At his popular talk at this year’s Emirates LitFest, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti said that he writes poetry to preserve his ability to criticize:
By Sawad Hussain
The Seventh Emirates Airline Literature Festival featured a session with Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti titled Out of Place. While the introductory part of the session focused on what place means to Barghouti as a poet, the remainder delved into other ideas: including the obsession with the past, the use of hyperbolic language, and aesthetics in Arab poetry. Barghouti shared his wisdom with a sizeable audience, making them laugh at times, and leaving them pondering his heartfelt statements at others, not least because they could – and should! – be applied to life as we live it. Spontaneous applause after such statements was not uncommon, and attendees were left wanting more.
The following expands on key themes Barghouti touched on while responding to questions posed during the session.
What does place mean to you?
Barghouti started by saying that thirty years of exile have taught him that there is no one definition of place. The idea of “place” was taken away from him a long time ago, he said, as he pointed out that he is four years older than the state of Israel. He played with the idea of “time as place, and place as time.” The past is a place, he said, before sharing that he has learnt over time that barriers do not define a place.
He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them.
He then posed the question: “What happens when the difference between here and there becomes blurry?” He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them. In both personal and national cases, these two contradictory places can be the same place, or can even become one place.
What makes you write poetry?
Barghouti responded that he wanted to preserve his ability to critique. In poetry, he clarified, you have the ability to critique the self: your family, your nation, your life, your party, your religion, your work, your president…
Today, he said, man has lost the ability to critique this individual and collective self. True critique, Barghouti went on, is when one critiques oneself. “It’s not when Hamas criticises Fatah, or vice versa,” he expanded by way of an example. “Rather, true critique is if Hamas’s leader would criticise himself … everything under the sky is open to critique. This is what led me to poetry.”
With relation to how criticism has played a role in his life, Barghouti said: “I cannot coexist with the ‘ugly’. My life, its standards are not right and wrong, not halal and haram, but the standards I have are the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘ugly’ … There is such a thing as a beautiful mistake and an ugly correctness.”
When asked to give examples of each form, he specified that a beautiful mistake is something he can be happy in committing. For example, lying in order to give someone hope to live another day is a beautiful mistake. On the other hand, an ugly mistake he explained through an illustration: If an audience member — being a friend of Barghouti — asked to borrow a hundred dollars, he would lend it to him; if the money has not been paid after a year passes, Barghouti posited that he would be well within his rights to file a complaint against the borrower. However, Barghouti sees this outcome as wrong. “There is a friendship, circumstances not allowing people to pay,” he said. “People see this as crazy, but it’s better that I forget the matter altogether.”
The UAE is a young country, forty-three years old. Poets have said that with the skyscrapers and increasing development, the only place for cherished childhood memories of grandmother’s house is in the poem. What do you think?
Barghouti said that houses have changed, families have changed, the world has widened and it has advanced. “We are a people who have almost forgotten how to think of the future. [There are] political parties [that] want to go fifty years back and live there. If the past is our dream for the future, then when will we live? The past isn’t a dream. What[ever] from it [that] deserves to continue in the present will do so, and what doesn’t deserve to continue will disappear on its own.”
Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.
“I’m for human and architectural progress, and not looking at the past with excess consecration or romanticization. Tomorrow is what matters. What happened to us yesterday, we don’t live today. Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.” Barghouti’s response was thunderously applauded by the audience, which marvelled at how a man who has lived through such a tumultuous past could be so optimistic about the future. Numerous tweets were hurriedly posted to share this statement with the wider world.
You’ve talked previously in other forums about tabriid al-lugha, literally a cooling of the language – what do you mean by this?
Barghouti responded that he speaks in a tangible language that any Mohammed on the street would understand. He avoids speaking like the intellectuals on TV, who he says perhaps do not even understand what they are saying themselves at times with their roundabout ways of expressing simple ideas. “When I say ‘a wall’ in poetry, I mean a wall. Choose language that is shared between [us].”
He went on to refer to his experience as the Chair for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction panel this year, and the type of writing he witnessed in some of the novels that came before the panel. “In some of the books I read, there were phrases such as ‘brutal aggression’, as if all aggression isn’t brutal!” The use of such modifiers for nouns that are already clear points to lazy writers, he said. Hyperbolic language makes writing ‘heated,’ Barghouti continued, before making clear he prefers to ‘cool’ it down, to make it simple.
He then offered the following sentence as an exemplary illustration of his point: “‘Ahmed entered. I looked at his face, and saw that he was very tired.’ I, as Mourid Barghouti, when I read this sentence, I get rid of the ‘very;’ it weakens the idea of how tired he is. ‘I saw that he was tired,’ is much stronger than ‘he was very tired.’ The writer who puts ‘very’ in his writing loses the ability to convince you just how tired that person is.” He concluded his answer with the thought that the more detailed he gets in his writing, the less hyperbole is needed.
Is the aesthetic in your poetry always political?
“We writers write about two things, nothing more: life and death. When death is violent – caused by criminals, invaders, settlers [and] dictators – then you are writing a poem you could label as political. But when death is caused by say … what happened with Romeo and Juliet, then we can’t call it political. We are living in a place where we are almost eager for natural death; this is a strange place for us to be living in.”
Barghouti then walked the audience through his writing process:
“My aesthetics are dictated by my rough copy. By my first leading lines. When I start the poem, with one or two lines, they are my theoretical guides. I don’t follow any literary theory. I follow my first lines. These would lead me to a book-long poem; these would lead me to a narrative poem, an epic, a haiku, a three-line poem … I am faithful to the way I start my poem. The rhythm comes with it, the rhyme, the music, the philosophy, the length, the temperature of the poem are all suggested by the way it starts. If you follow literary theories, you cannot be a genuine writer. The first rough copy will guide you […] I hate labels. I don’t use the term political poem, love poem; those labels say nothing. It’s akin to a label that you put on your luggage when you are leaving for the airport: it says whose luggage it is, but never tells what is inside.”
Mourid Barghouti ended his talk by reading a poem dedicated to his late wife. The rhythm of his syllables and the cadence of his phrases gripped the audience, who could not help but feel that they had witnessed the recitation of one very long yet engaging poem. Many were struck by his immense humility, and how he continually thanked the audience not only for their attendance, but also the very intellectual nature of their participation.
Labelled as a Palestinian poet, we know where he hails from and what his profession is, but sitting through Barghouti’s session at the Emirates Airline Literary Festival assured the audience that what they witnessed was a mere scratching of the surface of a literary giant who goes far beyond the casing of conventional definition.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.