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9 -15 November 2000
Issue No.507
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Books is a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly appearing every second Thursday of the month. We welcome contributions and letters on subjects raised in this supplement. Material may be edited for length and clarity; and should be addressed to Mona Anis, Books Editor, Al-Ahram Weekly, Galaa St., Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt; Faz: +202 578 6089; E-mail: m.anis@ahram.org.eg
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A certain idea of Palestine

I saw Ramallah
I saw Ramallah, Mourid Barghouti, translated by Ahdaf Soueif, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000. pp201
It is easy to believe that the Palestine we see on the news every night is the one and only Palestine, the true Palestine. However, there is more to Palestine than what has been in the news every day this past month. The media, regardless of the source, often present Palestine and its people in a simplistic, superficial light, yet this is often assumed to be the light of truth. In this context, a book such as Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah, repeats something that needs to be heard these days more than ever: "Life, as you see, cannot be simplified."

Barghouti's book seeks to portray Ramallah, Deir Ghassaneh, and Palestine as the writer saw them after many years of absence, the places and the people revealing themselves to be full of paradoxes. For unlike the media's portrayals of Palestine, Barghouti's are complex and self-reflective; he is aware that any individual story, whether written by him or recited by a news anchorman, cannot contain the experience of an entire people. "The Palestinian has his joys too," Barghouti notes, amid all the destruction. "He has his pleasures alongside his sorrows. He has the amazing contradictions of life, because he is a living creature before being the son of the eight o'clock news."

Barghouti, a Palestinian, was not allowed to return to Palestine by the Israeli authorities for 30 years after he left it in 1967. How did Ramallah receive him? How did he re-acquaint himself with Ramallah, and what distinguishes a "return" to a country from a "homecoming"? Barghouti does not call his book I Saw Ramallah Once More; rather, he calls it I Saw Ramallah, implying that the city he has returned to following his long absence is in some sense a new and changed one. Usually, going home is characterized by familiarity and recognition; the Israeli Occupation of his country finally allowed Barghouti to return to Palestine after 30 years in exile, but it deprived him from experiencing his return as a homecoming. Thus he asks "How did I sing for my homeland when I did not know it?"

Many works of literature, including foundational ones such as Homer's Odyssey, centre on themes of journey, exile, alienation and homecoming. Like other works of in this genre, I Saw Ramallah is the story of an absence and a return, however its difference and uniqueness lies in Barghouti's effort to recognize a place that is virtually unrecognizable. "I have completely forgotten what the road to Deir Ghassaneh looks like. I no longer remember the names of the villages...Each time Hussam asked me about a house, a landmark, a road, an event, I quickly replied, 'I know it.' But the truth is I did not know. I no longer knew." It becomes clear that Barghouti, in setting out to record his thoughts and impressions on going home, took as his first task a confrontation of his memories of Ramallah with the present reality of the place. Soon after his arrival, he notices that when his son "Tamim comes here, he will think I have been describing another country."

Many writings about journeying and homecoming focus on how the person who goes on such a journey develops dramatically while away, only to be re-acquainted with a place that has remained the same on his return. Odysseus, for example, returns to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars to a household and surroundings that in general he recognized, even as the people there did not recognise him. He had to prove that it was indeed he, Odysseus, coming home. Because of the Israeli occupation of his homeland, Barghouti's experience is very different to that of Odysseus; though he has changed greatly in 30 years, his homeland has changed even more in his absence. He returns to Deir Ghassaneh, the village where he was born, to find that the fig tree that had grown in the courtyard of his birthplace has been cut down. The moment is a symbolic one, Barghouti asking, "What does Deir Ghassaneh know of you, Mourid?...They have not watched your hair turn grey. They think you were not upset about the cutting down of the fig tree. They do not know Radwa or Tamim. They do not know all that has happened to you in their (your?) absence."

Although Barghouti has set out to record his homecoming, he is very conscious of the impossibility of simply performing such a task. Face to face with the effort to write about his hometown, he questions himself, asking,

"Does Dar Ra'd reject my story
about Dar Ra'd?
Are we the same at parting and at meeting?
Are you you? Am I me?
Does the stranger return to where he was?
Is he himself returning to a place?"

The time between his departure and his arrival has not only changed his homeland, it has also changed Barghouti. His exile had been dictated by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, and this same occupation has now dictated the terms of his return. Now the question is, after 30 years of exile and occupation, who is returning? To what?

In general, Barghouti articulates two important truths in I Saw Ramallah. First, he is aware that his description of Ramallah records only what remains of the city after its occupation. "The Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine," he says. And second, Barghouti is conscious of the limited significance of his return, important though it may be to him personally. "What does my return or the return of any other individual mean?" he asks. "It is their return, the return of the millions, that is the true return."

I Saw Ramallah is the story of such paradoxes, and of such complicated truths, told with a truthfulness, sincerity and humour that is not lost or sentimentalised in Ahdaf Soueif's translation. Reading the book is a little like having an open-hearted conversation with its author, that is to say with someone who is aware that certain situations and emotions are often difficult to comprehend, describe, or fully understand. Such a person, like this book, is not ashamed to ask questions, to raise doubts, or to express joy or anger without having to back these up with the sophistry of explanation.

Reviewed by Maggie Morgan

Ramallah past and present: local 1930s architecture (from Walid Khalidi's Before their Diaspora); right, Intifada, November 2000
(photo: Reuters)

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