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 executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

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