The Books Interview: Mourid Barghouti

Your new book, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, is about returning to Palestine from your current home in Cairo. What does exile feel like?
Long wars, long dictatorships and long occupations make you the son not of geography, but of the idea of it - the remembrance of it, the marks of it on your heart and your brain and your memory.

As an exile, you have so many lives in the same day: the realistic one in exile and the remembered one of your childhood - and, with that, a lost, denied geography.

Do you feel like a stranger when you go back to Palestine?
Yes. It's painful to restore the past, to try to relive it. Nobody ever returns completely and nothing is ever restored completely, because what you dream of is not the places or the stones, not the streets or the buildings. What you crave is the moment, the time you spent in those places. And
time is unrestorable. You cannot restore your childhood.

Driving through the village I grew up in, I would see people walking and my companion would ask me, "You know this man?" and I would say, "Yes, of course I know him." But I was lying and was ashamed to say, "I don't know him." And I kept lying until, at a certain moment, I said to him, "Look, I know no one here. I don't know whose house is this."

Everything had become pale and hazy and I really preferred to lie just to keep my sense of belonging, but I couldn't do it. Finally, I told the man, "I am a stranger here."

When you go back to the West Bank, you're there at the discretion of the Israelis.
Yes. Now Israel controls the six borders of Palestine - the land and the sea, the north and the south, the east and the west. You cannot enter Palestine without an Israeli stamp.

This is the meaning of occupation - making you unable to do anything your own way. You have to do it the Israeli way.

Does that mean that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is just a kind of fiction?
The PA is a political body that was created after the Oslo Accords in 1993 and it believed that the way to have any result with the Israelis was for the Palestinians to be polite. But after 19 years, this has reached a dead end. The so-called peace process hasn't given us peace.

What role should writers play in the resistance to occupation?
I don't feel comfortable with labels such as "resistance poetry". It paves the way for anyone who is shouting against a regime or writing hyperbole. In art, aesthetics are the determining factor. Any beautiful poem is an addition, but any badly written poetry is a reduction.

Perhaps beauty is the greatest resistance?
Yes, because you're surrounded by the ugliness of injustice, oppression, occupation, exile, displacement. You cannot practise any artistic form without giving priority to beauty. Justice and beauty are the core of any artistic contribution to this world.

You have observed the Arab spring at close quarters. Do you think the Israelis are fearful of people power in the Middle East?
Yes. The Israelis now have every reason to rethink and reassess the comfortable historical pillow they've been laying their heads on for decades. They were sure that the US was going to take care of them and provide them with military superiority compared to their neighbours.

They also depended on dictatorships which colluded and connived with different Israeli governments. Now, this is changing.
I think that Israel is more afraid of young Egyptian men and women than it was of armies and refugees.

If the Middle East becomes full of benign democracies, then the idea of an "existential threat" to Israel disappears, doesn't it?
The idea of an existential threat was an Israeli fabrication from the beginning. What is existentially threatened is Palestinian life, Palestinian history, Palestinian geography, Palestinian identity.

What are you working on next?
I am working on a new volume of poetry. But I do that very slowly. Whenever I start a new poem I do so as a beginner.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire

Mourid Barghouti's "I Was Born There, I Was Born Here" is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis