Despite their conflicting readings, Paulin and Pryce-Jones’ approaches to the text are both based on an assumption of Barghouti’s typicality, since each presents I Saw Ramallah as a quintessential example of a Palestinian intellectual’s response to the conflict (the obvious figure for comparison would of course be Said, whose declared non-alignment after Oslo may partly have inspired Paulin’s praise for Barghouti). This mode of interpretation was not limited to the mainstream English-language press: in a review published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Fouad Moughrabi, a Palestinian-American political scientist, declares it ‘a beautiful testimony for [Barghouti’s] generation and mine’ because, he says, ‘I see myself in every paragraph and page of this book’ (2003, 109).
One source for the consensus among the book’s interlocutors is Said’s influential pronouncement in his foreword to the English translation. In his opening paragraph, Said calls I Saw Ramallah ‘one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now have’ (ISR, vii), a phrase which is much repeated in English-language reviews.3 The word ‘existential’ carries a double significance: it denotes Barghouti’s attention to what Said calls the ‘lived circumstances of Palestinian life’ (ISR, ix), but it also maps Barghouti’s private ‘existence’ onto that of the collective, producing the all-encompassing term ‘Palestinian displacement.’ In his conclusion, Said restates the second part of this assessment more strongly:
(p.69) Barghouti the exile and dispossessed writer finds himself anew – only to find himself again and again in the new forms of his displacement. ‘It is enough for a person to go through the first experience of uprooting, to become uprooted forever.’ Thus despite its joy and moments of exuberance this narrative return at bottom re-enacts exile rather than repatriation. This is what gives it both its tragic dimension and its appealing precariousness […] The Palestinian experience is therefore humanized and given substance in a new way.
In this passage, the distinct and discontinuous notions of individual and collective exile that Said articulates in Out of Place slide into one another. By emphasizing Barghouti’s status as a dispossessed writer, Said combines the notion of exile as a shared condition of geographical displacement with its contrasting formulation as an archetypally modern(ist) condition of alienation (‘uprooted forever’) that writers feel particularly acutely. This statement refracts the book’s existential materialism through the vocabulary of existentialist individualism, even as it seeks to capture the dominant structure of feeling of Palestinian culture since 1948. The ‘Palestinian experience’ becomes identified with a permanent state of detachment, and Barghouti’s personal experience becomes a metonymic figure for the experience of all Palestinians, the relative material comfort of his exile and the specificity of his work as a poet notwithstanding.
It may seem unfair to quibble with Said’s wording here: evidently, the purpose of the foreword is to introduce Barghouti’s book to a non-specialist readership, as was the case with his forewords for many other Palestine-related texts. Still, the passage should give us pause, because it reveals something important about the terms of I Saw Ramallah’s Anglophone reception. Because Barghouti’s writing was unknown in English when I Saw Ramallah was published, it was almost inevitable that his memoir would be advertised and interpreted as a document of what we might call ‘immediate’ Palestinian experience (Williams, 1977, 46). Said is resisting the terms of this kind of allegorical interpretation, to a point, by insisting on Barghouti’s status as a writer who makes conscious decisions about how to represent his own circumstances. Yet even his reading overlooks Barghouti’s persistent refusals of a too-easy equivalence between his private experience and the experiences of Palestinians as a group. Against a national narrative which defines the Palestinian collective through its members’ sense of a shared identity – often based, as in Said’s analysis, on the experience of exile – I Saw Ramallah employs a materialist aesthetic which emphasizes both the circumstantial diversity of Palestinian lives and Barghouti’s sense of his own responsibility, as a poet, to resist the temptation to reify the dynamic materiality of that diversity. This approach represents a move away from Said’s claim in The Question of Palestine that exile is the ‘fundamental condition of Palestinian life’ (1992, xxxi). Though Barghouti is attentive to the continuing fact of Palestinian displacement, his effort to narrate the experiences of Palestinians living in (p.70) occupied Ramallah alongside those of Palestinians in the ‘bourgeois diaspora’ (Bowman, 1988, 36) offers a more sustained consideration of the particular kinds of intellectual activity demanded by the geographical, political, and experiential ‘fragmentation’ of the Palestinian collective (Khalidi, 1997, 34; Zreik, 2004, 71) than Said’s emphasis on his exilic consciousness suggests. By attempting to envision a Palestinian unity that does not rely on a narrative of shared identity, Barghouti’s memoir strives to create a more deliberate and difficult national imaginary, and to articulate a role for the Palestinian poet that is distinct from that of national representative.
Autonomy and commitment: Barghouti’s ‘Palestinian aesthetic’
In an essay published in Autodafe, the journal of the International Parliament of Writers, Barghouti outlines his idea of the poet’s responsibility to his community. Written in English and coinciding with the release of the American edition of I Saw Ramallah, the essay can be read as an author’s foreword to that edition. He begins the essay with a manifesto for the Palestinian poet:
The prolonged Israeli occupation has brought sclerosis to our language. Our poems have been more pulverized than our streets. Yet the majority of us are aware of the fact that we must resist military metre, simplistic imagery and khaki poems; not an easy task, but we have to pursue it with painstaking attention and care […] we, the Palestinian poets, have to struggle not only against all this existential danger and defenselessness but also against the aesthetic vulnerability of our poetry. (2003b, 40)
It soon transpires that the opposite of ‘aesthetic vulnerability’ is not a belletristic detachment from the real, but rather a deep engagement with the details of the material world:
There were times when the poetic imagination worked to escape reality; I claim that the poetic imagination now works to confront it […] I construct my own perception of lived experience, a new version of reality, different from the original. And maybe because of its difference, it enters into a problematic converse and oppositional dialogue with the everyday reality. (2003b, 45)
This conceptualization of the poet’s relationship to the material world shifts the terms of existing debates over the aesthetic value of politically committed writing by Palestinians, with implications for analogous debates in other settings. Whereas critics such as Hanan Ashrawi and Salma Khadra Jayyusi have criticized Palestinian texts that ‘neglec[t] exigencies of style and form for the pressures of politics,’ as Ashrawi (who would later become a prominent politician) put it in her doctoral dissertation (Said, 1999a, 157),4 such ‘exigencies’ are often implicitly defined as the formal, linguistic, and/ (p.71) or intertextual experimentation employed by ‘avant-garde’ writing produced in the West.5 Barghouti shares these critics’ disapproval of those who would ‘reduce the painting into a poster, the lyric into a military anthem, the play into preaching, the novel into a straight ideology, or the poem into slogan,’ as he writes in Autodafe (2003b, 43). However, in I Saw Ramallah, Barghouti attempts to create a literary aesthetic which is evaluated not by a fixed set of formal or stylistic criteria derived from a particular tradition, but by its success in conveying the everyday experiences of Palestinian individuals. This approach goes beyond an affirmation of the idea that literature can do political work: it puts the question of how to do that work at the heart of Barghouti’s artistic project. He writes, ‘What can I do with my poetry and my own language here and now, in my part of the world? What happens to a poet in a cataclysmic society, where people live under semi-eternal emergency, and their life is destabilized and exposed to daily horror and endless suffering?’ (2003b, 42). Whereas a critic like the young Ashrawi would most likely see this question as unnecessarily tied to political considerations, while other readers might contend that his concerns about language are superseded by the urgency of the disaster, Barghouti rejects both such responses. He concludes, in the same essay, that the poet’s responsibility is to ‘embrace the universal, the human, as well as the intimate and the personal. Most Palestinian writers are aware of this fact: For a fanatic it is always useful to simplify; for a poet it is categorically suicidal. The suffering of a nation should not be used as a pretext to justify the mediocre, the clichéd and thumb-worn, in any form of artistic expression’ (2003b, 43).
This might look like a statement of the obvious: surely all writers (and readers) would describe themselves as opposed to mediocrity. Yet this conception of a writerly or artistic relationship to ‘the suffering of a nation’ differs from the responses I have imagined above in that it directly addresses the need ‘to universalize the crisis,’ to borrow the terms of Said’s exhortation to intellectuals (Said, 1994b, 32–33). Barghouti is clearly anxious about a reception of his work that would limit its relevance to his ‘part of the world,’ rather than seeing it as a description of a military occupation comparable to other occupations in other places and times, or indeed as a portrait of people living their lives under circumstances that are not of their choosing. However, instead of responding to the problem by confining literature and politics to discrete spheres or prioritizing political exigency over craft, Barghouti takes on the difficult task of imagining a coincidence or coexistence of aesthetic and political demands.
Barghouti’s reference to cliché recognizes the difficulties of undertaking this project through language, and it is this preoccupation that is most clearly foregrounded in I Saw Ramallah. Through a combination of expository and narrative passages, Barghouti sets out a methodology for narrating Palestinian experience that is founded on the possibilities and limitations of language. He approaches language as the creation of human agents, and therefore as both subject to revision and capable of effecting real change. (p.72) As he writes in Autodafe, ‘Language is the key word. Language is a shared element between the world of the marketplace and that of poetry […] It is our attempt to restore to each word its specificity and resist the process of collective vulgarization and to establish new relations among words to create a fresh perception of things’ (2003b, 45). This claim importantly resembles Williams’ gloss, in the volume cited above, of Voloŝinov’s argument in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929). Signification, writes Williams, is not
an operation of and within ‘consciousness,’ which then becomes a state or process separated, a priori, from social material activity. It is, on the contrary, at once a distinctive material process – the making of signs – and, in the central quality of its distinctiveness as practical consciousness, is involved from the beginning in all other human social and material activity. (1977, 38)
From this premise, it follows that, for Barghouti, the type of political writing singled out by Ashrawi and Jayyusi is flawed because its authors have failed to appreciate the significance of language’s function as a social and material practice. Thus, in I Saw Ramallah, Barghouti passionately condemns
that rubbish they call the “poetry of the stones”’ because it ‘takes the accessible and the easy from the human condition and so blurs that condition instead of defining it, misrepresents it at the moment of pretending to celebrate it. It is the eternal difference between profundity and shallowness. Between art and political rhetoric.
Here, instead of repudiating engaged art, Barghouti argues that a work’s aesthetic value is chiefly located in its efforts to engage with the material world.
To produce writing that meets this standard, Barghouti proposes a narrative mode that emphasizes the evidence of the senses over accepted truths, above all the idea of an idyllic, pre-lapsarian Palestine:
The Occupation has created generations without a place whose colors, 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 [ʾiqāmatihā al-mulaffaqa, lit. ‘put-together residencies’] […] 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 (p.73) was in fact or 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.
(ISR, 62–63; 2008b, 74)
This project has some affinities with a Wordsworthian Romanticist poetics, given its emphasis on the primacy of sensory perception and its rejection of literary abstraction. However, Barghouti is not suggesting that the poet attempt to comprehend ‘the life of things’ for personal spiritual gain (Wordsworth, 2000, 133). Instead, the commitment to the ‘truthfulness of the five senses’ is a political strategy intended to benefit the collective. By identifying the narrative sanctification of Palestine as a negative effect of occupation rather than a mode of resistance, Barghouti contends that this trend must be countered through a focus on what life in Palestine is like now.
It is important to note that this stance does not indicate a rejection of narrative as such. As Williams points out, the idea that the ‘whole “real life process” can be known independently of language (“what men say”) and of its records (“men as narrated”)’ is an ‘objectivist fantasy,’ since ‘the very notion of history would become absurd if we did not look at “men as narrated” (when, having died, they are hardly likely to be accessible “in the flesh”)’ (1977, 60). Instead, Barghouti is arguing that material reality can and must be narrated, but that some narrations are truer to that reality than others. Those who would ‘dare to make it [Palestine] into an abstraction’ (ISR, 6) produce bad poetry, prose, or policy because they have allowed themselves to believe that their received understandings of Palestine as a place and as a human community represent a complete knowledge of it, and that there is therefore no need for reconsideration or revision. Significantly, and perhaps problematically, it follows that the kind of intellectual work Barghouti argues needs to be done can be carried out fully only by those who are either resident in historic Palestine or are allowed to visit it. For those who remain in ‘exile’ – a condition which has been common to most Palestinian artists and intellectuals, not only Barghouti and Said – the refusal of ‘abstracts and absolutes’ must continue to be an imaginative effort, albeit one that is distinct from an unquestioning commitment to an idealized vision of land and nation.
It is presumably for this reason that the book’s first chapter, ‘The Bridge,’ in which Barghouti describes crossing over the Jordan River into Palestine, provides one of the clearest example of what this ‘Palestinian aesthetic’ might look like, since the subject of the chapter is the moment of return itself. The chapter opens with an apparently simple catalogue of Barghouti’s physical sensations:
It is very hot on the bridge. A drop of sweat slides from my forehead down to the frame of my spectacles, then the lens. A mist envelops what I see, what I expect, what I remember. The view here shimmers with scenes that span a lifetime; a lifetime spent trying to get here. Here I am, crossing the Jordan River. I hear the creak of the wood under my feet. On (p.74) my left shoulder a small bag. I walk westward in a normal manner – or rather, a manner that appears normal. Behind me the world, ahead of me my world.
The passage shows evidence of a deliberate purging of all patriotic or symbolic description of the scene’s constituent objects. Barghouti’s interactions with these objects begin with sensory experience – he feels the sweat slide down his forehead, he hears the wood creak beneath his feet – but they soon give way to a more self-reflexive and self-conscious description of the poet’s thoughts and feelings. The view shimmers not simply because of the heat, but also because of the memories that Barghouti’s conscious mind superimposes on the scene; the ‘mist’ he ‘sees’ is almost certainly not literal, but rather a reference to the emotional haze mediating Barghouti’s perception of his surroundings. By the end of the passage, the distinction between ‘the world’ and ‘my world’ bears only a tenuous relationship to Barghouti’s sensory input, since it refers primarily to a cognitive differentiation between a place where Barghouti feels he belongs and the many other places that do not hold this significance for him. From the beginning of the narrative, then, Barghouti propels I Saw Ramallah beyond a Heideggerian celebration of the ‘ecstatic “thingliness”’ of the land of Palestine (Brennan, 2006, 15; Heidegger, 1975, 20–39). The ‘truthfulness’ of the senses is conveyed not only by what the eyes and ears take in, but also by the way in which Barghouti, as the human subject at the centre of the narrative, assimilates and interprets this information.
The rest of the chapter continues this line of argument, using the bridge across the Jordan as both a visual and thematic focal point for the scene. The bridge, Barghouti writes, is ‘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?’ (ISR, 9). The conspicuous absence of any human actor in this image serves as a pointed reference to the unnamed human beings who are in fact responsible for controlling the purpose and function of the bridge, introducing the idea that material objects take on symbolic significance as a result of their social function. It also illustrates, through the absurd personification of an inanimate object, the Brechtian affinities of Barghouti’s use of metaphorical language. Barghouti’s descriptions of objects repeatedly use improbable or unexpected terms of comparison that force readerly contemplation of the object’s material function by creating a distance between vehicle and tenor. Paulin observes, for instance, that Barghouti’s description of the dried-up Jordan as a ‘river like a parked car’ (ISR, 5) ‘is at once precise in its deliberate, slightly surreal, banality; on the other hand it is quietly ominous’ (Paulin, 2004). The river and a parked car share immobility, but nothing else; the immediate accessibility of the image is undermined by the unexpected association of the two unrelated objects. Barghouti demands that the reader recognize the image as an artificial one, a realization that should lead his or her attention back to the material (p.75) consequences of the evaporation of the river for the inhabitants of the West Bank. However, this revelation does not entirely displace the symbolic value of the Jordan, since the tragic quality of the image preserves the dry river’s status as a symbol of loss and defeat.
This technique is sufficiently counterintuitive to have escaped notice by some readers. Moughrabi, for instance, argues that the centrality of the bridge in this chapter comes from the bridge’s significance as a place of collective humiliation and a metaphor of ‘endurance, tenacity, and persistence’ for the Palestinian people as a whole (2003, 109–10). Yet by privileging the bridge’s metaphorical meaning over its physical uses, Moughrabi overlooks Barghouti’s emphasis on the interdependence of the real and symbolic functions of the bridge. The bridge’s metaphorical significance is not essential or fixed, but is instead created by the human beings who experience it in different ways:
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.
In this light, the wealth of opposing meanings that Barghouti considers assigning to his own crossing – ‘Is this a political moment? Or an emotional one? Or social? A practical moment? A surreal one? A moment of the body? Or of the mind?’ (ISR, 11) – signifies the various ways in which the bridge can potentially be understood, depending on the nature of the encounter and the interpretive paradigm used to comprehend it.
However, these figurative meanings must not be used to obscure the bridge’s primary function as a means of political control. When Barghouti succeeds in crossing the bridge into Palestine, he immediately encounters an Israeli soldier ‘wearing a yarmulke’ (‘bi-qubbaʿat al-mutadiyyinīn,’ lit. ‘with a religious hat on’) and is forced to remind himself that ‘[t]his is a real hat and not a literary conceit’ (ISR, 12; 2008b, 17). In the same way, the bridge is a real object that enables the soldier to control human traffic into Palestine, not merely a symbol of that control and even less a symbol of resistance to it. Thus, in his narration of his own moment of return, Barghouti first attempts to chronicle his reactions to the physical encounter with the bridge, an object whose cultural significance has been overdetermined by a history of dispossession and occupation; he then strives to renarrate it using language which is more attentive to its status as an object producing certain relations between individuals. In this respect, his encounter with the bridge is itself a moment of production, because it makes this process visible.
As Barghouti continues his journey into the West Bank, his attention shifts to the natural landscape as a site of confrontation between the symbolic and the material. During the taxi ride to Ramallah, he observes:
(p.76) I used to tell my Egyptian friends at university that Palestine was green and covered with trees and shrubs and wild flowers. What are these hills? Bare and chalky [kāliḥa wa jardāʾ, lit. ‘dull and bare’]. Had I been lying to people, then? Or has Israel changed the route to the bridge and exchanged it for this dull road [al-ṭarīq al-kāliḥ] that I do not remember ever seeing in my childhood?
Did I paint [hal qaddamtu, lit. ‘did I offer’] for strangers an ideal picture of Palestine because I had lost it? I said to myself, when [my son] Tamim comes here he will think I have been describing another country.
(ISR, 28; 2008b, 35)
The wry self-criticism Barghouti expresses here suggests a more general critique of the ‘pastoral’ quality typical of Palestinian landscape writing after 1948 (Cleary, 2002, 89). Although Samir El-Youssef writes in his review of I Saw Ramallah that at this moment Barghouti as author ‘realises how wide the gap is between the real land and the image in which it appears in his, and other’s [sic], poems’ (2001, 132), Barghouti’s repeated and exaggerated expressions of dismay suggest a rather different timescale. Rather than a genuine epiphany, the scene reads as an artificial staging of the returnee’s discovery that his dream of the land does not match the reality of it. He continues:
Had I been describing Deir Ghassanah with its surrounding olive groves, and convinced myself I was describing the whole country? Or was I describing Ramallah, the beautiful, lush, summer resort and thinking that each spot in Palestine was exactly like it? Did I really know a great deal about the Palestinian countryside?
Barghouti once again identifies this distortion as a detrimental effect of the Israeli occupation:
I have always believed that it is in the interests of an occupation, any occupation, that the homeland should be transformed into 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.
Here, as he does throughout the episodes set in Ramallah and Deir Ghassanah, Barghouti opposes the pastoral imaginary to the material benefits of urban development, in contrast to (for example) Raja Shehadeh, who tends to foreground the West Bank’s environmental degradation (2007). Barghouti’s dichotomy draws the reader’s attention to the landscape’s function as a physical and economic space where people continue to live, and, by extension, to the political failure of a national literature that continues to glorify a lost past instead of articulating the immediate need for a different future.
As part of his interrogation of the gap between the abstracted and tangible landscape, however, Barghouti’s narrative continues to engage with the conventions of Palestinian landscape writing by continually recycling (p.77) and resituating the tradition’s imagery. The most obvious application of this imagery is in his frequent references to trees. As Carol Bardenstein has argued, trees carry great symbolic force in Palestinian (and Israeli) poetry and prose as part of a discourse of rootedness and rootlessness, the trees’ physical properties standing in readily for the abstract concepts of belonging and diaspora (1998; 1999). On Barghouti’s first morning in Ramallah, one of the first natural objects he describes is a ‘green fig that covers a third of the hill next to Abu Hazim’s house.’ Yet in this passage, the tree serves not as a national symbol, but as a signal, like the bridge, of the narrative convergence of the metaphorical and the real. Barghouti demands of his reader how it is possible to ‘distinguish between ideologies and conflicting opinions and political theories on the one hand and this green fig’ (ISR, 37), setting himself the challenge of describing the tree using language that does not substitute the tree’s physical presence with its symbolic functions.
A subsequent episode suggests what this materially engaged form of landscape description might look like. On the way to Deir Ghassanah, Barghouti’s friend Husam stops the car on a hill above the village and invites Barghouti to look down at it from above, ‘[a]s though it were on a postcard’ (ISR, 64). From their vantage point, Husam calls Barghouti’s attention to another tree:
‘Mourid! I burned it down! But it came back and grew again. Would you believe it?’
Husam pointed at a palm tree growing out of the wall of his second-story room in Dar Salih. A palm tree spilling her young fronds into the air over the fields.
‘A palm tree, man [yā rajul]! Would you believe it?’
(ISR, 65; 2003a, 77)
Bardenstein identifies the tree of many Palestinian narratives as ‘embodying the experience of the Palestinian collective: thriving when it thrives (or being remembered as having thrived) […] or, in a large number of representations, manifesting the unnatural, disrupted, and disturbed condition of the people-land bond’ (1999, 153). In this passage, the healthy palm tree draws on both paradigms. As an embodiment of the collective, its determination to grow over and around the obstacle of the house invokes the Palestinian virtue of ṣumūd, or steadfastness. Yet at the same time, the obstacle that the tree has circumvented is a Palestinian home. Thus, while the palm tree growing out of the wall is not ‘unnatural’ – Barghouti notes that ‘plants […] grow in the stone and live for hundreds of years’ (ISR, 65), suggesting a symbiotic relationship between the tree and the house – it is also an indicator of powerlessness and poverty. Even as the palm tree flourishes, the house continues to decay, casting the palm tree in the role of a parasite indifferent to the people’s plight. By allowing the tree’s vigorousness (as opposed to deformity or weakness) to represent the disruption of the ‘people-land bond,’ Barghouti once again upsets a conventional relationship between vehicle (p.78) and tenor, insisting that an accurate representation of this relationship must privilege its present dynamics over those of an idealized past.
Taken together, Barghouti’s repeated refusals of a Palestinian national narrative which takes the Palestinian landscape as a static entity represented by an established set of signifiers present a cogent challenge to the idea of a Palestinian national consciousness based on a vanished national past instead of a shared civic future. Barghouti’s approach distances him from Benedict Anderson’s understanding of the nation as a ‘cultural artifact’ which is first discursively ‘imagined’ and then passed down to subsequent generations (1999, 4). Instead, Barghouti argues that the nation is continually produced through what Williams calls ‘the real processes – all of them physical and material, most of them manifestly so – which are masked and idealized as “consciousness and its products” but which, when seen without illusions, are themselves necessarily social material activities’ (1977, 62). The idea of the nation and the national identification of the human subject are, like all ideas, part of human action, and because they are conveyed through language, the poet-intellectual’s stock-in-trade, the poet is especially responsible for recognizing that language is a form of that action.
The fundamental condition of Palestinian life
Barghouti’s project coincides in several important respects with Said’s theorizations of the historicity of literature and the role of the critic. Said’s insistence on the ‘worldliness’ of literary texts (1983, 4) prefigures Barghouti’s remarks on the social function of poetry in its claim that human consciousness is inseparable from the historical events that shape it. Like Barghouti, Said sees individuals, specifically intellectuals, as capable of contesting and transforming dominant epistemologies, since ‘the individual consciousness is not naturally and easily a mere child of the culture, but a historical and social actor in it. And because of that perspective, which introduces circumstance and distinction where there had only been conformity and belonging, there is distance, or what we might call criticism’ (1983, 15). In Culture and Imperialism, Said extends this argument to the idea of an aesthetic which, like Barghouti’s, is evaluated in terms of its relationship to the real: ‘understanding that connection [between the novel and history] does not reduce or diminish the novels’ value as works of art: on the contrary, because of their worldliness, because of their complex affiliations with their real setting, they are more interesting and more valuable as works of art’ (1994a, 13). In pointing out these parallels, I do not mean to argue that Barghouti’s idea of intellectual agency is an imitation of Said’s, or that Said has any original claim to the idea that discourse is part of the material world, particularly since Said himself relied on a number of different sources for his argument, including Williams and Auerbach. However, it is worth noting that both Said and Barghouti conceive of literature as a means (p.79) of representing events in the world, and that both of them define the work of the intellectual as an act of counter-hegemonic representation. Moreover, in their comments on the relationship of Palestinian art to Palestinian reality, each insists that the task of representation is dependent upon aesthetic considerations that are specific to the Palestinian context. For Barghouti, the essential concern for Palestinian writers is ‘the language of the camera’; for Said, in one of his rare discussions of Palestinian literature, it is a text’s structure or form, exemplified by Kanafani’s use of the scene as a means of representing the present (1999a, 38).
It is perhaps because their intellectual and critical projects share these basic premises that Said so readily reads Barghouti’s representation of the experience of exile in terms of his own understanding of it in his foreword to the memoir. On the one hand, Said presents Palestinian ‘exile’ as a collective experience, its essential features remaining constant among a wide variety of circumstances. Thus, having made a ‘similar trip’ to Jerusalem himself, Said is already familiar with the ‘whirlwind of sensations and thoughts’ that Barghouti recounts in the narrative of his return (ISR, viii). However, because he goes on to argue that I Saw Ramallah is not so much a document of ‘repatriation’ as a voyage of self-discovery, Said paradoxically distances Barghouti’s experience from that of other Palestinians. In the most literal sense, the claim that I Saw Ramallah ‘reenacts exile’ (ISR, xi) is of course correct; the book does not end with its hero’s permanent return to an independent Palestine, since such a place does not exist. Yet Said’s insistence that this is the narrative’s project ‘at bottom’ glosses over the intellectual and emotional repatriation that takes place in the narrative through Barghouti’s efforts to depict Ramallah as it is now. By foregrounding the tragic provisionality of Barghouti’s narrative of return, Said overlooks the critique of the idealized exilic perspective that runs throughout the narrative.
There are certainly important reasons for Said to have interpreted Barghouti’s narrative as a document of the constitutive role of mass displacement in the formation of Palestinian identity. In addition to the 750,000 Palestinians who became refugees in 1948, 400,000 people were displaced in the war of 1967, about half of whom were 1948 refugees displaced for a second time (Pappé, 2004, 139). The commemoration of these catastrophic events and their aftermaths is one of the most powerful tools that Palestinian literature has at its disposal, and both Said and Mahmoud Darwish are justifiably famous for their eloquent representations of Palestinian exile. Darwish’s poem ‘We Travel Like Other People’ (‘Nusāfir ka-n-nās,’ 1983) opens with the line, ‘We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere [ilā ʾayyi shayʾ, lit. to nothing],’ defining the collective through its members’ experience of displacement (Darwish et al., 2005, 30–31). In After the Last Sky, first published in 1986, Said employs a similar tactic, claiming that Palestinians ‘are migrants and perhaps hybrids in, but not of, any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest (p.80) continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move’ (1999a, 164).
However, although the situation that Said and Darwish describe is ongoing, their use of an aesthetic of placelessness and wandering is also closely connected to the moment of these particular texts’ composition. Both After the Last Sky and ‘We Travel Like Other People’ were written soon after the PLO’s expulsion from Beirut, during a period when the Palestinian national movement was in deep crisis (Sayigh, 1997, 464–94, 589–606). As Salim Tamari has written:
[B]efore Oslo the images of Palestinian dismemberment and the paradigms of exile dominated the debate over Palestinian identity […] The politics and poetics of exile became so dominant in this formative period that the conditions, aspirations, and outlook of those Palestinians who remained in Palestine (almost half the total number of Palestinians) were virtually forgotten. (1999, 3–4)
I Saw Ramallah, on the other hand, was written during the early years of the post-Oslo period, when the focus of the debate shifted to the ‘juridical aspects of [Palestinian] identity’ and ‘the politics of statehood’ (Tamari, 1999, 3). At the same time, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank redirected the attention of many commentators from the ‘places of exile’ (‘al-manāfī’) where the PLO had been based to the ground of a potential Palestinian state (ISR, 134; 2008b, 161).6 In this context, the occupation takes on a new and more urgent significance, since it comes to represent (as it seemed at that time) the most immediate obstacle to Palestinian independence. This is not to paint Barghouti as a champion of Oslo or the Palestinian Authority, since he is deeply critical of both in I Saw Ramallah, but simply to situate his text as responding to and participating in a broader shift in the national imaginary of its time. This is a time that we are still in, particularly with regard to the Palestinian literature and other forms of cultural production in international circulation, which tends to emphasize Palestinian dispossession and deprivation in the West Bank and Gaza as the most pressing problem faced by the Palestinian national movement.
A more specific difficulty with Said’s reading of I Saw Ramallah, however, is that his claim is based on an incomplete citation of the paragraph in question. Barghouti certainly begins this passage by exploring the idea that exile is a permanent state of consciousness. He continues from the line Said quotes: ‘It is like slipping on the first step of a staircase. You tumble down to the end. It is also like the driving wheel breaking off in the hands of the driver. All the movement of the car will be haphazard and directionless’ (ISR, 131). Both images fit Said’s paraphrase, depicting exile as a catastrophic and irreversible condition. However, these images represent only the first stage of Barghouti’s thinking. He continues: ‘But the paradox is that strange cities are then never completely strange. Life dictates that the stranger acclimatize every day. This might be difficult at the beginning, but (p.81) it becomes less difficult with the passage of days and years. Life does not like the grumbling of the living’ (ISR, 131).7 The import of the full passage, then, is that while Barghouti’s ‘stranger’ (‘al-gharīb,’ also ‘exile’ [2008b, 157]) may initially feel that his displacement has caused him to ‘become uprooted forever,’ he is compelled to go on living, forming new connections and losing the immediacy of his relationship with his former home. The injustice of this experience lies in the fact that it is not chosen, but forced; the tragedy of it, however, comes in part from allowing oneself to be trapped in the horror of the initial stage, intent on retrieving a past that is irrecoverable. Thus, while Barghouti repeatedly expresses his rage at the Israeli state’s dispossession and displacement of the Palestinians, he refuses to thematize exile, with its attendant connotations of either nostalgia or heterodoxy, as the defining characteristic of a collective Palestinian existence.
Instead, I Saw Ramallah juxtaposes its narrative of Barghouti’s own experience of exile with an attempt to account for those Palestinians whose lives are defined not by the experience of displacement but by the occupation. This differentiated demographic imaginary provides an important corrective to the privileging of exile in Said’s foreword. This does not mean that Barghouti thinks his subjects who remain in the village of Deir Ghassanah or in Ramallah have a more accurate or authentic view of what it is to be Palestinian than he does. On the contrary, in his critique of intifada poetry noted above, he writes that ‘what is interesting is that the writers who lived under the Occupation and lived the Intifada fell into the same error as the writers of the Diaspora’ by failing to ‘penetrate to the essence of their material’ (ISR, 160). His project is rather to highlight the gulf between the experiences of Palestinians living ‘under the Occupation’ and in ‘the Diaspora,’ even as he identifies both groups as part of a connected whole.
For the most part, this effort is carried out through juxtapositions of the material deprivations Barghouti witnesses in Deir Ghassanah with his description of his own relatively high standard of living during his exile in Budapest. In his account of his return to Deir Ghassanah, Barghouti begins by recalling the village’s agricultural bounty in his childhood, when the villagers ‘grew every plant that would grow in the climate of this land,’ from honey-apples to pomegranates to spinach (ISR, 86), and the courtyard of his childhood home was dominated by yet another tree, this time a ‘huge fig tree with a massive trunk and spreading branches’ which had ‘fed our grandfathers and our fathers – there was not one person in the village who had not tasted its delicious fruit’ (ISR, 55). In the present day, however, the farms are ‘overrun with brambles’ (ISR, 87) and the fig tree has been ‘cut off at the point where its awesome trunk met the earth’ (ISR, 55), leaving a large cement block in its place. Barghouti’s aunt Umm Talal, now living alone in the five-family home, says she was forced to cut the tree down:
‘I’ve grown old and weak. People have emigrated and people have died (p.82) [hājar illī hājar u māt illī māt]. To whom should I feed the figs, my son? No one to pick the fruit and no one to eat. The figs stay on the tree till they dry and litter the whole yard. It wearied me and I cut it down.
(ISR, 56; 2008b, 68)
While this scene sets up what is ostensibly a fairly standard contrast between the pastoral past and the ‘bad modernity’ (Cleary, 2002, 90) of the Israeli present, Barghouti uses this imagery to illustrate the economic collapse that has taken place in Deir Ghassanah in his absence. The West Bank’s economic transformation after 1967 was the result of a convergence of factors including the confiscation of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, which led to ‘land hunger’ among Palestinian residents; the introduction of modern agricultural methods, which increased production capabilities for some small landowners but reduced the overall number of agricultural jobs; the employment of large numbers of West Bank residents within Israel, particularly in the decades between the June 1967 war and the Oslo agreement; and the ‘mass emigration’ of West Bankers to the Gulf States in the 1970s (Pappé, 2004, 206; Farsakh, 2002). Barghouti summarizes this history thus:
Everybody’s income here is from the olive and its oil. People who can still work, work in the fields: men and women together as they have always done. But the work of sons or grandsons or husbands in the Gulf is the most important source of income […] When thousands of Palestinians were thrown out of Kuwait after the Gulf War the economic situation of many families in the village was affected.
The loss of the fig tree and its fruit signifies not only the loss of Palestinian sovereignty over the land, but also, and more crucially, the dispersal of the Palestinian population and the narrowing of local industry to a single cash crop. In this light, the narrative’s pastoral thematics are not simply a lament for what has been lost, but a condemnation of the Israeli occupation’s disruption of the local economy.
Certainly, Barghouti’s attention to the dispersion of the population of the village to the Gulf and elsewhere could be viewed as an assertion of the centrality of exile to Palestinian experience, and thus align him more closely with Said’s emphasis on displacement. However, his concomitant effort to draw attention to the contrast between the poverty he witnesses in Deir Ghassanah and his own relative material comfort outside of Palestine evinces a reluctance to collapse the different experiences of displacement and dispossession into one another. In his garden in Budapest, the fig tree is replaced by an apple tree, ‘with children always climbing its branches and playing on the pistachio-green grass underneath it, as though it bore both apples and children’ (ISR, 134). In contrast to the blighted Palestinian landscape, the land of Barghouti’s ‘place of exile’ is both fertile and accessible to its inhabitants. In a similarly pronounced juxtaposition, Barghouti notes that his movements from place to place have been marked by the abandonment of a (p.83) series of decorative houseplants – ‘my yucca, my syngonium, my dracaena, my shefflera, my bear’s foot, my fern’ (ISR, 91) – which he has had to distribute ‘among friends in the country that leaves me or that I leave’ (ISR, 92) each time he moves on. Although the loss of the houseplants recalls the originary loss of the land of Palestine, they are not food-bearing plants, and so their loss has no effect upon his survival. For Barghouti, then, the ‘pleasures of exile,’ in Said’s invocation of George Lamming’s phrase (2002c, 186), signify not the privileged understanding of more than one culture, but the material disparity between most of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and those in the bourgeois diaspora.
Key to this presentation, however, is the idea that these experientially different constituencies nevertheless share some common goals that identify them as a national collective on political grounds. While Barghouti’s discussion of what these goals might be remains fairly general, his strategic deployment of the idea of the ‘we’ puts forward a Palestinian national formation based on a coalitional, rather than identitarian, politics. Barghouti sets the stage for this intervention by considering the divisions among Palestinians in earlier historical moments, thus allowing for comparisons between past disunities and possible forms of solidarity in the present. In an extended recollection of his childhood and adolescence in Ramallah, Barghouti uses the first person plural to refer to the group of children with whom he grew up. This is in keeping with the ‘strong tradition of what might be called urban patriotism’ in Palestine, which predates the Palestinian encounter with Zionism (Khalidi, 1997, 153). This ‘we’ is a stable collective, but it is not an exhaustive one, for the group is continually confronted with other forms of collectivity:
While we were still in short trousers we were shaken by the news of the martyrdom of our fellow student Raja Abu ‘Amasha in [the] demonstrations [against the Baghdad Pact …] in Ramallah we celebrated the union between Egypt and Syria and the birth of the United Arab Republic, and there we wept when the union was dissolved […] we heard for the first time of the ‘socialist’ revolution coming out of Egypt and wondered, we young schoolchildren, about the meaning of the term.
Although the group to which the pronoun (or in Arabic, the verb form) refers does not change throughout this passage, the various contexts in which it is used indicates that the originary ‘we’ of the city can also serve as a building block for the construction of other collectivities, which are based during this period on the linguistic and political affiliations of pan-Arab nationalism. As a group, the young people of Ramallah are instilled with a sense that the social and political upheavals taking place throughout the Middle East during the 1950s and ’60s are relevant to their own lives. Although they follow these developments ‘with the minds of teenagers’ (ISR, 39), the experience awakens them to the idea that they might share goals with people they have never met. The episode highlights the role of the media in producing this (p.84) common sense of identity and purpose among geographically distant groups: Barghouti makes reference to both print and radio media outlets, including the ‘illegal pamphlets’ (ISR, 39) circulating the West Bank, the ‘Voice of the Arabs’ radio program, and the newspapers al-Difāʿ, al-Jihād, and Filasṭīn.8 As in Anderson’s discussion of the role of print media in creating American national identities distinct from those of the Spanish and British empires (1999, 47–65), these publications inform the residents of Ramallah of events in other Arabic-speaking locations and strengthen their sense of themselves as part of a community of Arab listeners and readers.
However, this nostalgic account of Arab nationalism’s heyday shifts abruptly from an Andersonian model of the nation as imagined community to a retrospective critique of that model, which allowed the Palestinians of Ramallah to privilege their Arab nationalism over their solidarity with other Palestinians. Barghouti writes:
How can we explain today, now that we have grown older and wiser, that we on the West Bank treated our people [ʾahlanā, lit. ‘our relatives’ or ‘our family’], as refugees [al-lājiʾīn]? Yes, our own people, banished by Israel from their coastal cities and villages in 1948, our people who had to move from one part of the homeland [al-waṭan] to another and came to live in our cities and towns, we called them refugees! We called them immigrants [muhājirīn]! […] We were familiar with these words, comfortable using them. How is it that we did not ask ourselves then about their meaning? How is it that the adults did not scold us for using them?
(ISR, 40–41; 2008b, 50)
Barghouti uses biological language (ʾahlanā) to designate the Palestinian nation here, which might seem to privilege a filiative form of belonging over the affiliative anti-imperialism of pan-Arabism. But the idea of the nation being advanced is not simply given or natural. It is based on a common presence in a defined territory (al-waṭan) and on the shared interests of a disparate group of people who also have never previously met. Barghouti describes a collective whose material and political needs are distinct from those of Egyptians, Syrians, and Iraqis, and different again from those of the Israelis who control the territory. The charge against Arab nationalism, then, is that it provided an insufficiently particular understanding of the circumstances that only affected Palestinians, which meant that it upheld identitarian divisions between Palestinians that were inimical to their common wellbeing. The idea of the Palestinian ‘family’ is thus a rather loose metaphor, positing an unrealized alternative past in which the 1948 refugees were not considered immigrants but fellow nationals.
By lamenting the absence of a sense of national unity in the period between 1948 and 1967, Barghouti also insists that a productive and genuine solidarity requires a more heterogeneous characterization of what it is to be Palestinian than its current articulations allow. In Barghouti’s narrative of the present, this broader conceptualization is intimated through the use of (p.85) a first person plural that includes any Palestinian Arab whose quality of life is degraded by Israeli economic, military, or immigration policies. This idea extends to the right to life itself, as illustrated by Barghouti’s emphasis on the frequency of violent and premature death among Palestinians. His own grief for deceased family members and friends, particularly his brother Mounif and his assassinated friends Naji al-Ali and Ghassan Kanafani, is figured as part of a collective Palestinian bereavement: ‘This is not a personal matter that concerns me alone. Our catastrophe and our pains [wājiʿunā wa mawājiʿunā]9 are repeated and proliferate day after day […] Our calendars are broken, overlaid with pain, with bitter jokes and the smell of extinction’ (ISR, 171; 2008b, 205). The daily repetition of these tragedies shifts the emphasis from the historical domain to the present, reiterating the idea that the Palestinian nation is continually produced by human action, including the negative, coercive actions of Kanafani and al-Ali’s assassinations and Mounif’s forced exile in Paris.
The disconsolate national imaginary that Barghouti puts forward in this passage goes beyond a collective inventory of individual stories of loss, since it is defined above all by the increasingly remote chance of an end to the legal and geographical limbo in which most Palestinians live. He continues:
Our future grew more mysterious, more unknown with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, then the War of the Camps, then Oslo. And it is still mysterious, now, today. Since June 5, 1967 we have been left to sort out our lives in the lengthening shadow of the defeat, the defeat that has not yet ended.
Here ‘we’ refers to a people who are joined not by their material circumstances, but by the fact that each of them has had to ‘adapt – even though with difficulty – to the dictated reality’ (ISR, 140), whatever that may be, which has been imposed upon them by the Israeli government. Thus, it is their total subjection to Israeli policy, not a particular way of looking at the world, that connects the members of Barghouti’s Palestinian nation. The specifically national character of this collective is defined less by the idea of a shared past or a specific territorial claim than by a general demand for Palestinian self-determination, albeit one that is qualified by Barghouti’s anxiety about the potential insularity of an independent Palestinian state: ‘Am I hungry for my own borders? I hate borders, boundaries, limits. The boundaries of the body, of writing, of behavior, of states […] Now I want borders that later I will come to hate’ (ISR, 38).
Barghouti remains unwilling throughout the narrative to define this shared set of goals any further, and he continues to problematize his own ability to identify them, most notably on the occasion of his poetry reading in Deir Ghassanah. Barghouti’s initial fear of a lukewarm reception is not realized, and he feels able to claim a place for himself as part of the village community: ‘I recite in front of “my uncles,”’ he says, ‘as I called them when I took hold of the microphone, in front of the headman, the plowman, the (p.86) shepherd, the mothers, the grandmothers, the educated, the illiterate, and even the children, all gathered in this village square in which a poet had never stood before’ (ISR, 83). Yet Barghouti goes on to complicate the image of a natural rapport between himself and the villagers by ending the scene not with a final affirmation of his sense of belonging, but with what he describes as a ‘cruel and hurtful thought’: ‘What does Deir Ghassanah know of you, Mourid? What do your people know of you now?’ (ISR, 84–85). He admits that he knows just as little about them:
Have they not changed also? Umm Talal, unusually, speaks about politics. They tell me that many of the young people of the village are enthusiastic supporters of Hamas […] Perhaps if it was I who had carried on living there I would have knocked down or built, or planted or cut down trees with my own hands. Who knows? They lived their time here and I lived my time there. Can the two times be patched together? And how? They have to be.
This moment represents a sober reckoning with the differences between the villagers’ understanding of what it has meant to be Palestinian since 1967 and Barghouti’s own. Their decisions to cut down the fig tree or to support Hamas are decisions that, as human actors, they have chosen to make, and Barghouti seeks to comprehend those decisions instead of condemning them. He recognizes that his position of prestige at the reading is another privilege of exile, made possible only by his long absence: ‘These boys and girls, if they had seen me with their fathers and their uncles in their homes every evening for thirty years, would they have asked for my autograph in their books as a strange poet?’ (ISR, 86).
This scene, with its affirmation and subsequent deconstruction of communal intimacy, once again emphasizes the inadequacy of a Palestinian national formation based on a shared sense of identity or experience. It also begins to theorize a specifically literary response to this problem, suggesting that the materialist and located poetics I explored in the first half of this chapter might not only make it possible to distinguish between different forms of Palestinian experience, but can also offer a way of ‘patch[ing]’ the ‘two times’ together. The poems that Barghouti reads in this scene approach national ideas – the demand that Israel be held to account for Palestinian suffering, the idea of a Palestinian national culture – through particular events, like the death of Mounif (ISR, 81), describing these publicly resonant personal experiences in rich sensory and emotional detail. Barghouti refuses to present his work as an expression of a collective consciousness, exilic or otherwise: the poet ‘clings to his own way of receiving the world and his own way of transmitting it’ (ISR, 133). Yet a more dynamic and provisional form of such a consciousness can briefly take shape in the act of literary transmission itself, in the circulation and reception of individual texts. ‘When I write poems,’ Barghouti reflects before the poetry reading, ‘the audience is not defined. But they become defined when I am asked to read. The specific (p.87) receiver. This alone makes the choice easier’ (ISR, 79). During the reading, he has a ‘powerful and all-enveloping’ intuition of what the residents of Deir Ghassanah want to hear: ‘These people need no more bitterness. Let there be in your poems an indication – however faint – that, in the end, life goes on with the living’ (ISR, 82). Yet as soon as the reading is over, he is reminded again of the contingency of any shared sense of desire and purpose. The commonality that he glimpses must be continually reforged and redefined through the encounter between listener (or reader), writer, and text.
Near the end of the memoir, Barghouti hints that I Saw Ramallah might itself provide an imaginative framework that is flexible enough for this task. He writes:
I want to attach [waṣl] one moment to another, to attach childhood to age, to attach the present to the absent and all presents to all absences, to attach exiles to the homeland and to attach what I have imagined to what I see now. We have not lived together and we have not died together.
(ISR, 163; 2008b, 195)
In I Saw Ramallah, this task is attempted through the form of the narrative, which binds the members of the collective through its thematic coherence and associative sequencing; through its aesthetic, which emphasizes the ability of individual actors and creators to produce social change; and through the shared imperative of ending the Israeli occupation, which is the dominant refrain of the narrative. By staging what Said sweepingly calls the ‘Palestinian experience’ (ISR, xi) as an encounter between diasporic and non-diasporic Palestinians, Barghouti draws attention to the immense difficulties that Palestinians face, not simply on the long-deferred day when ‘the scattered peoples of Palestine […] gath[er] together in a single place called “Palestine”’ (Bowman, 1999, 57), but in their definition of common desires and goals at the present time. The urgent task for Palestinian intellectuals, therefore, is to acknowledge and explore the historical events and contemporary material realities that divide Palestinians from one another so that the differences between them are neither elided nor essentialized; it is only in this way that a viable solidarity can be achieved.
I Saw Ramallah might be criticized for its failure to envision a more pragmatic agenda for bringing about this kind of unity or for Barghouti’s utopian insistence on the revolutionary potential of materialist poetics at a time of ongoing catastrophe. However, the great strength of this narrative is that in its evocation of what it means to be a Palestinian today, it manages to avoid the temptation to identify a Palestinian essence or to construct a suitably representative or authentic position from which to speak, a problem that occurs not only in some of Said’s writings but in those of many other artists and critics seeking to represent the Palestinian cause. Instead, by asserting that the poet-intellectual has an important role to play in the refutation of received truths and in the creation of more truthful modes of understanding, Barghouti constructs a narrative that is more hopeful than (p.88) Said’s reading would suggest. The book ends not with a reinvocation of exile, but on an optimistic and expectant note: ‘In Amman I will wait for Tamim’s permit. I will return here with him. He will see it. He will see me in it, and we shall ask all the questions after that’ (ISR, 182). Barghouti’s English-language readers are invited to witness – to ‘see’ – this declaration, and to work out their own relationship to the difficult and deliberate forms of connection and solidarity that Barghouti lays before them.
(1) A few of Barghouti’s poems had appeared in English translation before I Saw Ramallah was published, in Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s PROTA-funded anthology Modern Arabic Poetry (1987), but I Saw Ramallah was his first book-length publication in English. Barghouti’s collections available in English translation at the time of writing are A Small Sun (2003c) and Midnight and Other Poems (2008a). A sequel to I Saw Ramallah, entitled I Was Born There, I Was Born Here appeared in Arabic in 2009 and in English in 2011.
(2) The publication of an English translation by the American University in Cairo Press is awarded to all winners of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal.
(5) Salah D. Hassan notes that Jayyusi’s introduction to the Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature espouses ‘a rather reactionary position’ by using ‘modernism’ and ‘avant-garde’ as ‘code words for stylistically mature writing’ (2003, 20).
(6) Barghouti uses both ‘al-manfā’ and ‘al-ghurba,’ which mean ‘exile’ or ‘estrangement,’ to describe the experience of individual and collective displacement.
(7) The Arabic reads: ‘But the difference inheres [takmun, lit. “hides”] in this: (p.171) strange cities do not stay [taʿūd, lit. “return”] completely strange [al-mufāraqa takmun fī ann al-mudun al-gharība lā taʿūd gharībatan tamāman]. Life dictates that the stranger adapt every day. This can be difficult at the beginning, but it becomes less difficult with the passage of days and years. Life is not pleased by [lā yuʿ jibuhā] the grumbling of the living’ (2008b, 157, my translation).
(8) For an evaluation of the role of these and other local newspapers in constructing Palestinian national consciousness (in addition and in opposition to Arab nationalism), see Khalidi (1997, 119–44).
(9) Literally, ‘our pains and our suffering’; the two words share the same root. Soueif’s use of the word ‘catastrophe’ in the English translation implies a link to the nakba of 1948 which does not appear in the original phrasing.