One-minute Review: Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah

There are some aspects of I Saw Ramallah that feel outdated. There were a few moments when, reading Mourid Barghouti‘s 1997 memoir in 2010, I wished the celebrated poet had been reflecting on the current political landscape rather than the landscape of the mid-1990s.

But these moments are rare. Most of the time, I found myself moved by the calm, critical beauty of his prose—translated beautifully by Ahdaf Souief. It’s a very rare thing to find a beautiful translation of Arabic to English, so I’d like to repeat it: translated beautifully by Ahdaf Souief.

Here, Barghouti talks to the bridge that keeps him out and allows him into Palestine:

I would have thanked you, bridge, if you had been on another planet, at a spot the old Mercedes could not reach in thirty minutes. I would have thanked you had you been made by volcanoes and their thick, orange terror. But you were made by miserable carpenters, who held their nails in the corners of their mouths, and their cigarettes behind their ears.

The reflections in I Saw Ramallah regard Barghouti’s return “home” after a 30-year exile that took him to Cairo, and then Budapest. But these reflections also have a larger scope, and take in not just exile and occupation, but how occupation affects art, the nature of writing as displacement,  how memory is formed, and the strangeness of space and time. Best of all, the reflections feel critical, honest, and difficult.

The memoir uses poetic language, but fictional devices. The plot is Barghouti’s return, but much of what kept me reading—aside from the lovely, meaty language—was the elusive fate of Barghouti’s brother Mounif, who met a tragic end in Paris, the nature of which is revealed only at the memoir’s end.

Another memoir by Barghouti appeared in Arabic in 2009. The title translates (roughly) as I Was Born There, I Was Born Here. Notes from a Fruit Store reports that it’s on its way into English; I see no mention of it on Barghouti’s website. Perhaps I’ll email the agent.