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Mourid El-Barghouti: Shades of green
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 01 - 2003


You can be yourself, and it works
Shades of green
Profile by Amina Elbendary
photo: Randa Shaath
Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti was well-known in Arab cultural circles long before other Barghoutis made the name famous in the political arena. Life and politics brought him to Cairo, and took him away, repeatedly. His return to the city in the 1990s was followed by the publication of his memoir I Saw Ramallah. Having entered a fourth Arabic edition the book won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. It was translated into English by Ahdaf Soueif and published by AUC Press. A US paperback edition will also appear this May from Random House. Spanish and Dutch translations are out and an Italian in process.
Mourid Barghouti was born in 1944, in Deir Ghassanah, "a mountainous village on the West Bank", he tells me. "It is the centre of the Bani Zeid cluster of villages," his wife, Radwa, explains. She gets up to show us photos of her husband's last visit and lauds the village's unique architectural style. No, Radwa has never been to Palestine.
"Deir Ghassanah is the hometown of the Barghouti family," the poet says. "The houses are similar to forts. The youngest of the houses still inhabited was built 500 years ago. Gardens are planted with oranges, cherries and fig trees... I cannot bear to see the grey trees here in Cairo. I wish I had a fire hose to wash them. In Palestine the colour of each leaf is different, there are shades of green. Colours have their dignity; green should be green, not khaki."
Barghouti lived in Deir Ghassanah only until first grade. When he was seven the family moved to Ramallah in search of a better education for the children. "Education was the most important thing to sacrifice for. People would sell their land and olives to send their kids, girls and boys, to school. We moved to Ramallah and rented a house there for the schools."
"Ramallah brought me to a society that's open. It's a Christian-Muslim community, a city 16 kilometres away from Jerusalem. When we wanted to buy something special or have fun we'd go to Jerusalem. As adolescents we'd take a taxi in dignity to Bab Al-Amud, walk around to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we'd go to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque -- the dome was wooden in those days. I had many friends in Ramallah and we didn't know who was Muslim and who was Christian; all the houses and shops were decorated for Christmas. And in Ramadan all people celebrated the holy month. "
When Mourid finished high school in Ramallah there were not that many options for university education. "The West Bank was left without universities, factories, or job opportunities -- the Jordanian University only opened in 1964. Abdel- Nasser presented the best model of Arabism at the time, different from the other Arab rulers. It was Egypt that had education, universities, arts, cinema and theatre." So he came to Cairo in 1963 to study English Literature at Cairo University. This first adult journey was the starting point for a career and a lifetime relationship. He graduated in 1967, in the middle of the June defeat.
"I came to Cairo hoping to keep off the mapped road: Palestinians have a boy, they educate him, they send him to university, then he goes to the Gulf, makes some money and either builds a house or gets married, sometimes both, and that's it. I came to Cairo intent on not walking that road; I did not want to go to the Gulf, build a house, get married or make money. With my LE18 a month I paid 19 piastres every Saturday to attend the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the same for theatres and cinemas. I felt I was here for that reason, as if it were my job. It was amazing, one could attend a play written by Sophocles, translated by Louis Awad, directed by an international director, and acted by a first-rate cast for 12 piastres. I never wanted to be taken away from such luxury."
But with the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 Mourid couldn't go back to Ramallah, but neither could he go on living in Cairo. "I had finished university and my residency was expiring. For two months I evaded an uncle who came to Cairo to take me with him to Kuwait. At the end I had no other option so I went." The time he spent in Kuwait is one of the short spans in his life when he compromised on his vow to be nothing but himself.
"I kept writing to my friends in Cairo and realised a special fondness for Radwa. So I came for a visit and we married in 1970."
Radwa is Radwa Ashour, novelist and professor of English Literature at Ain Shams University. She brings us a tray with earthen mugs full of coffee. Later, Mourid will take it back to the kitchen. He offers us Swiss chocolates with the coffee, allowing himself more than one in between.
Radwa and Mourid spent a few months in Kuwait and left in 1971, having decided that if he were to be a poet they couldn't live there. "I came back to Cairo to regain certain horizons." Mourid got a job teaching English to law students. He enrolled at the Institute of Arabic Studies to study the history of Zionism but found the professors so uninspiring he gave up after three months.
"In my search for something to do I walked into the offices of the Palestine Radio Station, hosted by the Egyptian Broadcasting Corporation, on Al- Shereifein Street and offered my services. I became an anchor and a political commentator."
This stint came to an abrupt end. Radio Filastin was closed down twice during Sadat's presidency. The first time was in September 1975; Mourid and others then set up the station in Beirut during the early days of the civil war. After the fall of the Tell Al-Zaatar camp at the hands of the Syrian army Sadat wanted to spite the Syrians, with whom he was at odds, so he reopened the station in Cairo. Later, after Sadat's visit to Israel, Mourid and other Palestinians were deported from Cairo.
"They arrested me at the house on 17 November, 1977; it was Eid Al-Adha," he remembers. He was not to set foot in Cairo again until many many years later. He is not bitter, though, about those years in exile. "People usually say that exile is horrible. But exiles have their joys too, just like the homeland." Hungary, where he lived for 12 years, he speaks of as a comfortable exile.
It's the deportation and the cutting off of ties with friends and family that hurts. "Tamim had been born on 13 June, he was five months old when I was deported. When he and Radwa visited me a year and a half later in Hungary he had learned to talk and he called me Ammo Baba, Uncle Daddy."
The family spent 17 years separated, meeting for two months during the summer holidays and two weeks during the mid-year recess. "The return is difficult," he admits. "People organise their lives without those absent. And so things were organised here with Radwa and Tamim as a family of two, and I organised myself as a family of one. The return of both worlds is full of difficulties. No one returns, nothing is fully regained. Now we live in a way that began since my return, it is not a continuity but a beginning in itself."
Mourid seems accepting of this circumstance, of the fact that, new beginnings aside, not all wounds heal and that there will be moments -- however fleeting -- when the old crack of two and one resurface. In such moments, one senses, he would take a step back.
Belonging and not belonging is part of Mourid Barghouti's existence. Stubborn in his insistence not to conform he has refused to join any Palestinian political faction, guarding his political independence. "I am a member of the PLO, yes, but I am not in one of its rooms, only in the courtyard. I never refrain from participation."
Political independence, for him, implies being able to mean what he says in the face of adversity. "I kept saying what I meant, and it worked. There is a lot of achievement in insisting on doing that in the face of the many pressures and temptations, and I am proud of this."
"You can say yes or no, you can stamp your feet on the ground, you can accept or reject. You can mean what you say and be where you want and not be where you don't want -- and it works. You can be a soloist and walk away from the orchestra. Seeking shelter within the troupe is not real protection, it covers your faults but if you were ever asked to play alone you'd be scandalised. I quickly turn my back on any scene that displeases me, I've always had this ability to get out of ugliness. If I don't like something I go home. I don't stop to calculate whether I'd lose."
"This doesn't mean my political ideas are more right, or that I am more patriotic, not at all. For example, after 1967 everyone was busy forming political organisations to save the nation. I was preoccupied with English poetry. It's really not done but that's what happened. Often I would walk out on a big cause because of something tiny I did not like. And that's immoral, frankly."
Staying his own course would inform his career as a poet as well -- "I can't write 'resistance poetry', I can't write like that. When I first tried to get published I set out with two poems: The Palestinians, which was similar to the poetry of the day, and Al-Tufan wa I'adat Al-Takwin, (The Flood and Recreation) with five movements, a complex syntactical structure and sections in prose. The publisher chose the first. A well- respected critic of the time told me, 'my dear you have a good, respectable poem and you have another one that is not like the poetry we know; it's muddled, stay on your first course.' The slap came from someone I like and respect. I was scared. I conformed, I tried to write like the others, then I rebelled. In my diwan Qasa'id Al-Rasif (Poems of the Sidewalk), published in January 1980, I turned against the familiar."
That collection was published in Beirut in the midst of civil war and death. But in this and other works since Mourid intimates social and political reality without using its vocabulary. "I don't write about blood, rifles, the nation, or even the word Palestine. Yet this is poetry that couldn't have been written by someone from Luxembourg or Denmark. The pain that is inside appears even when you write about a forest or a flower, without using canned, overused vocabulary. I've developed my own definition of poetry; it is extracting the surprising from the banal.
"A poet writes his outer world when it becomes part of his personal perception. Simplistic poets write about national causes, human tragedies, massacres, martyrs, funerals, defeat, like [the classical Arab poet] Al-Buhturi describing [the Caliph] Al- Mutawwakkil's lake, describing something out there, outside their existence. Such poetry consists of lies. Rhetoric doesn't touch people. Many of the hadatha poets, especially in Egypt, tell us they will write about a button on their shirt, 'I have nothing to do with the grand causes,' they announce. I am all for writing about a button on a shirt, but I am also for writing about the hole in the shirt -- I write about my personal shirt, about myself, but what if the shirt were torn by a jailer, by a bullet in battle? Listen: in relationships between human beings, or between a writer and writing, over-simplification and superficiality are an Achilles' heel. Superficiality and literature are a contradiction in terms.
"Literature is to put the sophisticated in a simple context. Most poetry nowadays is based on shallow ideas; about the poet 'wanting a woman tonight'; there's no genius in this. And then he puts it in the most complicated of forms. He loses the reader. Real poetry is the exact opposite. Poetry is talking about an idea that cannot be said in prose, or at a coffee shop, and through work like that of the craftsmen at Khan Al-Khalili, writing it in sophistication."
He takes issue with the way most Arabic poetry venerates women. "A woman is not sacred, she is a creature like any other. Veneration in the manner of Nizar Qabbani's poetry is a very cheap way of luring. A man's relationship with women is the true measure of how 'revolutionary' he is. One of the early signs of my interest in Radwa was that at university while our female colleagues were mostly ladies, coming to class at eight in the morning with full make-up, she was a student. She was normal and simple."
Some 30 years on Radwa is the author of critically acclaimed fiction such as the Granada Trilogy. Does daily tension rise from the fact that both husband and wife are writers? "When she reads me a chapter of a novel I stop at two words and argue that those two words cannot be said together. She says 'don't measure it like poetry, in poetry one wrong word can ruin the poem; this is a novel.' Now we are three writers in the family."
Their son Tamim is now in his mid-twenties, writing poetry in classical Arabic as well as colloquial Egyptian and Palestinian.
"He doesn't follow my path, he plays in his own courtyard. You know he's read all the major works and classical diwans though he was trained as a political scientist. When he was 12 I taught him two metres of Arabic poetry. Not long after he had written poetry using the 16 main metres. He also plays music.
"Even though I returned in 1995 people who see me on the street still tell me 'welcome back'. The deportation cut off social relations with all those Egyptian writers with whom I had started out, shared the joys of first writings, first adventures, young friendships and common interests. In the 1970s I had built a certain life, Radwa had gone to the States to read for her PhD and I stayed here alone. Every night there were people playing music, reciting poetry, journalists, writers. All of this has changed."
His return to Ramallah -- like his return to Cairo -- was a second coming.
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?
After an evening of poetry in his honour, some of the youngsters asked him to sign their autographs; he was a visitor, a guest at Deir Ghassanah. "And I thought my way of life is different from theirs. They don't really know me. If they were to really know me as I am would they love me? Was it not the fleeting nature of my visit that made me loved?"
He doesn't belong anywhere, he admits, though not by way of lamentation. He also does not feel comfortable anywhere, one senses, always keeping a step behind. "I get lost in every country. I get lost in Cairo. I get lost in Ramallah, in Amman, in Budapest, because I don't feel any of these places is mine. Any relationship takes two to work or fail. The city has to offer you something. In Budapest the people were not like me. All my friends spent the weekend and feasts with their families. I was alone. When I was in crisis none of them was by my side. For example, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon I had no patience for a woman gossiping about her sister being dumped by a boyfriend. In Cairo I can't join a demonstration. Twice I was deported from Cairo, in handcuffs, because I had tried to live a normal life but the city told me 'no'. After an absence of 30 years Ramallah offered me an ignorance of its streets, its very shape had altered. Either the people are foreign, or the streets are strange or the politics are strange."
Though the 1967 War has disconnected family ties his mother's influence remains strong: "My mother was the first to teach me to perfect everything I do. 'If you fight, fight right, if you love, love properly, if you prune a tree, do it right. Even in her old age, if a stitch came out of line slightly while knitting a pullover she would undo it and start over."
Such perfectionism has left a mark on his poetry, reinforcing a sensibility that strives for economy. No word should be there if it doesn't add meaning or serve a function.
This economy is reflected in the home he shares with Radwa and Tamim in downtown Cairo, striking in its order and lack of clutter. The walls are mostly bare. Arabic style furniture is upholstered in simple striped Akhmim fabric. It is a house one could pack.
He recalls -- this time with sadness -- the times he's had to pack before, leaving behind plants he'd fondly nurtured, giving away books that were too heavy to carry. Of the luggage that he has accumulated over the years the library is the least continuous. You keep the dictionaries and then prioritise.
He has, though, lost much more than books and plants. For a Palestinian, Death is a frequent visitor, taking away loved ones in their prime. The death of his brother Mounif, only a couple of years or so older, in a tragic accident in a French small town on the borders with Switzerland was particularly painful. And while sipping coffee the first time we met in his home I glimpsed the phone book open on the corner table at a page with the name of Nagui Al- Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist assassinated a decade ago in London. "I open my phone book and half the people in it have died. I don't cross them out. I find Nagui and Ghassan [Kanafani], I change it every year but I don't have the heart to leave out their names though I know that no one will answer to that number, the house is closed and the people gone."
"People are not simply individuals, every one is a whole planet. And so when someone I love dies it's as if the day of resurrection has come. The enemy of anything refined in a human being is reduction. And this is what we suffer from as Palestinians; we are defined, we are labelled. No one sees the planet in each one of us, we are either terrorists or victims, killers or killed, always reduced and labelled. And we do this to ourselves too. In 1948 we called the people who came from the Palestinian coasts to Ramallah refugees.
"I try to cultivate my own garden; I might have only two metres but I grow them the way I like. I do not envy other poets their gardens; mine might be small but it is one in which I try to perfect. "
You are not a star of those times
And your glass
Is not coveted by the stars of drinking
In a time like this,
Shine a little
And do not shine completely.
[...]
Perfect poetry
So that language becomes jealous
Perfect love
So that imagination becomes jealous
Perfect life
So that it be said
His self has resembled his self
Perfect Death till it jumps up in respect


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