Tributes pour in for Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti
Few poets managed to evoke the existential complexities of living in exile and being stranded from a homeland as eloquently as Barghouti did
“The homeland does not leave the body until the last moment, the moment of death,” Mourid Barghouti wrote in his award-winning autobiographical novel I Saw Ramallah, in which he details his return to his native Palestine after living in exile for 30 years.
The quote is now one of many by Barghouti being shared online as people pay tribute to the Midnight poet, who died on Sunday night at the age of 77.
“Leaving this world as it is, hoping that, someday, someone else will change it,” Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck quoted a poem by Barghouti on her Twitter page, before adding: “Rest in power, and thank you.”
Born in 1944 in Deir Ghassaneh, a village near Ramallah on the West Bank, Barghouti moved to the Palestinian city with his family in his school years before enrolling at the University of Cairo in the early 1960s.
In 1967, just as he graduated with a degree in English literature, the Arab-Israeli War broke out. He tried returning to Palestine after the Six-Day War but was barred from entering his native country. The poet soon found himself stateless and homeless.
Living in exile, he travelled to Kuwait, where he worked as a teacher in the Industrial College. It is then that he began focusing on his literary output, publishing several poems in journals in Beirut and Cairo.
In 1970, Barghouti married renowned Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, who would go on to translate many of Barghouti’s works into English. The pair had met as students at the University of Cairo years earlier.
The couple left Kuwait for Egypt in 1971. A year later, Barghouti released his first book of poems through a publishing house in Beirut.
In 1977, Barghouti and Ashour gave birth to their only child, Tamim, who would grow up to be a published poet himself. However, that same year, Barghouti was deported from Egypt just before Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel – a move that caused outrage in the region.
It would take 17 years for Barghouti to reunite with his family in Egypt. Though they did see each other intermittently in other countries, they spent most of those years apart. Ashour worked as an English professor in Cairo, whereas Barghouti lived in Budapest, working as a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) representative in the World Federation of Democratic Youth and as a cultural attache.
In 1995, he was finally allowed to return to Cairo. A year later, as a result of the Oslo Accords, Barghouti was finally permitted to return to his home in the West Bank.
The visit inspired his searing autobiographical work I Saw Ramallah. The novel was published in Cairo in 1997 and won Barghouti the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The work was described by famed US-Palestinian philosopher Edward Said as "one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now have".
Barghouti has published a dozen poetry collections in his lifetime. His last collection, Midnight and Other Poems, was translated into English by his wife, Ashour. The collection includes the long poem Midnight, as well as several shorter works. The poems, which juxtapose frustration and anger with longing and affection, reflect on what it means to be living in exile, while denouncing Israel's oppression and occupation of his native Palestine.
"Midnight is basically a book-long poem that embraces all the feelings a person has alone at midnight," Barghouti told The National during a visit to Dubai in 2015 for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. "He is alone with his reality, imagination and nightmares, which bounce from the windows of his room and fall back in his bed where he lays."
A follow-up to I Saw Ramallah was published in 2009 under the title I was Born There, I was Born Here. The work is a powerful and evocative account of his and his son’s visit to Ramallah.
In 2014, tragedy struck the family as Ashour died at the age of 68 after experiencing health issues for months. She and Barghouti had been married for 44 years.
"We were a family of three, with my son and Radwa, and she sadly left us in December," Barghouti said in his 2015 interview. "Now it’s just the two of us and Radwa’s absence took with it some of the important definitions of home. Now, geography to me is ambiguous. I don’t know where to go or settle."
Few poets managed to evoke the existential complexities of living in exile and being stranded from a homeland as eloquently as Barghouti did. He may have envisioned his homeland leaving his body upon death, but his contributions to Palestine and Arab literature will survive long after he is gone. However, his death marks a great loss not just to Arab poetry but to world literature as a whole.
Updated: February 15, 2021 01:58 PM