interview with Mourid Barghouthi
and Stuart Reigeluth
Stuart Reigeluth is writing a master’s thesis on Mahmoud Darwish and Mourid Barghouthi at the American University of Beirut (AUB). The following are excerpts from the interview he conducted with Mourid Barghouthi in Amman, Jordan, in August 2004.
Stuart Reigeluth: You live in exile...
Mourid Barghouthi: Now between Cairo and Amman. In Cairo with my wife Radwa and daughter Tamim, and in Amman with my mother. We have what I used to call the Palestinian summer. This is when everyone comes from whichever country they are working in, with their children, with their wives. The mother lives the winter in all her solitude, waiting for a telephone call from sons or daughters working abroad, waiting for the summer to come to spend it with them and their families...
Do you think this is special to the Palestinian case?
I think so. There is no family living together. I don’t know of one that is living in the same town. There is always a member of the family who is working out, or studying out, or in prison. The Diaspora is so real that we don’t feel that it has this name. People don’t usually give names to what they live, they give names to the situation. The Palestinians of the Diaspora are scattered all over the world, from Canada to Morocco to Bahrain to Africa. The Barghouti family, for instance, you can find them all over the world.
You mention in your book I Saw Ramallah that Barghouthi means flea in Arabic.
Yes. Many reviews commented on this. In his introduction, Edward Said even mentioned this as an indication of openness or transparency, but to me I was just trying to be down to earth. I always hated the attempt on the part of the notables of the family to give this name some legendary explanation, when it is very familiar in all cultures to give names to people derived from the names of animals, insects or birds (nimr, assad, asfour, sarsour, barghout).
I Saw Ramallah has become very popular.
The French translation is supposed to come out soon. It was translated by Zeina Bzaza, a French Egyptian, and Maha Françoise, and published by Edition de l’Aube. English, Dutch, Spanish and Italian translations have also been published.
Some reviews have condemned you for being too aggressive and belligerent in what you say vis-à-vis Israel.
Some claim that I am too critical of Israel. All the other articles praise the book for its understatement, its balanced and humane approach. Those who are pro-Israel do not read and then judge. They judge before they read. One of them wrote that I am the brother of Marwan Barghouthi who is condemned for killing Israelis. If he really read the book, he wouldn’t say that. I know Marwan. He’s my friend. I love him, but he’s not my brother.
Where did you write this book?
After my 12-day visit to Ramallah. I started the first lines in Amman; wrote the first 15 pages, and then I had to go back to Cairo. I told Radwa [‘Ashour], who is a well-known writer, I was trying to describe what I saw on that trip. And then she and Tamim, who is a journalist and poet, told me, “You are not writing an article. You are writing a book.” I had never written a narrative. I have about 13 collections of poetry, but I’m not a novelist. She said, “No, you are going to write a book. Don’t stop.” Both kept on encouraging me. Every night I would write some pages and then I’d go to bed. In the morning, they’d turn on my computer and read. And when I got up, they’d come running to me, kissing me, “What a beautiful line! What a beautiful passage!” After the first chapter, I really felt I couldn’t stop there. So, the range of time is the 12 days of the visit. But the 12 days brought with them 30 years in exile, which are scattered through flashbacks and the way one remember things.
You don’t remember in a chronological order, but you let the memories come back naturally, which makes you go back and forth between the past and the present.
I have no memoirs and I don’t keep a diary.
You use the literary technique of repetition of questions on numerous occasions regarding the theme of recurrent events in the Arab-Israeli conflict: the repetition of wars, the truces, the cease-fires, more occupation, and more confiscation of land. For instance, you say, “One can take everything, but they can’t take our ability to ask questions.”
I hate those who give answers. I hate complacency and smugness. I am inclined to question. I have, generally, a critical mind of society, of relations, of language, of definitions, of abstract nouns. I hate abstractions. This repetition of the same situation encouraged me to project my independence. There is a repetition of disappointment - all the time. I never regretted not being with this group or that. I kept a distance. I think this is the elegant distance between the intellectual and the executive policy- and decision-makers; a necessary distance that separates the writers from politicians. I can’t be a politician. I can’t understand them. I can’t cooperate with them. I can’t obey them. I was never happy with the Palestinian leadership. I am an independent-minded person. Mahmoud Darwish was part of the leadership, of the Executive Committee. He resigned but he could find a way to deal with them, and he remains. I couldn’t be that close, never. I used to offer help if they needed it, but on the condition that I kept my individuality. I would not say “yes” because I was told to. So, I kept my independence and I paid dearly for it. Most of my colleagues now have bodyguards and motorcades.
Do you feel nostalgia for Palestine?
No. Not nostalgia. Nostalgia is replaced by the feeling that your will has been broken. You say to yourself, “I want to go to this place.” But your will is broken by the Occupation, by the Arab regimes, by the existing laws, by not having the passport, by being threatened to be arrested at the borders... So, this generates anger not nostalgia. I’m angry that there are places and faces and times that are lost.
Is this not a longing for a homeland?
No. I feel unhappiness and anger.
Could you clarify your definition of nostalgia? And how it relates to your personal estrangement from your land?
I see nostalgia as a negative feeling, a passive one, futile and lazy - another form of luxury suited to persons of a romantic disposition. When you are pushed around, forced into exile and displacement, you don’t look back on the place you lost with nostalgia, but with anger. You are in exile because your will has been broken. In my case I was exiled and displaced because the will of my enemy overpowered my own. The unfulfilled desire to restore my will generates anger not nostalgia.
You and Darwish had a very symbolic “return from exile” meeting at the Hotel Ramallah. Besides the journal Al-Karmel, what else did you discuss?
We usually discuss our political conditions, but with brief remarks and most of the time in a sarcastic way!
Concerning the recurrence of events in the Arab-Israeli conflict, could you comment on the importance of such dates as 1948 (Nakba) and 1967 as markers of Palestinian history? You are a child of 1948, and suffered the consequences of 1967. In I Saw Ramallah, you refer to 1967 numerous times.
I was 4 years old at the time of al-Nakba and I continued to live in Deir Ghassaneh and Ramallah after that until 1967. My awareness of the details of 1967 is a first-hand experience, while my awareness of the Nakba was gradually formed by narration.
In your book, Abu Muhammad says: “Build in your villages if you can. Build Palestinian settlements in Palestine. How can you ask if it was wrong? Come, my friend - come!” Is this you speaking through him?
Every character I mentioned in my book did actually utter his/her words. I may have changed their names because they are still among the living and, sometimes, I don’t want to expose their views in a book. But yes, everybody should come, make a state here. Stay, don’t go. Let Sharon come, let anybody come, but you have to be here.
As a Palestinian writer, do you feel constrained to represent your people?
No. I try to be true to a genuine feeling inside myself. First of all, I am faithful to my microcosm, my inner self. I write it. I discover that in poetry and in prose there are other people un-thought of during the moment of writing who will tell you that we came this close to our story. I am faithful to my microcosm and then the microcosm is written. But it’s not my intention. I’m not a historian. I’m not a politician. I am not an apologist defending any party or faction. My intervention with my outside is through trying to be true to my inside. For instance, most Palestinian writers dealt with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Beirut in 1982 as a victory for the Palestinians. We were kicked out - to Tunisia and six or seven other countries. The refugees were left alone without anyone to protect them. Thousands of them were massacred in Sabra and Shatila. And when we met after it all, some writers were praising our victory and our steadfastness.
Samadna [we were steadfast] 88 days, so what? The man wanted to kick you out and he kicked you out. He wanted to disarm you and he disarmed you. You couldn’t protect a child in the refugee camps. I think I was one of the minority voices who were faithful to what they felt. This was not a victory. History told us that you can do it, you can call defeat victory. But history also told us that it will not last. The lie is short-lived. Sooner or later, it will transpire that you were not victorious, that you were not the winning side.
Israel does the same thing. When you cross the bridge and enter the small office, there is a poster of Massada, a fortress besieged by the Romans, where Jewish zealots held out 2,000 years ago. They were not even martyrs, they committed mass suicide. If Emile Habibi was here, he would have Said saying: “My, what a wonderful memory they have!”
Well, you can’t really make them your example. Zionism is really built on so many fallacies, theological references, illogical references to chosen people, a promised land...
At the same time, very realistically, the Zionists are successful in imposing their version of history.
Because they are strong! All this linguistic architecture of the Israelis would collapse like sand castles had they been weak like us. If you are strong, you can say and do anything. Look at George Bush and Tony Blair. Their logical architecture is really flat and ridiculous. But it is their technology that is sweeping capitalism into countries that they can occupy.
And the Israelis are still capable of imposing a collective memory that is projected to the world and the world is accepting it. Where is the counterforce?
Well, we don’t have this counterforce.
Are books like yours not a beginning?
I was told it was beneficial. I didn’t want to be part of this counter-balancing aspect. But, eventually, the book played this role. I am told that in Britain and elsewhere in Europe it is changing some people’s minds about the conflict. But this was not my intention.
It offers a different perspective?
We are not seen. Now at least there is one person who is seen. The life of a Palestinian, from A to Z, is in the limelight for 184 pages and then he’s seen. He occupies the stage for a while. For those reading this book, I occupy the stage - or my people, or victims of the Israeli occupation are occupying the stage. It seems this was useful, that one has a voice.
Isn’t this nostalgia?
No. It’s anger. Anger toward your own people. And anger toward your enemy. And anger toward the Arab world. I’m critical of the whole scene. This doesn’t mean I’m without mistakes personally, but my mind, when it works through literature, is a critical mind that does not take anything for granted, that does not like abstractions. I don’t use abstract nouns. I use physical, concrete language. You read Mahmoud Darwish’s account of the invasion [the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982]?
Dhakira lil-Nisyan? (Memory for Forgetfulness?)
You remember to recall the past so that you don’t forget and so that others don’t forget. In this way, you can reclaim what was yours.
Memory to remember, not to forget.
Yes, not to forget.