truth needs no eloquence.
After the death of the horseman,
the homeward-bound horse
without saying anything.”
• ‘Silence’ translated by Radwa Ashour from Midnight and Other Poems, by Mourid Barghouti
Although exile is often a family experience it’s rare that it produces a family of acclaimed writers. And yet we have the remarkable Ashour/Barghouti family: Mourid Barghouti, Radwa Ashour and Tamim al-Barghouti. Between the three of them they have borne witness to exile and injustice in Palestine and Egypt for over 40 years.
Mourid was from Palestine, Radwa from Egypt. They met as students at Cairo University in the 60s, but when the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab countries began, Barghouti was banned from returning home. Ashour and Barghouti married in 1969, living and working in Kuwait and Cairo until president Anwar Sadat’s diplomatic overtures to Israel, which led to all Palestinians being exiled from Egypt. Deported from Cairo in 1977 “in handcuffs, with only the clothes I was wearing”, Mourid was forced to leave Radwa and their five-month-old son Tamim behind. They were separated for 13 years, yet their marriage remained strong . As Barghouti later wrote, “Alone, between sky and earth, I think of Radwa.”
Between them, these two passionate and brilliant writers have produced award winning novels, poetry and memoirs, as well as a son who is a literary hero and exile in his own right. Mourid’s account of returning to Palestine for the first time after 30 years in exile became the acclaimed memoir I Saw Ramallah;(translated by Ahdahf Soueif) he continues the story, introducing his son Tamim to the West Bank family he has never met in I Was Born Here, I Was Born There. (translated by Humphrey Davies). Together, Barghouti’s memoirs voice the pain, sorrow and rage of 2 generations of dispossessed Palestinians longing for home.
“I tried to put the displacement between parenthesis, to put a last period in a long sentence of the sadness of history, personal and public history. But I see nothing except commas. I want to sew the times together. I want to attache one moment to another, to attach childhood to age, to attach the present to the absent and all the presents to all absences, attach exiles to the homeland and to attach what I have imagined to what I see now.”
Only in Palestine can he say “I was born here” rather than the “I was born there” of the exile.
Ashour was primarily a novelist, her fiction an intoxicating blend of meta biography, fantasy and documentary history, with exile and displacement a constant theme. Her acclaimed Granada series, (translated by William Granara) relates the dispossession of a Muslim family in medieval Spain as it falls to Christians. In Blue Lorries (translated by Barbara Romaine) a young girl visits her jailed politcal activist father and comes to understand the nature of his struggle. Her novel The Woman from Tantoura (translated by Kay Heikkinen) is her most direct comment on Palestine, a gripping tale of a thirteen year girl driven from her village and into exile by the massacres of 1948.
Yet perhaps her most interesting work is Specters (translated by Romaine) an experimental form of “autobiografiction” in which an Egyptian scholar names “Radwa Ashour”, married to an exiled Palestinian poet, meets a (fictional) Egyptian writer; both women are conducting research on colonial atrocities in Egypt and Palestine while haunted by ghosts of the victims. Ashour the author blends historical documentation, fiction, and anecdotes from her own life (including a captivating poetic “duel” between Tamim and Mourid using lines of al-Mutanabbi, the great Arab poet). Ashour captures the pride and futility of Palestinian resistance in this description of boys throwing stones at Israeli tanks::
They choose a minute of an absolute meaning and ability: intense freedom followed by death. They buy this minute with their entire lives. Is it madness? It is beautiful madness because that minute is more precious than an extended life in helplessness and humiliation.
Sadly, Ashour died in 2014, but not before she and Mourid embarked on their great collaboration: his poetry collection, Midnight and Other Poems, which she translated from Arabic to English. A few samples:
There is a sweet music,
but its sweetness fails to console you.
This is what the days have taught you:
in every long war
there is a soldier, with a distracted face and ordinary teeth,
who sits outside his tent
holding his bright-sounding harmonica
which he has carefully protected from the dust and blood,
and like a bird
uninvolved in the conflict,
he sings to himself
a love song
that does not lie.
My grandfather, still harbouring the illusion
that all is well with the world,
fills his countryside pipe
for the last time
before the advent of the helmets and bulldozers.
“Here they come,/ the betrayed ghost,/the witches/ and the Rogue Poets./ They touch your shoulder/ with hands illuminated by an anxious look./ They hang their orders like lanterns,/ on the walls of your night”
Radwa and Mourid’s son Tamim has taken up his parents’ call for justice. His outspoken criticism of the Egyptian government and the Iraq war led to his arrest (he was held in the very same Cairo prison that once held his father ) and subsequent exile in 2003. Tamim’s poetry has inspired protesters in both Egypt and Palestine; after protestors toppled dictator Hosni Munbarak, al-Barghouti’s poem ‘Ya Masr Hanet’ (‘Oh Egypt, it is close’) was replayed every two hours on screens in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and became a song of freedom all over the region during the Arab Spring.
Al-Barghouti is wary of translations; alas many of his poems are available only in Arabic. However, with his mother’s help, he translated his newest collection, In Jerusalem and Other Poems into English himself. The title poem, a mournful elegy for lost Palestine, is played and chanted across the Occupied territories, and has even been turned into a ringtone: he evokes a city that Palestinians love dearly which does not love them back…
And History turned to me and smiled: Have you really thought that you would overlook them and see others?Here they are in front of you; They are the text while you are the footnote and margin. O son, have you thought that your visit would remove, from the city’s face,the thick veil of her present, so that you may see what you desire?In Jerusalem, everyone is there but you.Jerusalem is the wandering deer. As fate sentenced it to departure you still chase her since she bid you farewell O son, calm down for a while, I see that you began to faint. In Jerusalem, everyone is there but you.
For more on the Ashour/Barghouti family:
Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.