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Mourid Barghouti

Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti: ‘Tomorrow Is What Matters’

Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti: ‘Tomorrow Is What Matters’

At his popular talk at this year’s Emirates LitFest, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti said that he writes poetry to preserve his ability to criticize:By Sawad Hussainbarghouti

The Seventh Emirates Airline Literature Festival featured a session with Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti titled Out of Place. While the introductory part of the session focused on what place means to Barghouti as a poet, the remainder delved into other ideas: including the obsession with the past, the use of hyperbolic language, and aesthetics in Arab poetry. Barghouti shared his wisdom with a sizeable audience, making them laugh at times, and leaving them pondering his heartfelt statements at others, not least because they could – and should! – be applied to life as we live it. Spontaneous applause after such statements was not uncommon, and attendees were left wanting more.

The following expands on key themes Barghouti touched on while responding to questions posed during the session.

What does place mean to you?

Barghouti started by saying that thirty years of exile have taught him that there is no one definition of place. The idea of “place” was taken away from him a long time ago, he said, as he pointed out that he is four years older than the state of Israel. He played with the idea of “time as place, and place as time.” The past is a place, he said, before sharing that he has learnt over time that barriers do not define a place.

He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them. 

He then posed the question: “What happens when the difference between here and there becomes blurry?” He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them. In both personal and national cases, these two contradictory places can be the same place, or can even become one place.

What makes you write poetry?

Translations of Barghouti's work. Photo credit: Sawad.

Barghouti responded that he wanted to preserve his ability to critique. In poetry, he clarified, you have the ability to critique the self: your family, your nation, your life, your party, your religion, your work, your president…

Today, he said, man has lost the ability to critique this individual and collective self. True critique, Barghouti went on, is when one critiques oneself. “It’s not when Hamas criticises Fatah, or vice versa,” he expanded by way of an example. “Rather, true critique is if Hamas’s leader would criticise himself … everything under the sky is open to critique. This is what led me to poetry.”

With relation to how criticism has played a role in his life, Barghouti said: “I cannot coexist with the ‘ugly’. My life, its standards are not right and wrong, not halal and haram, but the standards I have are the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘ugly’ … There is such a thing as a beautiful mistake and an ugly correctness.”

When asked to give examples of each form, he specified that a beautiful mistake is something he can be happy in committing. For example, lying in order to give someone hope to live another day is a beautiful mistake. On the other hand, an ugly mistake he explained through an illustration: If an audience member — being a friend of Barghouti — asked to borrow a hundred dollars, he would lend it to him; if the money has not been paid after a year passes, Barghouti posited that he would be well within his rights to file a complaint against the borrower. However, Barghouti sees this outcome as wrong. “There is a friendship, circumstances not allowing people to pay,” he said. “People see this as crazy, but it’s better that I forget the matter altogether.”

The UAE is a young country, forty-three years old. Poets have said that with the skyscrapers and increasing development, the only place for cherished childhood memories of grandmother’s house is in the poem. What do you think?

Barghouti said that houses have changed, families have changed, the world has widened and it has advanced. “We are a people who have almost forgotten how to think of the future. [There are] political parties [that] want to go fifty years back and live there. If the past is our dream for the future, then when will we live? The past isn’t a dream. What[ever] from it [that] deserves to continue in the present will do so, and what doesn’t deserve to continue will disappear on its own.”

Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.

“I’m for human and architectural progress, and not looking at the past with excess consecration or romanticization. Tomorrow is what matters. What happened to us yesterday, we don’t live today. Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.” Barghouti’s response was thunderously applauded by the audience, which marvelled at how a man who has lived through such a tumultuous past could be so optimistic about the future. Numerous tweets were hurriedly posted to share this statement with the wider world.

You’ve talked previously in other forums about tabriid al-lugha, literally a cooling of the language – what do you mean by this?

Barghouti responded that he speaks in a tangible language that any Mohammed on the street would understand. He avoids speaking like the intellectuals on TV, who he says perhaps do not even understand what they are saying themselves at times with their roundabout ways of expressing simple ideas. “When I say ‘a wall’ in poetry, I mean a wall. Choose language that is shared between [us].”

He went on to refer to his experience as the Chair for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction panel this year, and the type of writing he witnessed in some of the novels that came before the panel. “In some of the books I read, there were phrases such as ‘brutal aggression’, as if all aggression isn’t brutal!” The use of such modifiers for nouns that are already clear points to lazy writers, he said. Hyperbolic language makes writing ‘heated,’ Barghouti continued, before making clear he prefers to ‘cool’ it down, to make it simple.

He then offered the following sentence as an exemplary illustration of his point: “‘Ahmed entered. I looked at his face, and saw that he was very tired.’ I, as Mourid Barghouti, when I read this sentence, I get rid of the ‘very;’ it weakens the idea of how tired he is. ‘I saw that he was tired,’ is much stronger than ‘he was very tired.’ The writer who puts ‘very’ in his writing loses the ability to convince you just how tired that person is.” He concluded his answer with the thought that the more detailed he gets in his writing, the less hyperbole is needed.

Is the aesthetic in your poetry always political?

“We writers write about two things, nothing more: life and death. When death is violent – caused by criminals, invaders, settlers [and] dictators – then you are writing a poem you could label as political. But when death is caused by say … what happened with Romeo and Juliet, then we can’t call it political. We are living in a place where we are almost eager for natural death; this is a strange place for us to be living in.”

Barghouti then walked the audience through his writing process:

“My aesthetics are dictated by my rough copy. By my first leading lines. When I start the poem, with one or two lines, they are my theoretical guides. I don’t follow any literary theory. I follow my first lines. These would lead me to a book-long poem; these would lead me to a narrative poem, an epic, a haiku, a three-line poem … I am faithful to the way I start my poem. The rhythm comes with it, the rhyme, the music, the philosophy, the length, the temperature of the poem are all suggested by the way it starts. If you follow literary theories, you cannot be a genuine writer. The first rough copy will guide you […] I hate labels. I don’t use the term political poem, love poem; those labels say nothing. It’s akin to a label that you put on your luggage when you are leaving for the airport: it says whose luggage it is, but never tells what is inside.”

Remembering Radwa

Mourid Barghouti ended his talk by reading a poem dedicated to his late wife. The rhythm of his syllables and the cadence of his phrases gripped the audience, who could not help but feel that they had witnessed the recitation of one very long yet engaging poem. Many were struck by his immense humility, and how he continually thanked the audience not only for their attendance, but also the very intellectual nature of their participation.

Labelled as a Palestinian poet, we know where he hails from and what his profession is, but sitting through Barghouti’s session at the Emirates Airline Literary Festival assured the audience that what they witnessed was a mere scratching of the surface of a literary giant who goes far beyond the casing of conventional definition.

Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.

Poet Mourid Barghouti on His Wife, Novelist Radwa Ashour (1946-2014)

The relationship between Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti and Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour — as traced through their literary works — is one of the twentieth century’s great love stories:182946_122926790673_2399930_nBarghouti and Ashour met as students at Cairo University in the 1960s, and he writes about the beginnings of their relationship in his second memoir, I Was Born There, I Was Born Heretrans. Humphrey Davies:“I read my first poems to her on the steps of the Cairo University library when we were not yet twenty. We took part together in literary gatherings at the Faculty without it occurring to us that a personal interest had developed, or was developing, between us. We were students and limited our conversation to ‘professional’ matters such as our studies and never went beyond these into any intimate topic. She would tell me, ‘You will become a poet,’ and I would reply, ‘And what if I fail at that?’ I’d tell her, ‘You will become a great novelist’ and she’d give the same answer and we’d laugh. This ‘fraternal’ language and collegial spirit continued between us until the four years of study were over and I went to work in Kuwait. I used to write regular letters about my new life in Kuwait to her and to Amina Sabri and Amira Fahmi, our best friends throughout our studies, with whom we’d made something like a small family. I realized, however, that my letters to Radwa contained nothing of my news or the events of my life and concerned themselves only with my unspoken feelings about that life.

“When I saw her on my first visit to Cairo during the summer holidays, we found ourselves talking like a mother and a father, and sometimes like a grandmother and a grandfather. We talked like a family of two that had been together for ages.

“It was out of the question to talk about ‘steps’ we ought to be taking.”

They married in 1970, and Radwa went to the U.S. for a time to study toward her PhD. Their only son, Tamim, was born in 1977. Barghouti writes about it in I Saw Ramallahtrans. Ahdaf Soueif:

“I do not know how men have stolen the right to name children after themselves. That feeling was not simply a temporary reaction to seeing a mother suffer during delivery. I still believe that every child is the son of his mother. That is justice. I said to Radwa as we took our first steps out of the door of the hospital, she carrying the two-day-old Tamim on her arm, ‘Tamim is all yours. I am ashamed that he will carry my name and not yours on his birth certificate.’”

37819_411548290673_1094883_nThat same year, 1977, Barghouti and many other Palestinians were deported from Egypt on the eve of Anwar Sadat’s controversial visit to Israel. Barghouti was prevented from living in Egypt for the next seventeen years. Also from I Saw Ramallah:

“And then the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, had a decisive role in defining our size as a family. His decision to deport me resulted in my remaining the father of an only child, Radwa and I not having a daughter, for example, to add to Tamim, or ten sons and daughters. I lived on one continent and Radwa on another: on her own she could not care for more than one child.”

On their continued years of off-on separation, from I Was Born There, I Was Born Here:

“Radwa would pay for the policies of Sadat and his successor Mubarak in the coin of her own private life. She would experience the expulsion of her husband and dedicate her time to caring for her son without the presence of his father for seventeen years, except for short and intermittent periods. When she was obliged to undergo a life-threatening operation, she would be alone with Tamim, who was not yet three years old, while I was in Budapest and forbidden to put my mind at rest about her and be by her side. My mother flew to Cairo the moment she heard of the disease and that lightened the burden for me a little. Once more I had failed to be where I ought to be.”

Barghouti was later able to return to Egypt and later even to Palestine, a journey documented in his I Saw Ramallah. Later yet, he is able to bring their son Tamim. On a poetry reading in the square of Deir Ghassanah, in Palestine, from I Was Born There, I Was Born Here:

“I wanted to speak of Radwa in the square of Deir Ghassanah and to the people of Deir Ghassanah because it wouldn’t be natural if Radwa’s almost total knowledge of everything about the village and its people — their names and life stories, the funny things they’re known for and their sorrows — were to remain one-sided. I wanted them to know her too.”

The two of them were married for forty-four years:radwa_ashour

Also from I Was Born There, I Was Born Here:

“Alone, between sky and earth, I think of Radwa.”


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