I Saw Ramallah (Ra’aytu Ram Allah) By Mourid Barghouti

For Kutub’s September 8th meeting, to coincide with The Third Line’s September group exhibition Roads Were Open / Roads Were Closed, which explored the varied affects and ways one records/remembers trauma and conflict, we met to discuss Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (Ra’aytu Ram Allah).

A momentous yet bittersweet return to his homeland, I Saw Ramallah is candid and poignant memoir of Barghouti’s 30 years of exile. Filled with anecdotes about the ways Palestinian life has become dominated by exterior things such as permits, telephones, travel impediments, roadblocks, deportations, long hours of detainment in airports, and constant encounters with unfriendly borders – as well as the “normality” and pleasure that a person can experience, even in exile, I Saw Ramallah is insightful, unapologetic and beautifully written.

I Saw Ramallah was translated from the Arabic by Ahdaf Soueif, published by American University in Cairo Press in 2000and includes a foreword by Edward Said.

For more information and reviews please visit:

http://mouridbarghouti.net/Mouridweb/english/poetry.htm selections of Barghouti’s poetry

Profile of Mourid Barghouti by Amina Elbendary, al-Ahram Weekly, 23 January, 2003 –  Shades of greenhttp://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/622/profile.htm

An Essay by Mourid Barghouti, New Internationalist, August, 2003  and reprinted in the New Internationalist, 08 Sep. 2008. Verbicide: Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti resists the political language of stupidity and hate – http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0JQP/is_359/ai_107489485

Review of I Saw Ramallah in the Daily Telegraph, 9 March 2004 by David Pryce-Jones titled The West Bank in black and whitehttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=%2Farts%2F2004%2F03%2F07%2Fbobar07.xml

Review of I Saw Ramallah in the Washington Report, by Hugh Galford Jan-Feb 2001 – http://www.arabworldbooks.com/Readers2002/articles/ramallahE.html

Review of I Saw Ramallah on Al Jadid: http://www.aljadid.com/reviews/Jensen%20on%20Barghouthi.Book%20review.html

Forty years of displacement: Interview with Mourid Barghouti by Bill Parry, The Electronic Intifada, 15 June 2007http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article7032.shtml

NOTE: As an aside, please find below links to further information about Tamin al Barghouti, Mourid’s son, who we discussed during the conversation about I Saw Ramallah and who recently won acclaim himself for his poem On Jerusalem, which you can see him recite (in Arabic) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GGP89OhAaU

Three poems (two in English and one in French) by Tamin al-Barghouti at http://tamimbarghouti.net/Tamimweb/English/poetry/1mainpoetry.htm

Themes and discussion points for Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah:

Gratitude for different voices within the group – Palestinians in the group were glad to hear Westerns reflect on the work from their point of view, Westerners thanked Palestinians for sharing their personal experiences with many of the same issues of exile displacement and transnational diasporic realities. The book drew up parallels and deepened understandings of experiences in Northern Ireland, Egypt, and the USA, and expats of all nationalities reflected on the universal difficulty of returning home.

Accessibility in Barghouti’s ability to passionately yet without overt judgment, tell his story. Some readers felt as though the lack of overt anger would help the piece be read and identified with by readers of many diverse backgrounds.

A writing style between poetry, memory and prose. Given Barghouti’s mix of autobiography, fiction, biography, history, and even poetry – within a largely stream of consciousness format – this work brought the reader literally into his head, which serves to make the book personal on a wholly other level or which serves to confuse, to complicate.

The personal is political – Barghouti’s experience and telling of this experience mixes personal with political, to the point where they cannot be separated from one another. Can one ever consider the one without the other?

Barghouti presents everydayness of displacement: “Politics is the family at breakfast. Who is there and who is absent and why. Who misses whom when the coffee is poured into the waiting cups. Can you, for example, afford your breakfast? Where are your children who have gone forever from their usual chairs”

Note Displacement’s impact on the very concepts /definitions / experience of family and location. Rather than a place, “home” and “family” have become extractions and ideals.  The displaced is separated from their larger social context, not just their physical country or house.

Barghouti posits that a stranger or a refugee cannot help being self-absorbed …. “It is enough for a person to go through the first experience of uprooting to become uprooted forever” …and someone entrapped by his very memories of the place he cannot return to: The displaced person becomes a stranger to his memories and so he tries to cling to them.”

Evocative imagery. Some of the details and the poetry with which they are described serve less to describe than to act as literary symbols: i.e. the bridge over a river run dry with water representing the artificial, tenuous nature of displacement. One sees how a trauma is given new dimension when viewed by a poet’s eye?

Can one [displaced] ever truly go home? In some ways Barghouti feel as displaced at home as he does abroad, in some ways he is more at home in his adopted countries of exile than to the village of his boyhood.

The view of the other – how does Barghouti see the individual Israeli who make up the settlements who make up the occupying force? To further complicate this feeling towards Israel and the Israeli the group felt strongly that Barghouti would not want to make exiles again out of the Israelis, as their sons would grow up as his did, uprooted from the house of his father and his father’s father.

“I wonder what their lives look like on the inside? Who lives in this settlement? Where were they before they were brought here? Do their kids play football behind those walls? .. Do they make love with guns strapped to their sides? Do they hang loaded machine guns on their bedroom wall?”

“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. Their settlements are their book, their first form. They are our absence. The settlements are the Palestinian Diaspora itself.”

Survivor/ Returnee guilt: Barghouti sees Palestine not only for himself, but for those who died exiled and those who have still not been able to return as well. His joy at being back is tinged with guilt that he, and not they, are returning. “The stranger who can return to his first place is different from the stranger whose displacement plays with him without him having a say. “

Poetry of the translation – unlike many other books we have read, here the translator did the text a powerful justice. The translator is a friend of the author and a writer herself, famous for The Map of Love. As the translator Ahdaf Soueif describes in an interview with Ahmede Hussain, which you can read in its entirety at http://ahmedehussain.blogspot.com/2007/01/interview-with-ahdaf-soueif.html , this translation was undertaken to try to capture the poetry of Barghouti’s words:

“After several false starts I found that over-deliberateness was producing a stale text. I found myself whispering the English as I read the Arabic and I had the idea to translate it straight into a tape-recorder. I was concerned to preserve the immediacy and freshness of the effect of the Arabic. Also, this technique gave me total immersion. I kept my eyes on the words on the page and spoke the English into the tape-recorder as I read the Arabic. Of course I edited the text twice after it was transcribed. But I kept the English in line with the contours of the Arabic in terms of the tense, for example, the focus of the sentence, the word order where possible.”

The inaccuracy of memory or the idealization of the displaced or the passage of time that changes the scene?

Ex. On the drive north to Ramallah, he’s surprised to see a barren, rocky landscape instead of the flowering hills of his memory? Is his memory false, or have things changed / been changed)? And is it possible for him to be known by this place / these people that he has been apart from for so long?

Did I really know a great deal about the Palestinian countryside?” – and
What does Deir Ghassanah know of you, Mourid? What do your people know of you now? What do they know of the things that you have been through, the things that have shaped you…throughout the thirty years that you have lived far from them?…You too do not know the times they have been through. Their features that you remember are constant and altered at the same time. Have they not changed too?  “They lived their time here and I lived my time there. Can the two times be patched together?”

2 comments on “I Saw Ramallah (Ra’aytu Ram Allah) By Mourid Barghouti

  1. anne glass says:

    L’ecriture de M. Barghouti dans “Retour a Ramallah” est etonnante de poesie, de musique, d’humanite. Son recit m’a touchee par son humilite, sa simplicite, mais aussi sa verite. J’ai trouve ce livre emouvant, mais aussi tres enrichissant.

    [Trans: M. Barghouti writing in “Retour a Ramallah” is surprisingly poetic, full of musicality and humanity. I was touch by his story, his humility and simplicity, but also his honesty. I found this book moving and very enriching.]

  2. […] moved by the calm, critical beauty of his prose—translated beautifully by Ahdaf Souief.” Read Kutub “A writing style between poetry, memory and […]

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