I Saw Ramallah

20th February 2004 at 00:00
I Saw Ramallah. By Mourid Barghouti. Translated by Ahdaf Souif. With a foreword by Edward W Said. Bloomsbury pound;12.99

The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti was born just a few years before the state of Israel and was studying English literature in Cairo during the Six Day War of 1967; he could not return to his home on the West Bank for 30 years. As a young father, he was also deported from Egypt for taking part in student demonstrations and spent 17 years living mostly apart from his wife and son.

This account of his return to Ramallah and his childhood home of Deir Ghassanah, made possible by the peace process of the Nineties, is also a study of the lost years in between and a reflection on the miseries of exile which transcends his particular circumstances and inspires empathy in the reader.

He recalls his despair at having to buy olive oil in a supermarket in Cairo, knowing that his family owned a field of olive trees in Deir Ghassanah, and tending successive generations of houseplants only to give them away and move on. For him, displacement means gatherings of his extended family in hotel rooms (he admits that he appreciates the anonymity of hotels, because there is no risk of any false expectation that he can make a home there), being unable to prevent his brother's violent death in Paris and dreading late-night phone calls full of bad news.

The political background to his family's tragedy of separation is kept low-key and his account of a life still hemmed in by restrictions is free of bitterness, with a poet's delight in the literary renaissance he finds in today's Ramallah. It's an enticing feast of language as well as a universal study of what separation means.

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