I Was Born There, I Was Born Here // Mourid Barghouti 📚

2011 // Memoir

FIRST LINE

Here we are, safely arrived in Jericho, as he promised.

FROM THE BLURB

The sequel to the acclaimed memoir I Saw Ramallah, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here takes up the story in 1998 when Barghouti returned to the Occupied Territories to introduce his Cairo-born son, Tamim, to his Palestinian family.

I Was Born There, I Was Born Here

Mourid Barghouti is a Palestinian poet and this autobiography is full of poetic moments, lightly captured by translator Humphrey Davies (who, back in my Cairo days, introduced me to Proust):

A moment of total silence envelops us all. A moment as silent as a candle burning. A moment as silent as a letter being passed under a door.

Although his life in exile and under Occupation cast a long shadow, Barghouti makes time to pick out the quiet details of Palestinian social life, such as this meditation on the ‘perfectly timed cup of coffee’:

People can’t agree on where coffee’s secret lies: opinions range from the smell, the colour, the taste, the consistency, the blend, the cardamom, the roast, to the shape of the cup and a number of other things. For me, it’s the timing.

But the book is inevitably riven with history, politics and the war of Occupation.

The traveller to Palestine does not cross its threshold in order to enter, he dwells at that threshold for a period that is not determined by him and waits for the instructions of the masters of the house, who determine everything.

The distortions of Occupation

Something that has always stayed with me from my own travels in Palestine is how difficult it was to move around. I carried a British passport and was only in the Occupied Territories for a week; I can scarcely begin to imagine what life must be like for people who live there.

One of the Occupation’s cruellest crimes is the distortion of distance in the individual’s life. […] Whenever the soldiers kill someone, the customary distance between the moments of birth and death is distorted. The Occupation closes the road between two cities and makes the distance between them many times the number recorded on the maps. […] The soldier of the Occupation stands on a piece of land he has confiscated and calls it ‘here’ and I, its owner, exiled to a distant country, have to call it ‘there’.

The psychology of Occupation

The checkpoints cause physical distortion, of course, but Barghouti comes back time and again to the psychological distortions caused by Occupation.

Life, though, taught me that you have to be free in order to choose, or be confused, or decide, or demolish, or build, or forgive, or apologise, or accept, or refuse; likewise — and here’s the rub — you have to be free in order to forget.

And this life is distorted not only for the Palestinians. Barghouti also sees the psychological contortions that Israel puts its own citizens through.

Everything in Israel is determined by its obsession with security. It is a nation that sees itself as forever victorious, forever frightened, and forever in the right. […] It is a state that possesses more than two hundred nuclear weapons, has erected more than six hundred barriers and checkpoints, has built around us a wall 780 kilometres long, detains more than eleven thousand prisoners, controls all borders and crossing points leading to our country by land, sea, and air, and frames its laws with reference to a permanent philosophy that its victories do not change, a philosophy whose core is this mighty state’s fear . . . of us.

That was then, this is now

This book was published in 2011, so I did some research to see how Barghouti’s claims stack up today:

  • Israel will neither confirm nor deny that it has nuclear weapons. It’s one of the worst kept secrets in military history. According to a 2014 study, Israel is estimated to have 80 nuclear warheads. Other estimates rise as high as 400, but these ‘strain credibility’ according to the study authors.

  • According to B’tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, in 2017 there were 98 permanent checkpoints in the West Bank, plus an average of 327 ‘flying’ checkpoints every month, as well as 476 unstaffed physical obstacles blocking the roads. The Gaza strip is entering its thirteenth year under an Israeli military blockade.

  • The separation barrier, if ever finished, will be 712km long, but as of 2017 ‘only’ 460km had been built. By contrast, the Green Line agreed between Israel and the Arab states during the 1949 armistice is only 320km long, which shows how the separation barrier nibbles away at former Palestinian territory.

  • According to B’tselem, in January 2020 there were at least 4,520 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners.

  • Finally, Israel still controls all borders and crossing points leading to the Palestinian territories.

The culpability of Europe, the Authority and the Arab States

Barghouti is a sharp critic of Israel, of course, but also aims his pen at Europe and the Palestinian Authority: ‘a fat, flabby NGO […] unaware that throughout history it is precisely the carrot that has embodied the underhandedness of imperialism’.

Israel occupies the country, Europe pays the costs of that occupation, and the Authority implements Israel’s conditions.

Later, Barghouti remembers the exiled Palestinians in the Gulf states who spend half their time ‘watching American TV series’ and who mock protestors and anyone ‘who shows interest in any public issue’:

The employment of millions of Palestinians in the Gulf may constitute another way in which the Arab system funds the Occupation and covers its costs with Arab money.

LAST LINE

The memoir ends with Barghouti commenting on the parallels between the exiled Jews who in 1948 reclaimed the historic land of Israel, and the now exiled Palestinians who long to return to their historic lands. Poignantly, he asks:

Is the end that we have come to today anything other than that beginning?

WHERE NEXT?

  • Read: Mourid Barghouti’s poetry, of course. I loved Interpretations.

  • Watch: Writers on the Borders (2004), which records the visit to Palestine of an international group of writers described in the memoir.

  • Eat: musakhan, chicken oven-roasted with onions, sumac, olive oil on taboon flatbread.

END MATTER

  • Borrowed from the great Cholsey home library — thanks!

  • 216 pages, ~57,000 words

  • Read: 22 February to 8 March 2020

  • ISBN: 9781408822470

This newsletter review is published under the ‘fair dealing’ copyright exemption for criticism, review or quotation. If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, please consider buying the book: Waterstones // eBay // Find your local bookshop

CREDITS

David Charles wrote this. He publishes another newsletter about the overlooked corners of our world called, humbly, The David Charles Newsletter. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. He also edits books about adventure, activism and more. Reply to this email, or discover more on davidcharles.info. Thank you for reading!