I learn from trees.” The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti gestures around his mother’s terraced garden in the hilly Jordanian capital, Amman. “Just as many fruits drop before they’re ripe, when I write a poem I treat it with healthy cruelty, deleting images to take care of the right ones.”
Barghouti has published 12 poetry books in Arabic since the early 1970s, as well as a 700-page Collected Works (1997). He has read in overflowing amphitheatres and in refugee camps. Midnight and Other Poems, his first major collection in English translation, is out this month from Arc.
It was his memoir, I Saw Ramallah, published by Bloomsbury in 2004 in a translation by Ahdaf Soueif, that first won him a readership in English. The late Edward Said saw it as “one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement”. Reflecting on crossing the bridge from Jordan to his West Bank birthplace in 1996 after 30 years’ exile – a visit under Israeli control that he refused to call a return – he described a condition of permanent uprootedness. A student in Cairo when the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broke out, he was prevented, like many others, from returning to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He was later exiled from Jordan for 20 years, Egypt for 18 years, and Lebanon for 15 years. Yet all writing, for him, is a displacement, a striving to escape from the “dominant used language” and the “chains of the tribe – its approval and taboos”.
Barghouti lives in Cairo with his Egyptian wife, Radwa Ashour, a novelist and professor of literature. He visits his mother, Sakina, aged 88, in Amman, where she moved in 1970 to make contact possible with her four sons, only the youngest of whom was allowed home. But that year coincided with Black September and the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan. Until martial law, imposed in Jordan after the 1967 war, ended in 1989, Barghouti, who has worked for Radio Palestine and as a PLO cultural attaché, was unable to renew his passport. At the Palfest literary festival that toured the West Bank in May, he read only in his home town, for which he has a permit. He was, as a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport, barred entry into Jerusalem, or any part of the occupied territories outside Ramallah, without a separate permit.
Used to the “dual pressure”, as he sees it, of Israeli occupation and the oscillating hostility of neighbouring Arab dictatorships, he says he lives “on my memories”. His sense of statelessness deepened after the Oslo accords of 1993 created the Palestinian Authority, which he scorns. A close friend of the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died in August, Barghouti had mixed feelings at his funeral in Ramallah. “People of all ages came carrying flowers, with lines of poetry on T-shirts, in tears and sadness: this was fascinating.” Yet he resents what he sees as the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to “monopolise Mahmoud. They didn’t invite any writers to the ceremony. The guards pushed away everybody who tried to come to the grave”.
Driving now by Darwish’s shuttered apartment in Amman, Barghouti says he never erases the dead from his address book. His memoir is punctuated by deaths, of the Palestinian writer Gassan Kanafani, assassinated by an Israeli car bomb in Beirut in 1972, the cartoonist Naj al Ali, killed in London in 1987, and his elder brother Mounif, who died in the Gare du Nord in Paris in unexplained circumstances. Politics, he writes in a poem, “is the family at breakfast. Who is there. Who is absent and why”.
Loss informs his long poem “Midnight”, first published in Beirut in 2005, and translated into English by Ashour, who sees it as the “mature culmination” of a poetic career. As its protagonist stares on New Year’s Eve through an open window, the falling pages of a calendar bring a “chaos of memories, ghosts, relatives, wars, defeats, lusts, desires”, Barghouti says, “and he’s left with this attack of time on his heart and mind and solitary body. It’s about the lonely facing of realities and disappointments”. The poem contains a scene from Abu Ghraib. “I find I always imagine myself in the place of the victim,” he says. “When the twin towers were hit, I felt I was thrown from windows, running from the fire – I lived it. In Abu Ghraib I was the hooded prisoner with electrodes on his fingers.” His poems have alluded to the massacre in the Sabra-Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1982, and the shooting of the child Mohammed al-Durrah by Israeli troops in 2000 as his father tried to shield him. “I was the father and son at the same time – with the victims, the weak side, the lost cause, where there’s no way out. The poem is my only power to identify with them.”
Yet he also savours “life’s ability to provide us with ecstasy and laughter.” His office in the house his mother built in Shmeissani, in affluent west Amman, looks out on to a laden grapevine that she brought as a cutting from Ramallah. Inhaling a handful of leaves from a lemon tree transports him to the land of his childhood.
He was born in 1944 in the mountainous village of Deir Ghassanah, west of the River Jordan in Palestine. The cluster of villages was dominated by the Barghouti clan (the name he delights in means flea) of politicians, poets and landowners. His father worked the land, then joined the Jordanian army. Aged four when the state of Israel was declared, Barghouti learned of the Palestinian nakbah, or catastrophe, as non-Barghoutis with different dialects appeared in his village. “I was told they were refugees. The story unfolded of the destruction of villages, and the policy of ethnic cleansing that drove them away.” Hearing of a massacre at Deir Yassin in April 1948 was “the nakbah for me as a child – stories of those killed in cold blood that were disseminated all over Palestine. They were meant to be, to encourage people to flee”.
The second of four brothers, he moved with his family to Ramallah, aged seven. At school he admired the Iraqi modernist poet of the late 40s Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, who “broke the classical Arabic poem that had survived for 15 centuries unchanged, during the surge of Arab liberation movements against British and French occupation”. He studied English at Cairo university in the 60s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser was the “only Arab leader who treated culture seriously, making tickets cheap to theatre, opera. It was a golden age”. After Nasser’s death in 1970, under Anwar Sadat “the first thing that collapsed was cultural life. We’re still living the same under [President Hosni] Mubarak”.
West Bank Palestinians “did not feel the nakbah as the people who lived it did; 1967 took shape as our nakbah”. Graduating as the Arab defeat in the six-day war led to military occupation, he spent three years teaching in a technical college in Kuwait before returning to Cairo to marry Ashour, whom he had met at university. He volunteered for Radio Palestine, reading news bulletins in his sonorous voice. Unlike his workmates, he refused to join Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. “I kept my independence; I’ve never joined any political party, and never will. My colleagues are ministers now in Ramallah. I defended the liberation of Palestine, but I never defended forged elections. Arafat [who died in 2004] was not a democratic leader.”
Sadat closed down the radio station in 1975, and the broadcasters decamped to Beirut as civil war was breaking out. Under bombardment in the Lebanese capital, “we had the strange feeling that we were fighting the wrong war.” Then, “when the Syrians sent their army into Lebanon, Sadat, who was quarrelling with the Syrians, reopened the station in Cairo. When he made peace with Israel [on the eve of the Camp David accords of 1978], he closed it again. As Palestinians, we’re played like chess pieces.”
Deported from Cairo in 1977 “in handcuffs, with only the clothes I was wearing”, he left his wife and five-month-old son Tamim behind. He went to Beirut, but was edged out. “I was a critical voice.” So he spent 13 years in communist Budapest, representing the PLO at the World Federation of Democratic Youth. His wife and son visited twice a year, but they resolved that Tamim would have an Arabic education; he is now a successful poet and film-maker. For Barghouti, Budapest was a “beautiful city, drenched in art”, but it “took me from the Arab literary scene. It was a great loss”.
He published four collections, and poems in Darwish’s journal Al-Karmel, but his style changed with his desolate experience. With Poems of the Pavement (1980), “written in one breath, like a fever”, he learned to “write with a camera – visual, concrete, no abstract nouns. The beauty of a poem is to cool down the language, because the flamboyant, bombastic tone of language is for governments, generals, political parties. A poet has to do the opposite. A slogan lives only for a minute”. He adds: “You don’t have the right to tell the reader how to feel, to say ‘love me, understand my cause, hate my enemies’. Show him a scene and leave him to respond; this is democratic. I invite you to a window, a gallery, and leave you.”
He grappled with “the dilemma of Palestinian writers, that we’re expected to address the needs of people denied self-expression under occupation, to express their pain. But this is a trap: you have to strike a balance, not sacrificing the aesthetics for your readership. I hate the terms ‘resistance poetry’ or ‘exile poetry’. We’re not one-theme poets. A moment of joy or misery is juxtaposed by its opposite. There’s no one face; I see both. I question myself all the time; if you oversimplify, you’d better quit.” Zuhair Abu Shayeb, a poet and editor at the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing in Amman, says Barghouti “abandoned the heroic tone and slogans that plague modern Arabic poetry. His is a poetry of coughs and headaches – the daily pains of the individual”.
Poems of the Pavement influenced other Arab poets, “but I didn’t live in the region to collect the fruit. It took me seven years to publish another collection”. Moving to Jordan in 1990 was the “most prolific period of my life”. In 1995 when his name was taken off an Egyptian blacklist, he returned to Cairo, where the couple faced a difficult transition. “United with your family after a long exile, you have the illusion that the first embrace will be the solution,” Barghouti says. “You have to train yourself to readjust without romantic or immature expectations.” He also had to defuse his son’s anger at the Egyptian authorities. “I said ‘there’s no Palestinian family that hasn’t paid a price – losing someone, being jailed, houses demolished. If our price is just separation, it’s endurable. Let’s not exaggerate’.” Yet his son is denied Egyptian citizenship, or freedom to work there, since mothers cannot bestow that right if their husbands are Palestinian. According to Ashour, “Tamim lives the Palestinian experience in these details.”
In Jafra, a Palestinian-run cultural café in downtown Amman, Barghouti says the contribution of Palestinians has been great in Jordan, where they are the majority. But while their position there is better than in Lebanon, where jobs are restricted, “those who are Jordanian citizens prefer to keep silent to keep that status. They have a strong economic presence, and a weak political presence.” Political life “has been killed in the Arab countries. They’re police states and you don’t feel they’re independent; Palestinians are part of the security files.”
Occupation creates a “transitory eternity”, he believes, in which normal life is postponed: there is “no coexistence with a tank”. The Oslo agreements were not, in his view, “the work of leaders but of people led and dictated to by the Israeli authorities and western powers. Every serious problem – sovereignty, refugees, [the status of] Jerusalem – was postponed. They divided a cake which is imaginary”. As for the divide between the Fatah leadership in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza (blockaded by Israel): “I’m against both. The corruption of Fatah is irreparable, and the naivety of Hamas as politicians is irreparable – Gaza is a closed can; Israel has the fuel, the water, the electricity, the food, the milk supply, the sewage plans. They’re quarrelling about dust, a mirage. The only government is Israel.”
He recounts one “very painful experience”. In 1999 he took a job under the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, as director of a World Bank-financed programme to create a database of archaeological and cultural sites. Three years’ funds had already been swallowed up, and he was “brought in as an honest person. I accepted because I’m always accusing myself of turning my head away when I see anything ugly”. He tracked the leakage to forged bills, but says the culprits were “defended by their bosses”. He resigned. On whether there is a dilemma in exposing the failures of an authority under occupation, he says: “The Palestinian people are not a beautiful landscape. They’re a people who make mistakes, including corruption.” When he sought to oust the culprits, “they tried to find out what my price was. I found my office refurbished with leather chairs. I went crazy. It hastened my decision to resign. I said: ‘listen, I have nobody who supports me in your government. I have only this’ – I raised my pen. ‘I will write you all one day.'”
He has done so in a sequel to I Saw Ramallah, a memoir that will be published in Arabic in March. It records a trip to the West Bank in 1998 with his son, seeing it for the first time. “It’s to make every trivial detail into a chronicle of history. Everything starts from the individual – the body’s pleasures and pains. If you don’t see that, you misunderstand history.”
While you can whisper a poem in a free society, Barghouti has said, people want loud, direct poetry in times of injustice. Yet he has built an eager audience. “You can’t expect people with military boots on their necks, facing checkpoints and closures, to understand your sticking to your aesthetic rules,” he says. “But my experience says you can read visionary poetry even in a refugee camp. I say ‘try it – take this adventure’.” For him, “when the poem’s written and it’s beautiful, I can endure anything.”
Barghouti on Barghouti
truth needs no eloquence.
After the death of the horseman,
the homeward-bound horse
without saying anything.”
• ‘Silence’ translated by Radwa Ashour from Midnight and Other Poems, published by Arc
Many times I have been asked the question: to whom do you write? Or is there any imagined reader in your mind? I think that a poet goes to the empty page to listen to his inner tune but that tune itself is composed through years and centuries by a universal orchestra. That is why we publish the poem to be read by unknown others. When I started the opening two lines of this very short poem, I realised I was talking to myself, not to my readers, as if to solidify my hatred of rhetoric and eloquence and my love for simplicity and concrete language. As a Palestinian with a negated history and a threatened geography, craving world attention and understanding, I was hesitant to have the poem published. But I decided to publish it because I needed to be its reader. I was trying to convince Mourid Barghouti that pain, even the Palestinian pain, does not mean shouting loudly.