Mourid Barghouti on Poetry, ‘An Editing of Life’

On the same day the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Arabic Literature was awarded, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti gave a presentation at SOAS in London:

By Norbert Hirschhorn

Photo of the event courtesy Nora Parr.

The annual Naguib Mahfouz literary prize was awarded this year to the Palestinian novelist Huzama Habayeb, for Velvet (Mukhmal). As is customary, the announcement was made on December 11th, the Nobelist Mahfouz’s birthday.  On that evening I was privileged to attend a poetry reading by Mourid Barghouti, who won that same Mahfouz prize in 1997 for his memoir I Saw Ramallah.

Mourid Barghouti read out several of his poems, both in Arabic and English, and offered a mini-seminar on poetics to an audience of a several dozen people — mostly students — at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Poetry, Barghouti said,  is exploration and an editing of life.  He noted that the true filmmaker is the editor, the person who determines the sequence of moments and scenes.  As a poet, Barghouti also writes cinematically, his lines emphasising light, shadow, and angles.  His first draft comes from writing one or two lines, then seeing what follows.  This is his uncensored “rough copy,” as he calls it, that then is set aside.  The poet, in this way, is a writer first, uncensored, an editor and critic afterward.  The process might take days or much longer, the final version obedient to the beginnings, loyal to the rough copy.

Poetry, Barghouti pointed out, is his way to explore and discover ideas, but ideas don’t drive the poem. Even the form is undetermined.  For instance, the way he crafted his memoir I Saw Ramallah was to sit down and just begin writing.  He thought it would be a long poem, like Midnight, his book-length poem, but it started to come out as prose.  It was not a conscious decision to write in in either form, it was how the work began to write itself.  (The term ‘prose poetry’ in Arabic poetics is what is called in English ‘free verse’, both unbeholden to any formal line structure, rhyme scheme or rhythm, driven instead by imagery, sound and metaphor.)

Barghouti is emphatically not an advocate for any particular literary theory, discussions of which can lead poets to quarrel with one another.

Asked by a student why his poetry and memoirs are not translated into Hebrew, which could inform the Israeli readers about the Palestinian situation, Barghouti replied that despite his agent’s urging he refuses to do so.  Why?  Simply, “They occupy my country.”  When he crosses from Amman over the Allenby Bridge on the way to Ramallah he is humiliated, interrogated, searched, and held for hours.  If he were to be published in Israel, he would have to accept payment because “copyright is the only respected law in Israel.”  He said the Israelis could simply steal the book, “like they stole the country.”  However, he was adamant in saying, “My job is to present you with a work of art, not propaganda.”

He writes in Arabic (now straight onto the computer).  Arabic readers would better understand his playfulness with words, which wouldn’t always come out in translation.  An example in English might be the snarl in ‘Are you nuts?’ versus ‘Are you crazy?’

In one of his oft-quoted ideas about poetry, Barghouti wrote: “One of its charming miracles is that through its form, poetry can resist the authoritarian discourse. By resorting to understatement, concrete and physical language, a poet contends against abstraction, generalisation, hyperbole and the heroic language of hot-headed generals and bogus lovers alike…. [We] the poets of the world, continue to write our poems to restore the respect of meaning,” something he does with great artistry.

Norbert Hirschhorn’s poems have appeared in numerous US/UK publications, and he can be found at