Reviewed by Hugh Galford
Washington Report jan-feb 2001
Of the several final status issues yet to be honestly examined under Oslo, that of the Palestinian refugees�and their right to return�ranks among the most emotive. Scattered around the world, the refugees from 1948, their numbers swelled by those from 1967, now total an estimated 5 million. Even after 50 years, their attachment to home is awesome�especially when it is realized that many of them have never laid eyes on Palestine.
For Mourid Barghouti in I Saw Ramallah, the bridge home still exists, but the road to it has been filled with catastrophes and misfortunes.
In spring 1967, Barghouti left Deir Ghassanah, a village outside of Ramallah, to return to Cairo for his university exams. On June 5, he has three exams standing between him and graduation. And on June 5, while in the process of winning a university degree, he loses his home: Ramallah has fallen to the Israeli army.
Thus begins Barghouti�s exile. In Egypt he marries and has a son, but is forced to leave the country and settle�without his family�in Budapest. He describes his forced travels thus: �From Baghdad to Beirut to Budapest to Amman to Cairo again. It was impossible to hold on to a particular location. If my will clashed with the will of the owner of a place, it was always my will that was exposed to breaking. I do not live in a place. I live in a time, in the components of my psyche, in a sensitivity special to me.� With no home, he is always the �outsider,� under suspicion, expendable.
While working and living under such conditions is harrowing, family matters are even more uncertain. In 1968, he and his family manage to meet in Amman for the first time since the 1967 war. He was working in Kuwait; his mother and youngest brother were in Ramallah; his father and another brother in Amman; his elder brother in Qatar. The dispersal was complete, and remained so: when a cousin was killed in Beirut, Barghouti describes the situation: �Mounif [his elder brother] is calling me in America from Qatar about Fahim�s martyrdom in Beirut and burial in Kuwait, and about the necessity of informing Sitti Umm �Ata in Deir Ghassanah and his maternal grandmother in Nablus and my mother in Jordan. Radwa [his wife] and I are confirming our tickets to return to Cairo via Rome.� Rather than a place, �home� and �family� have become extractions and ideals.
Even when he is allowed to return to Ramallah in 1996, Barghouti finds the same uncertainties at play. His journey is one of mixed emotions: joy at seeing those waiting for him, sadness for those who have died and who will never walk in Palestine again. Friends return to his thoughts time and again: Ghassan Kanafani, the novelist; Naji Ali, the political cartoonist; his elder brother Mourid, who died in Paris in suspicious circumstances. Barghouti sees Palestine not only for himself, but for them as well. His joy at being back is tinged with guilt that he, and not they, are returning.
But returning to what? Crossing the Allenby Bridge underscores the tenuous nature of Palestinian �control� of parts of Palestine. He is made to wait for hours on the Jordanian side while Israeli officials�despite his travel permits�decide whether he can enter. On the western bank of the river, he is again made to wait before going on to the Israeli border station. There, �I passed through the gate and found myself facing an armed Israeli officer. He stopped me, asked for my papers, looked through them, and returned them.
�In an attempt to deal with my own tension I decided to be the first to ask a question: �Where do I go now?�
��To the Palestinian officer, of course.�
�He motioned to a room nearby.
�The Palestinian officer takes my papers and turns them over in his hands then gives them back to the same Israeli officer, who smiles in a deliberate fashion and asks me to wait. I ask him, where?
��With the Palestinian officer, of course.��
Of course. No power. No authority. No assistance. Just a minder. An underling.
Doubts rear themselves at every point of Barghouti�s trip. On the drive north to Ramallah, he is surprised to find a barren, rocky landscape; what happened to the flowering hills of his memory? Is his memory false, or have things changed (or been changed)? The Palestinian countryside has been marred by the construction of Israeli settlements. (�These are Israel itself; Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography and the trick and the excuse. It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs. Their settlements are their book, their first form. They are our absence. The settlements are the Palestinian Diaspora itself.�)
Even in Ramallah and Deir Ghassanah, among family and old friends, Barghouti still feels himself an outsider. �Did I really know a great deal about the Palestinian countryside?� he asks himself at one point. More important, though, are the questions that he asks himself in his old hometown: �What does Deir Ghassanah know of you, Mourid? What do your people know of you now? What do they know of the things that you have been through, the things that have shaped you�throughout the thirty years that you have lived far from them?�You too do not know the times they have been through. Their features that you remember are constant and altered at the same time. Have they not changed too?
�They lived their time here and I lived my time there. Can the two times be patched together?�
The difficulties contained in this last question can be seen through the issue of land ownership. As Barghouti explains, many people registered their properties in the names of their relatives so that the occupation forces could not confiscate them as �absentee properties.� Many of these �caretakers� have honorably and faithfully kept up their part of the unwritten agreement. Others, however, became greedy, considering the properties actually theirs and doing with them as they pleased: renting, selling, tearing down. The right of return for many of these �caretakers� is actually a fear of return.
I Saw Ramallah�s importance is that, while many speak about the �refugee problem,� the refugees themselves remain largely silent or unheard. Barghouti shatters this silence with his forceful, lyrical, evocative narrative. Edward Said calls this book �One of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now have.� There is no start or finish to the work; his thoughts are written as they arrive to Barghouti. The jumble of issues, questions, people and events are as real and unsimplified as the life that gave rise to them.