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Mourid Barghouti (translated from Arabic by Ahdaf Soueif), 'I Saw Ramallah'

Vintage, 2003; ISBN 1 4000 3266 0

In his introduction to this beautiful memoir, the late Edward Said says: what gives this book an unmistakeable stamp of profound authenticity is its life-affirming poetic texture. This is no surprise as Barghouti is indeed a poet of great sensitivity, he is the author of nine books of poetry; few of his poems are translated into English. For us in the English-speaking minority world, the idea that there is a body of Palestinian literature is probably as remote and unbelievable as the idea that there is a land and history of a country called Palestine. It is our loss in more ways than one.

This memoir of the painful consciousness of displacement is the first of his books to be published and widely available in English. The series of vignettes of his life as a child in Ramallah, his student days in Egypt, years of exile in Europe and Asia, and his return to his birth city after thirty years, all in no particular order, read like prose poems.

Throughout the book are fragments of his poetry, scattered like the dead members of his family to whom the poems are dedicated. The poem about his grandmother is the most beautiful and serene:

On her last day Death sat in her arms.

She was tender to him and pampered him

And told him a story

And they fell asleep together.

Other poems and stories reflect the bitterness of loss and exile as people die without their families to support and love them. He starts his tale when he reaches the border between Jordan and Palestine, in reality, Israel's Occupied Territory. Waiting for hours in uncertainty beside the small narrow Jordan (it is neither wide nor deep in spite of the Christian songs) 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.

Even as he muses and sometimes agonises about the plight of an exile, Barghouti colours the pages with the vivid detail of daily life in a real land that is not a real country, reinforced by the border soldier in his yarmulke carrying a shiny gun. Barghouti says: His poem is my personal history. His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land.He sees the faults of the victim, he says: we were not always a beautiful scene, but this does not absolve the enemy of his original crime.

In its very personal-ness and poetic expression, this is a very political book; it is an unanswered question for Barghouti and for us. For us the question is what are we doing to rid the world of military cancer? Where were we when it erupted in Palestine? Where are we now?

For Barghouti, it is to understand the reality of oppression and to express the truth that will overcome the violence and brutality, and yet to be rooted, even in exile, in the daily history of home. And finally, for the poet, it is the “life affirming” certainty that his son, born in exile, will see his father's homeland.