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Book Review: ‘I was born in Palestine, not here or there’

28th Feb 2014

book cover I Was Born There I Was Born Here

I Was Born There, I Was Born Here. By Mourid Barghouti. London: Bloomsbury. pp216. HB. 2011. £14.99

Mourid Barghouti is a gifted Palestinian writer and poet. Born in 1944 near Ramallah, he has published more than a dozen books of poetry in Arabic and, in 2004, his memoirs I Saw Ramallah was published in the UK to widespread acclaim (a review of this book was subsequently published in this paper). Thanks to his valuable literary contributions, Barghouti was awarded the Palestine Award for Poetry in 2000. Then, in 2008, he published another collection of poetry titled Midnight and Other Poems, which was also received well.

This work is a sequel to his I Saw Ramallah. In that book he recounted his story of his return to Palestine in 1996 for the first time since being exiled following the Six-Day War in 1967. In the book under review, which has been skilfully translated by Humphrey Davies, Barghouti continues the story from 1998 when he went to Occupied Palestine in order to introduce his son, Tamim, to his Palestinian family and relatives.

Consisting of eleven gripping chapters and a perceptive foreword by John Berger, in this memoir, Barghouti vividly goes back and forth in time between 1990s and the present day providing a real and equally powerful picture of life in Palestine with all its challenges, difficulties, hardship, humiliation and absurdity. The author has an unusual ability of explaining the ups and downs of life in an occupied land without losing his sense of humour and incredulity. This enables him to censure those who had created the circumstances in which the helpless Palestinian people find themselves in today without being vindictive and nasty.

In the words of John Berger, ‘This book, with its fury and tenderness, its close observation and cosmic metaphors, is wild. Reading it, you follow graphically the experience of the Palestinian people during the last sixty years, and, at the same time, you partake of some of the most ancient recourses of the human imagination when faced with collective suffering and humiliation…What has happened and is happening to the land of Palestine and its people is unclassifiable. None of the historical terms such as colonization, annexation, invasion or elimination are precise enough. The word ‘Occupation’, which is generally used, has been given a new vast meaning and this book spells out that meaning and the extension of what that means.’ (p xii)

Given the nature of the problem and predicament that the Palestinians have been forced to endure for more than 60 years now, it is not surprising that this book defies classification. It is not a normal memoir or another biographical account. It is much more than heart-rendering stories of displacement, uprooting, exile and individual and collective suffering. Nor is it a political tract, although I have yet to read a more powerful account of a man-made political tragedy. In fact, this book is much more than a personal journey, for it provides a compelling account of how to face political powerless with exemplary dignity in the face of sheer brutality and unspeakable inhumanity.

This book is about ironies, contradictions, double standards and hypocrisy; it is also about the failure of human imagination, integrity and morality. In the end, one is forced to concede that the plight and predicament of the Palestinian people is nothing but a big blot on our collective humanity. In the words of the author, ‘The Palestinian cause is starting over again from the beginning. Wasn’t the beginning that a land was occupied and has to be reclaimed? And that a people was expelled from its land and has to return? Is the end that we have come to today anything other than that beginning?’ (p214)

This is a powerful and moving tale of incomparable suffering related by a fair-minded and resilient writer of unusual skill and ability. Highly recommended reading.
Muhammad Khan. M Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).

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