Wednesday, April 24, 2024

‘I Saw Ramallah’: Homecoming of a Palestinian Poet

While writing this review, the war that started on October 7 in Gaza has already taken the lives of more than 32,000 people, including children. Nearly ten thousand people are feared to be under the rubble. It is considered the most horrible war that has been ‘colourfully’ documented, but “I Saw Ramallah” by Mourid Barghouti, originally published in 1997, says what is happening now is only a “repetition” of the past.

Mourid Barghouti, a Palestinian revolutionary poet, was born in 1944 in Deir Ghassaneh near Ramallah and passed away in 2021 in Amman, the capital of Jordan. “I Saw Ramallah” is his memoir as well as his masterpiece. Even though the memoir does not revolve around a certain plot, this one is deeply woven around the issues of the displaced Palestinians or what we call the “Palestinian cause.”

The memoir is a retrospective monologue about the entire life of Mourid staged around his return to Ramallah in 1996 after being in exile for thirty years. The poetic narrative packages a displaced person’s grief, sadness, happiness, anger, regret, and surprise. In its forward note, the renowned Palestinian scholar Edward Said says, “What gives this book an unmistakable stamp of profound authenticity is its life-affirming poetic texture.”

The story starts from the bridge to Ramallah. After crossing the small bridge with more than two dozen pages, Mourid flows through the stories of Ramallah, its past, and its present. He ruminates about its trees, birds, scent, food, and the people. “Thirty years and nine volumes of verse, it is the distance of the eye from its tears under the willow of the distant graveyard.”

He keeps having surges of memories about his homeland and repeatedly dictates, “In Ramallah we…” “In Ramallah, they…” The burning ashes of memories haunt his brain and fuel his words. Even the words of Walt Disney to the Arab literati Manfaluti become so small for Mourid in front of his memories of Ramallah.

The talk about Ramallah slowly slides to his homeland, Deir Ghassana, where he was born and spent his childhood. He recalls, “Here I was born even four years before the birth of Israel.” Its apples, olives, presses, colours, markets—he recalls almost everything with details, but suddenly he feels that his homeland is controlled by somebody else. Rather than the soldiers with the guns, the fact of paying money for a fig was something he was more scared about.

The occupation killed Mourid’s childhood, but the sense of home gripped him hard when he felt losing it. The colour of his city, its life, and spirit began to fade. The pain of being a refugee in the home country and craving for the return builds up in this memoir.

The children crying for the return of their martyred parents, moms stuck in the trauma of losing their beloved children. The violence of the settlers and forced evacuations seem like a mirrored version of what happened after October 7.

Mourid tells the stories of the “olive thieves” who steal the olives, symbolising Palestinian culture and tradition. According to the latest data published in different media outlets, including The New Yorker, more than eight hundred thousand Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted in Palestine by Israel.

The evolving concept of the homeland is strewn in the book in the form of poetic retrospection. He says, “Our homeland is the shape of the time we spent in it” and ruminates over the destiny of being a refugee in their homeland. Then he requests to transform the memory of the homeland into a bouquet of ‘symbols’ which can be carried across the borders.

“The clarity of displacement” and the “uncertainty of the return” are chronic and perpetuating emotions shared by Palestinians across the generations as well as every displaced person. Mourid visualises these notions through the expressions of his experiences, which look similar to those people who are currently stranded at the Rafah border after being evacuated from different parts of Gaza.

The transition from his homeland “Deir Ghassaneh” to the “Village Square” flips through the different nostalgic elements of his childhood. He utilises the memories of childhood to buttress the notion of the homeland and the appetite to return to it.

The childhood memories of war are often portrayed in the book as a philosophical conflict between place and time. At one instance, he quotes his old poem, “Can the earth contain the cruelty of the mother making her coffee alone on a diaspora morning?” He tries to emanate the deepest emotions of displacement by entwining them with the memories of broken childhood and families, which leave little to no light for the future.

The satirical assessment of the political scenario also reflects deep criticism as well as philosophical insight. “Staying away from politics is also politics,” he says after stating that “politics is the number of coffee cups on the table.” Edward says, “There is a good deal of politics in Barghouti’s book, but none of it is either abstract or ideologically driven.”

He also depicts the first tenure of Netanyahu, who currently leads Israel and spearheads the current invasion of Gaza. His take on Netanyahu’s cunning tactics and diplomatic curveballs seems more prophetic. “Arabs will, in the end, adapt to his harshness because they always adapt to whatever they have to,” he reflects on the way Netanyahu appeases America.

“I Saw Ramallah” is considered one of the finest books written about the Palestinian cause. It debunks many syllogistic premises brought by Israel to justify the atrocities against the Palestinians. Many of these arguments are still intact in the ongoing war. The often-heard phrases like “Israel has the right to defend itself” were already addressed in this book.

The major catchphrases of the ongoing war are “October 7” and “Who triggered the war?” These sentences are widely used to justify the heinous and brutal atrocities committed against Palestinians. Addressing a similar case, he says, “It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from ‘secondly.'”

Mourid has succeeded in infusing the sense of displacement even into readers who have a permanent address to share. Along with depicting the injustice, he untied the jumbled threads around the Palestinian cause.

Mohammed Ramees is a freelance journalist and student of Convergent Journalism at AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia


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