For more than half a century, the world's most notable politicians and diplomats have debated what to do about Israel and Palestine, while soldiers and civilians alike wage war and pray for peace. A solution to the generations of dispute there can seem tantalizingly close or frustratingly distant. We see images of rock-throwing crowds and wailing mothers, and we hear the sounds of angry voices and gunfire. How seldom, amid the cacophony, do we hear poetry, or the details of daily life.
Palestinian exile and poet Mourid Barghouti fills this gap in his touching memoir, I Saw Ramallah, just released in English translation from Anchor Books. Barghouti, who was just days away from graduation at Cairo University when the Six Day War broke out in June 1967, was prevented from returning to his hometown in the West Bank, thus reducing family ties to telephone calls and letters. A few years later, Egyptian authorities sent him packing yet again, and he moved to Budapest. Finally, 30 years after his last departure from his homeland, he was allowed to return for a brief visit, thanks to the thaw in relations allowed by the Oslo Accords.
The memoir retraces his steps as he makes the journey -- as short as a narrow river crossing and as long as 30 years of yearning -- over the wooden bridge that separates Jordan from the West Bank. Barghouti's achievement lies in drawing the reader into the bubbling, meandering path of his memory as he walks. As a poet, Barghouti captures the significance of daily minutiae and lyrically weaves a narrative of loss, displacement and the tenacity of Palestinian culture.
I Saw Ramallah contains layer upon layer of politics, yet at its heart it is not a political book. Barghouti's story reveals how the political so easily overwhelms the personal for Palestinians, simply by virtue of their place at the crossroads of history, religion and geography. He is unflinching in his critique of Israeli policies, but he does not dehumanize Israelis, even soldiers. His criticisms extend to all who bask in power while people suffer, including some leaders in the Palestinian Authority.
The joy of this book is Barghouti's ability to see comedy and tragedy intertwined. I Saw Ramallah takes the abstraction of names from headlines and turns them into reality.