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I Saw Ramallah

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Written by Mourid BarghoutiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mourid Barghouti
Translated by Ahdaf SoueifAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ahdaf Soueif
Introduction by Edward W. SaidAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Edward W. Said


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 10, 2008
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48614-1
Published by : Anchor Knopf
I Saw Ramallah Cover

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Winner of the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal, this fierce and moving work is an unparalleled rendering of the human aspects of the Palestinian predicament.

Barred from his homeland after 1967’s Six-Day War, the poet Mourid Barghouti spent thirty years in exile—shuttling among the world’s cities, yet secure in none of them; separated from his family for years at a time; never certain whether he was a visitor, a refugee, a citizen, or a guest. As he returns home for the first time since the Israeli occupation, Barghouti crosses a wooden bridge over the Jordan River into Ramallah and is unable to recognize the city of his youth. Sifting through memories of the old Palestine as they come up against what he now encounters in this mere “idea of Palestine,” he discovers what it means to be deprived not only of a homeland but of “the habitual place and status of a person.” A tour de force of memory and reflection, lamentation and resilience, I Saw Ramallah is a deeply humane book, essential to any balanced understanding of today’s Middle East.

From the Trade Paperback edition.




It is very hot on the bridge. A drop of sweat slides from my I forehead down to the frame of my spectacles, then the lens. A mist envelops what I see, what I expect, what I remember. The view here shimmers with scenes that span a lifetime; a lifetime spent trying to get here. Here I am, crossing the Jordan River. I hear the creak of the wood under my feet. On my left shoulder a small bag. I walk westward in a normal manner--or rather, a manner that appears normal. Behind me the world, ahead of me my world.

The last thing I remember of this bridge is that I crossed it on my way from Ramallah to Amman thirty years ago. From Amman I went to Cairo and back to college. I was in my fourth and final year at Cairo University.

The moming of June 5,1967: the Latin exam. Only a few left to go: Latin, then two days later 'the Novel,' then 'Drama.' And then I would have kept my promise to Mounif and fulfilled my mother's wish to see one of her sons a college graduate. The previous exams-History of European Civilization, Poetry, Literary Criticism, and Translation-had gone by with no surprises. Nearly there. After the results come out I shall go back to Amman, and from there-across this same bridge-to Ramallah, where I learn from my parents' letters that they have started to decorate our apartment in al-Liftawi's building in preparation for my return with the Certificate.

It is very hot in the examination hall. A drop of sweat slides down my brow to the frame of my spectacles. It stops, then slides down the lens, and from there to the Latin words in the exam paper: altus, alta, altum-but what is this noise outside? Explosions? Are these the maneuvers of the Egyptian Army? The talk in the last few days has all been of war. Is it war? I wipe my spectacles with a tissue, check through my answers, and leave my seat. I hand my paper to the monitor. A flake of yellow paint from the ceiling falls onto the exam papers on the table between us. He looks up at the ceiling in disgust and I walk out.

I walk down the steps of the Faculty of Arts. Madame Aisha--our middle-aged colleague who enrolled in the university after her husband's death--is sitting in her car under the campus palm trees. She calls out to me in her French accent and disturbed manner: "Mourid! Mourid! War has broken out. We've brought down twenty-three planes!"

I lean into the car, holding onto the door. Ahmad Sa'id is ecstatic on the car radio. The patriotic anthems ring loud. A group of students collect around us. Comments fly around, assured and doubtful. I tighten my right fist on the bottle of Pelican ink that is always with me in the exams. Until this day I do not know why with my arm I drew a wide arc in the air and, aiming at the trunk of that palm tree, hurled the bottle of ink with all my strength so in that midnight-blue collision it burst into fragments of glass that settled on the lawn.

And from here, from Voice of the Arabs radio station, Ahmad Sa'id tells me that Ramallah is no longer mine and that I will not return to it. The city has fallen.

The examinations are suspended for weeks. The examinations resume. I graduate. I am awarded a BA from the Department of English Language and Literature, and I fail to find a wall on which to hang my certificate.

Those who happened to be outside the homeland when war broke out try in every possible way to get a reunion permit. They try through their relatives in Palestine and through the Red Cross. Some--like my brother Majid--dare to take the risk of smuggling themselves in.

Israel allows in hundreds of elderly people and forbids hundreds of thousands of young people to return. And the world finds a name for us. They called us naziheen, the displaced ones.

Displacement is like death. One thinks it happens only to other people. From the summer of '67 I became that displaced stranger whom I had always thought was someone else.

The stranger is the person who renews his Residence Permit. He fills out forms and buys the stamps for them. He has to constantly come up with evidence and proofs. He is the one who is always asked: "And where are you from, brother?" Or he is asked: "Are summers hot in your country?" He does not care for the details that concern the people of the country where he finds himself or for their 'domestic' policy. But he is the first to feel its consequences. He may not rejoice in what makes them happy but he is always afraid when they are afraid. He is always the 'infiltrating element' in demonstrations, even if he never left his house that day. He is the one whose relationship with places is distorted, he gets attached to them and repulsed by them at the same time. He is the one who cannot tell his story in a continuous narrative and lives hours in every moment. Every moment for him has its passing immortality. His memory resists ordering. He lives essentially in that hidden, silent spot within himself. He is careful of his mystery and dislikes those who probe into it. He lives the details of another life that does not interest those around him, and when he speaks he screens those details rather than declare them. He loves the ringing of the telephone, yet fears it. The stranger is told by kind people: "You are in your second home here and among your kin." He is despised for being a stranger, or sympathized with for being a stranger. The second is harder to bear than the first.

At noon on that Monday I was struck by displacement.

Was I mature enough to realize that there were strangers like me living in their own capitals? Their countries unoccupied by foreign forces? Did Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi look into the future and write--in his distant past--our current estrangement in the second half of the twentieth century? Is this second half longer than the first? I do not know.

But I do know that the stranger can never go back to what he was. Even if he returns. It is over. A person gets 'displacement' as he gets asthma, and there is no cure for either. And a poet is worse off, because poetry itself is an estrangement. Where does asthma come into it? Is it the coughing fit I had while waiting those long hours on the Jordanian bank before the 'other side' (as they are called by the Palestinian police) would permit my feet to touch this boundary between two times?

I had arrived from Amman to this Jordanian side of the bridge. My brother 'Alaa drove me. His wife, Elham, and my mother were with us. We left our house in Shmaysani at nine-fifteen in the morning and got here before ten. This was the farthest point they were allowed to reach. I said goodbye, and they turned back to Amman.

I sat in a waiting-room set up exactly at the end of the bridge. I asked the Jordanian officer about the next step.

"You wait here till we receive a signal from them, then you cross the bridge."

I waited a while in the room before I realized it was going to be a long wait. I went to the door and stood looking at the river.

I was not surprised by its narrowness: the Jordan was always a very thin river. This is how we knew it in childhood. The surprise was that after these long years it had become a river without water. Almost without water. Nature had colluded with Israel in stealing its water. It used to have a voice, now it was a silent river, a river like a parked car.

The other bank displays itself clearly to the eye. And the eye sees what it sees. Friends who had crossed the river after a long absence told me they had wept here.

I did not weep.

That slight numbness did not rise from my chest to my eyes. No one was with me to tell me what my face looked like during those hours of waiting.

I look at the body of the bridge. Will I really cross it? Will there be some last-minute problem? Will they send me back? Will they invent a procedural error? Shall I actually walk on that other bank, on those hills displaying themselves in front of me?

There is no topological difference between this Jordanian land I stand on and that Palestinian land on the other side of the bridge.

That, then, is the 'Occupied Territory.'

Toward the end of 1979 I was at a conference of the Union of Arab Writers in Damascus. Our hosts took us to visit the city of Qunaytera. A convoy of cars took us on the short journey and we saw the destruction visited by the Israelis on the city. We stood by the barbed wire behind which flew the Israeli flag. I stretched my hand across the wire and took hold of a shrub growing wild on the occupied side of the Golan. I shook the shrub and said to Hussein Muruwwa, who stood next to me: "Here is the Occupied Territory, Abu Nizar; I can hold it with my hand!"

When you hear on the radio and read in newspapers and magazines and books and speeches the words 'the Occupied Territories' year after year, and festival after festival, and summit conference after summit conference, you think it's somewhere at the end of the earth. You think there is absolutely no way you can get to it. Do you see how close it is? How touchable? How real? I can hold it in my hand, like a handkerchief.

In the eyes of Hussein Muruwwa the answer formed itself, and it was silent and moist.

Now here I am looking at it: at the west bank of the Jordan River. This then is the 'Occupied Territory'? No one was with me to whom I could repeat what I had said years ago to Hussein Muruwwa: that it was not just a phrase on the news bulletins. When the eye sees it, it has all the clarity of earth and pebbles and hills and rocks. It has its colors and its temperatures and its wild plants too.

Who would dare make it into an abstraction now that it has declared its physical self to the senses?

It is no longer 'the beloved' in the poetry of resistance, or an item on a political party program, it is not an argument or a metaphor. It stretches before me, as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well; visible as a field of chalk, as the prints of shoes.

I asked myself, what is so special about it except that we have lost it?

It is a land, like any land.

We sing for it only so that we may remember the humiliation of having had it taken from us. Our song is not for some sacred thing of the past but for our current self-respect that is violated anew every day by the Occupation.

Here it is in front of me, as it has been since the day of creation. I said to myself: "Land does not move away." I have not reached it yet. I merely see it directly. I am like someone who has been told he has won a large prize, only he has not got it in his hands yet.

I am still on the Jordanian side. The hours pass. I go back to the waiting room. It is clear there is nothing new for me. I sit on the chair and take out my papers. I pass the time in leafing through them: epigrams and poetic 'sketches' I am preparing for publication under the title "The Logic of Beings"--my ninth volume of poetry. I cast a quick look over the lines and return the papers to the bag. The anxiety of waiting reflects into an anxiety about the work. Before publication I lose my enthusiasm and doubt the value of the text that is about to escape from my control.

I love the poem as it forms under my fingers, image after image, word after word. And then fear arrives and certainty disappears. That contented moment when the creator is fascinated by his creation ends for me.

This happens and has happened since the first poem I ever published. I remember it well.

I was in the fourth and final year at university. I used to read some of my poems to Radwa on the steps of the library and she used to assure me they were good poems and that I would definitely--one day--be a poet. And one day I gave one of my poems to Farouk 'Abd al-Wahab to publish in Theater Magazine, which was edited by Rashad Rushdi. And then I spent days of terror.

Every day I would think of asking for the poem back, but I was afraid he would consider me weak and indecisive. I would see him in college and almost ask what he thought of the poem and stop myself at the last moment. From the second that poem left my hands I felt it was no good and should not be published. Now I know it really was bad.

The days passed until we arrived at Monday, June 5, 1967.

I went to a baker to stock up with bread, for we thought we were in for a long war. I stood in the long queue and on the pavement beside me--an extension of a small bookshop that had stayed open--were piles of newspapers, magazines, and books. Among tens of magazines I saw the Theater Magazine. I paid for it and riffled through the pages looking for my poem and-- I found it. "Mourid al-Barghouti: 'Apology to a Faraway Soldier.'" What coincidence is this?

My first poem published on this strange morning. On the cover of the magazine, the date: Monday, June 5,1967. A journalist once asked me about this. I told him the story, then added, joking: "I wonder if the Arabs were defeated and Palestine was lost because I wrote a poem."

We laughed, and did not laugh.

I leave the room again.

I go for a walk in the small space between the room and the river. I contemplate the scene. I have nothing to do except contemplate.
Mourid Barghouti|Edward W. Said|Ahdaf Soueif

About Mourid Barghouti

Mourid Barghouti - I Saw Ramallah
Mourid Barghouti was born in the West Bank in 1944 and graduated from Cairo University in 1967. His poems have been published in Beirut, Amman, and Cairo, and his collected works were published in Beirut in 1997. He lives in Cairo.

About Edward W. Said

Edward W. Said - I Saw Ramallah

Photo © Mariam C. Said

Edward W. Said was born in Jerusalem, raised in Jerusalem and Cairo, and educated in the United States, where he attended Princeton (B.A. 1957) and Harvard (M.A. 1960; Ph.D. 1964). In 1963, he began teaching at Columbia University, where he was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

He is the author of twenty-two books which have been translated into 35 languages, including Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975); Orientalism (1978); The Question of Palestine (1979); Covering Islam (1980); The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983); After the Last Sky (1986); Musical Elaborations (1991); Culture and Imperialism (1993); Representations of the Intellectual: The Reith Lectures (1994); Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine and the Middle East Peace Process (1996); Entre Guerre et Paix (1997); and Out of Place: A Memoir (1999). In addition, he edited Henry James’s Complete Stories 1884-1891 (1999) for the Library of America. Besides his academic work, he wrote a twice-monthly column for Al-Hayat and Al-Ahram; was a regular contributor to newspapers in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; and was the music critic for The Nation.

He lectured at universities in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia; was a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, John Hopkins, and Toronto; and delivered the inaugural set of Empson Lectures at Cambridge University, as well as a series of lectures at the Collège de France at the invitation of Professor Pierre Bourdieu. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Royal Society of Literature, and the American Philosophical Society, he was a member of the PEN Executive Board until 1998, and President of the Modern Language Association for 1999. He was awarded numerous prizes and honors, including 20 honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Haverford College, Bir Zeit University, the University of Michigan, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Warwick, the University of Exeter, the National University of Ireland, University of Paris 7—Denis Diderot, Institute of Social Science (the Hague), and several others. In 1998, he received the Sultan Owais Prize for general cultural achievement, and in 1999, he became an Honorary Fellow of the Middle Eastern Studies Association and was awarded the first Spinoza Prize given in the Netherlands.

As a musician, he has collaborated with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio for which he wrote a new English text to replace the spoken dialogue; additionally, he conducted a workshop with Mr. Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma for young Arab and Israeli musicians in Weimar, Germany.

Professor Said received several awards for his memoir, Out of Place, including the 1999 New Yorker Book Award for Non-Fiction; the Year 2000 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction; the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award in Literature conferred by the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the 2001 Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the 2002 Prince of Asturias Award for Concord. His most recent publications include The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Vintage, 2000), Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Harvard University Press, 2001), Power, Politics and Culture (Pantheon, 2001) and Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (Pantheon, 2002). His Freud and the Non-European was published by Verso in April (2003).

About Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif - I Saw Ramallah

Photo © Eamonn McCabe

Ahdaf Soueif is the author of two novels, In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999; a story collection, I Think of You; and an essay collection, Mezzaterra: Notes from the Common Ground. She lives in Cairo, where she was born.



“The most eloquent statement in English of what it is like to be a Palestinian today. . . . No other book so well explains the background to recent events in Palestine/Israel.” —The Times Literary Supplement

“An important literary event. . . . One of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now have.” —Edward W. Said, from the Foreword

“Forceful, lyrical, evocative. . . . A wonderful read.” —The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

“Stirring. . . . Poignant. . . . Compelling. . . . I Saw Ramallah is a magnificent addition to world literature. It is picturesque and lifelike. Its evocative images touch, move, and inspire.” –Middle East Studies Association Bulletin

“Marvelous. . . . A beautifully constructed and moving memoir.” –Al-Ahram Weekly

“An honest and lyrical account from the Palestinian Diaspora. . . . This book describes in detail the damage done to the Palestinian people in the most beautiful prose. . . . Because of his frankness and calm tone, Barghouti has ensured that this life story will stay with the reader a long time after all the shouting and politicking stops.” –Cairo Times

“A rare memoir. . . . Humane and eloquent.” –In These Times

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