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I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti


A fierce and moving work and an unparalleled rendering of the human aspects of the Palestinian predicament.

Barred from his homeland after 1967’s Six-Day War, the poet Mourid Barghouti spent thirty years in exile—shuttling among the world’s cities, yet secure in none of them; separated from his family for years at a time; never certain whether he was a visitor, a refugee, a citizen, or a guest. As he returns home for the first time since the Israeli occupation, Barghouti crosses a wooden bridge over the Jordan River into Ramallah and is unable to recognize the city of his youth. Sifting through memories of the old Palestine as they come up against what he now encounters in this mere “idea of Palestine,” he discovers what it means to be deprived not only of a homeland but of “the habitual place and status of a person.” A tour de force of memory and reflection, lamentation and resilience, I Saw Ramallah is a deeply humane book, essential to any balanced understanding of today’s Middle East.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400032662
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/13/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 509,303
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.45(d)

About the Author

MOURID BARGHOUTI was born in the West Bank in 1944 and graduated from Cairo University in 1967. His poems have been published in Beirut, Amman, and Cairo, and his collected works were published in Beirut in 1997. He lives in Cairo.

Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and England. She is the author of the novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love and the story collections Aisha and Sandpiper.

Edward W. Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and a memoir, Out of Place.

Read an Excerpt



It is very hot on the bridge. A drop of sweat slides from my I 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 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 last thing I remember of this bridge is that I crossed it on my way from Ramallah to Amman thirty years ago. From Amman I went to Cairo and back to college. I was in my fourth and final year at Cairo University.

The moming of June 5,1967: the Latin exam. Only a few left to go: Latin, then two days later 'the Novel,' then 'Drama.' And then I would have kept my promise to Mounif and fulfilled my mother's wish to see one of her sons a college graduate. The previous exams-History of European Civilization, Poetry, Literary Criticism, and Translation-had gone by with no surprises. Nearly there. After the results come out I shall go back to Amman, and from there-across this same bridge-to Ramallah, where I learn from my parents' letters that they have started to decorate our apartment in al-Liftawi's building in preparation for my return with the Certificate.

It is very hot in the examination hall. A drop of sweat slides down my brow to the frame of my spectacles. It stops, then slides down the lens, and from there to the Latin words in the exam paper: altus, alta, altum-but what is this noise outside? Explosions? Are these the maneuvers of the Egyptian Army? The talk in the last few days has all been of war. Is it war? I wipe my spectacles with a tissue, check through my answers, and leave my seat. I hand my paper to the monitor. A flake of yellow paint from the ceiling falls onto the exam papers on the table between us. He looks up at the ceiling in disgust and I walk out.

I walk down the steps of the Faculty of Arts. Madame Aisha--our middle-aged colleague who enrolled in the university after her husband's death--is sitting in her car under the campus palm trees. She calls out to me in her French accent and disturbed manner: "Mourid! Mourid! War has broken out. We've brought down twenty-three planes!"

I lean into the car, holding onto the door. Ahmad Sa'id is ecstatic on the car radio. The patriotic anthems ring loud. A group of students collect around us. Comments fly around, assured and doubtful. I tighten my right fist on the bottle of Pelican ink that is always with me in the exams. Until this day I do not know why with my arm I drew a wide arc in the air and, aiming at the trunk of that palm tree, hurled the bottle of ink with all my strength so in that midnight-blue collision it burst into fragments of glass that settled on the lawn.

And from here, from Voice of the Arabs radio station, Ahmad Sa'id tells me that Ramallah is no longer mine and that I will not return to it. The city has fallen.

The examinations are suspended for weeks. The examinations resume. I graduate. I am awarded a BA from the Department of English Language and Literature, and I fail to find a wall on which to hang my certificate.

Those who happened to be outside the homeland when war broke out try in every possible way to get a reunion permit. They try through their relatives in Palestine and through the Red Cross. Some--like my brother Majid--dare to take the risk of smuggling themselves in.

Israel allows in hundreds of elderly people and forbids hundreds of thousands of young people to return. And the world finds a name for us. They called us naziheen, the displaced ones.

Displacement is like death. One thinks it happens only to other people. From the summer of '67 I became that displaced stranger whom I had always thought was someone else.

The stranger is the person who renews his Residence Permit. He fills out forms and buys the stamps for them. He has to constantly come up with evidence and proofs. He is the one who is always asked: "And where are you from, brother?" Or he is asked: "Are summers hot in your country?" He does not care for the details that concern the people of the country where he finds himself or for their 'domestic' policy. But he is the first to feel its consequences. He may not rejoice in what makes them happy but he is always afraid when they are afraid. He is always the 'infiltrating element' in demonstrations, even if he never left his house that day. 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 moment. Every moment for him has its passing immortality. His memory resists ordering. He lives essentially in that hidden, silent spot within himself. He is careful of his mystery and dislikes those who probe into it. He lives the details of another life that does not interest those around him, and when he speaks he screens those details rather than declare them. He loves the ringing of the telephone, yet fears it. The stranger is told by kind people: "You are in your second home here and among your kin." He is despised for being a stranger, or sympathized with for being a stranger. The second is harder to bear than the first.

At noon on that Monday I was struck by displacement.

Was I mature enough to realize that there were strangers like me living in their own capitals? Their countries unoccupied by foreign forces? Did Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi look into the future and write--in his distant past--our current estrangement in the second half of the twentieth century? Is this second half longer than the first? I do not know.

But I do know that the stranger can never go back to what he was. Even if he returns. It is over. A person gets 'displacement' as he gets asthma, and there is no cure for either. And a poet is worse off, because poetry itself is an estrangement. Where does asthma come into it? Is it the coughing fit I had while waiting those long hours on the Jordanian bank before the 'other side' (as they are called by the Palestinian police) would permit my feet to touch this boundary between two times?

I had arrived from Amman to this Jordanian side of the bridge. My brother 'Alaa drove me. His wife, Elham, and my mother were with us. We left our house in Shmaysani at nine-fifteen in the morning and got here before ten. This was the farthest point they were allowed to reach. I said goodbye, and they turned back to Amman.

I sat in a waiting-room set up exactly at the end of the bridge. I asked the Jordanian officer about the next step.

"You wait here till we receive a signal from them, then you cross the bridge."

I waited a while in the room before I realized it was going to be a long wait. I went to the door and stood looking at the river.

I was not surprised by its narrowness: the Jordan was always a very thin river. This is how we knew it in childhood. The surprise was that after these long years it had become a river without water. Almost without water. Nature had colluded with Israel in stealing its water. It used to have a voice, now it was a silent river, a river like a parked car.

The other bank displays itself clearly to the eye. And the eye sees what it sees. Friends who had crossed the river after a long absence told me they had wept here.

I did not weep.

That slight numbness did not rise from my chest to my eyes. No one was with me to tell me what my face looked like during those hours of waiting.

I look at the body of the bridge. Will I really cross it? Will there be some last-minute problem? Will they send me back? Will they invent a procedural error? Shall I actually walk on that other bank, on those hills displaying themselves in front of me?

There is no topological difference between this Jordanian land I stand on and that Palestinian land on the other side of the bridge.

That, then, is the 'Occupied Territory.'

Toward the end of 1979 I was at a conference of the Union of Arab Writers in Damascus. Our hosts took us to visit the city of Qunaytera. A convoy of cars took us on the short journey and we saw the destruction visited by the Israelis on the city. We stood by the barbed wire behind which flew the Israeli flag. I stretched my hand across the wire and took hold of a shrub growing wild on the occupied side of the Golan. I shook the shrub and said to Hussein Muruwwa, who stood next to me: "Here is the Occupied Territory, Abu Nizar; I can hold it with my hand!"

When you hear on the radio and read in newspapers and magazines and books and speeches the words 'the Occupied Territories' year after year, and festival after festival, and summit conference after summit conference, you think it's somewhere at the end of the earth. You think there is absolutely no way you can get to it. Do you see how close it is? How touchable? How real? I can hold it in my hand, like a handkerchief.

In the eyes of Hussein Muruwwa the answer formed itself, and it was silent and moist.

Now here I am looking at it: at the west bank of the Jordan River. This then is the 'Occupied Territory'? No one was with me to whom I could repeat what I had said years ago to Hussein Muruwwa: that it was not just a phrase on the news bulletins. When the eye sees it, it has all the clarity of earth and pebbles and hills and rocks. It has its colors and its temperatures and its wild plants too.

Who would dare make it into an abstraction now that it has declared its physical self to the senses?

It is no longer 'the beloved' in the poetry of resistance, or an item on a political party program, it is not an argument or a metaphor. It stretches before me, as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well; visible as a field of chalk, as the prints of shoes.

I asked myself, what is so special about it except that we have lost it?

It is a land, like any land.

We sing for it only so that we may remember the humiliation of having had it taken from us. Our song is not for some sacred thing of the past but for our current self-respect that is violated anew every day by the Occupation.

Here it is in front of me, as it has been since the day of creation. I said to myself: "Land does not move away." I have not reached it yet. I merely see it directly. I am like someone who has been told he has won a large prize, only he has not got it in his hands yet.

I am still on the Jordanian side. The hours pass. I go back to the waiting room. It is clear there is nothing new for me. I sit on the chair and take out my papers. I pass the time in leafing through them: epigrams and poetic 'sketches' I am preparing for publication under the title "The Logic of Beings"--my ninth volume of poetry. I cast a quick look over the lines and return the papers to the bag. The anxiety of waiting reflects into an anxiety about the work. Before publication I lose my enthusiasm and doubt the value of the text that is about to escape from my control.

I love the poem as it forms under my fingers, image after image, word after word. And then fear arrives and certainty disappears. That contented moment when the creator is fascinated by his creation ends for me.

This happens and has happened since the first poem I ever published. I remember it well.

I was in the fourth and final year at university. I used to read some of my poems to Radwa on the steps of the library and she used to assure me they were good poems and that I would definitely--one day--be a poet. And one day I gave one of my poems to Farouk 'Abd al-Wahab to publish in Theater Magazine, which was edited by Rashad Rushdi. And then I spent days of terror.

Every day I would think of asking for the poem back, but I was afraid he would consider me weak and indecisive. I would see him in college and almost ask what he thought of the poem and stop myself at the last moment. From the second that poem left my hands I felt it was no good and should not be published. Now I know it really was bad.

The days passed until we arrived at Monday, June 5, 1967.

I went to a baker to stock up with bread, for we thought we were in for a long war. I stood in the long queue and on the pavement beside me--an extension of a small bookshop that had stayed open--were piles of newspapers, magazines, and books. Among tens of magazines I saw the Theater Magazine. I paid for it and riffled through the pages looking for my poem and-- I found it. "Mourid al-Barghouti: 'Apology to a Faraway Soldier.'" What coincidence is this?

My first poem published on this strange morning. On the cover of the magazine, the date: Monday, June 5,1967. A journalist once asked me about this. I told him the story, then added, joking: "I wonder if the Arabs were defeated and Palestine was lost because I wrote a poem."

We laughed, and did not laugh.

I leave the room again.

I go for a walk in the small space between the room and the river. I contemplate the scene. I have nothing to do except contemplate.

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I Saw Ramallah 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
i read this book with my heart. It's very emotional. I liked the fact that he didnt go on and on blaming the israelis for the occupation but he also blamed the palestanians for thier short sight.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mourid Barghouti's vivid memoir was a pleasure to read. 'I saw Ramallah' describes the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the eyes of one of the millions of human beings and families directly affected by the conflict. We learn how the author was exiled because the 1967 war took place while he was studying abroad. We see how he was separated from his wife and kid by a second exile from Egypt due to his 'Palestinianness'. We get to cry with him when he hears of his brother's tragic death, also in exile. And we get a taste for his complicated feelings upon seeing his country for the first time in 25 years during the Oslo Peace process. This book truly shows that nothing is simple about the Middle East Conflict. It spares no authority from criticism - not the Palestinian Authority, not the Arab countries, and not Israel. At the same time, the book shows that in fact the Middle East conflict is simple: we are all humans at the base of it! Enjoyable reading, and very thought-provoking.