A green land

I Saw Ramallah

Mourid Barghouti, translated by Ahdaf Soueif <em>Bloomsbury, 184pp, £12.99</em>


The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti was born in a small farming village outside Ramallah four years before the foundation of Israel. In Deir Ghassanah, every house had a name, and its farmers were proud of their olive oil, figs and almonds. It was while Barghouti was studying at university in Cairo that the 1967 war broke out, and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank cut him off from his birthplace. His next visit was nearly 30 years later, in the summer of 1996, and it is this, or more precisely the whirl of feelings and memories it evoked, that forms the subject of this moving memoir.

Much has changed in the intervening years: his mother now lives in Amman and he has married and made his home in Cairo. For a long time he was based in Budapest as a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and it was while he was there that his brother Mounif rang from Qatar to tell him of his father's death; a few years later, Mounif himself died in Paris. His family, previously so close, is now dispersed - the Palestinian diaspora in microcosm - held together only by affection and by the telephone.

The land itself has also changed: a long-remembered fig tree is gone, and so are most of the men of the village - dead, imprisoned, or working anywhere from the Gulf to Alaska. Hard times have depopulated many farming villages in the Mediterranean, but scarcely like this: the first thing Barghouti does when he reaches Deir Ghassanah is to offer his condol-ences to the mother of a schoolboy shot by Israeli troops during the intifada. He notices that the old mosque has acquired a new minaret and sees the Hamas slogans on the walls. Throughout, the author struggles not to sentimentalise the village as it was, or to reinforce the anger he feels at the occupation - and the occupiers - with an injection of nostalgia.

Yet the occupation is everywhere. It is in the settlements that ring Ramallah, their bright lights illuminating the darkness, and in the checkpoints that guard them and interrupt all journeys. It is in the houses and fields that exiles once handed over to friends, neighbours and relatives to look after - so that they would not be confiscated by the Israelis as abandoned property - and which then, sometimes, their new caretakers refused to give back. It is in the unrelenting politicisation of life and culture, which must be particularly galling for a poet. Above all, it is in the denial of normal life. In Barghouti's words: "Our hatred of the Occupation is essentially because it arrests the growth of our cities, of our societies, of our lives. It hinders their natural development."

It is well known that enemy occupation is dangerous and frightening, that it erodes the bonds of trust. What emerges here is more fundamental: the tyranny of isolation and boredom, the monotony of endless restrictions, the continual oscillation between defiance and humiliation leaving one always off-balance.

As well as being a study of place, I Saw Ramallah is the story of a man reflecting on his times and the cause he has fought for. Back on the West Bank, he sees how the PLO has been transformed and demeaned by being turned into part of the system of occupation. No longer the band of heroic freedom fighters he worked for in Budapest, it is now not victim but authority, allocating ministries, making policy, even arresting and imprisoning citizens. This would not matter if it had real power, a "true mastery over the Palestinian destiny", instead of enjoying what he describes as a kind of "cartoon control"; nor if the Palestinian media were more independent and detached. He finds a population waiting to see what this will all amount to - are they still waiting, eight years on? - but one senses that the author himself has begun to pull back, to insist that one can criticise not only Israel but also this new Palestinian leadership - not so bitterly, to be sure, but perhaps with a greater and more intimate sense of disappointment.

When Barghouti gets through the Israeli checkpoint and finally crosses the bridge over the River Jordan to enter the West Bank, he finds to his dismay that the river bed is almost dry, the hillsides parched. In the past, in his mind, this was a green land, well watered. This greenery has been preserved over many years in the gardens, balconies and house plants with which he has surrounded himself in exile. He washes leaves in beer to clean them, plays music to the plants, supports their weaker stems on sticks, and passes them on to friends when he departs. In their Budapest apartment, his son, who has never seen his father's birthplace, tells him off in Hungarian for spending more time with his geraniums than with his family. But Barghouti's plan is to get them to return to the West Bank together, and perhaps then his son will see what those plants really mean.

Mark Mazower's new book, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews since 1430, is to be published by HarperCollins this summer

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The new global elite