Forty years of displacement: Interview with Mourid Barghouti

Mourid Barghouti

Is that June defeat a particular psychological problem for me? For my generation? For contemporary Arabs? Other events took place after it, other disappointments and setbacks no less dangerous. Wars raged, massacres were committed, political and intellectual discourses were altered, but ‘67 remains different. We are still paying its bills until this day. There is nothing that has happened in our contemporary history that does not bear a relationship to ‘67.

- Mourid Barghouti in 1997, marking 30 years of forced exile from Palestine in his book, I Saw Ramallah

As a British citizen I can enter Israel and Palestine (the West Bank, at least), and I do so regularly. Each time, this liberty leaves me feeling scandalous, impudent and embarrassed. I have visited a West Bank village where, because it has been seamed in on the Israeli side of the Wall, the daughters of one elderly man (himself older than the state of Israel) can no longer visit him in their ancestral home because they’ve married and now live in nearby towns — and he needs a permit to leave and return to his village when he goes to see them or to shop or pray at the mosque or attend a funeral in a village a stone’s throw away. I have walked around the sumptuous Dome of the Rock in aesthetic veneration while Muslim friends who live 15 km away have never been allowed to pray at Islam’s third holiest site.

The sense of unease I feel by virtue of my nationality in someone else’s homeland was even more acute when I prepared a list of questions for Mourid Barghouti, the prominent, acclaimed and exiled Palestinian poet about his homeland, his displacement and the conflict that created this nightmare for him and his family forty years ago. With his myriad roots to, and love for, his homeland, why should I have been able to visit it four times in the past three years when he waited from 1967 to 1996 before he could return?

It was the fact that Mourid was literally completing his final exams for his BA at Cairo University when the 1967 War broke out that he was rendered exiled all of these decades. He wrote the critically acclaimed and award-winning book, I Saw Ramallah, about this period of displacement and his feelings on finally being able to return temporarily to Palestine, visiting the places and homes of people who were part of his first 20 years of life.

In the book he recounts how he had just completed his Latin final when he meets a friend who announces excitedly that war has broken out and that the Israeli Air Force has already lost 23 planes: “Comments fly around, assured and doubtful. I tighten my right fist on the bottle of Pelican ink that is always with me in exams. Until this day I do not know why with my arm I drew a wide arc in the air and, aiming at the trunk of that palm tree, hurled the bottle of ink with all my strength so that in that midnight-blue collision it burst into fragments of glass that settled on the lawn.”

Forty years later, I ask him if he knows why he did it and what he was feeling — excitement, anticipation, uncertainty, fear? Did he ever imagine that what unfolded could have done so?

“It was the unbearable mixture of all these feelings,” he says. “On the one hand there was the optimism of the fifties in the Arab world and the promising sixties in the whole world, and on the other hand the historical disappointment with the Arab ruling circles who were the early Blairs [or] the early Bushes of the time. It was Nasser vs. all and all vs. Nasser (Egypt’s revolutionary leader). We were young students with the strong feeling that those decadent Arab regimes would certainly pray for Nasser’s defeat and add to their prayer a little action (or inaction!) to protect the interests of Israel and the USA. Nasser’s victory would have certainly meant their end. The Arab-Israeli conflict has never been a local or regional issue and will never be. It is the hottest clashing point in the world. The future seemed really gloomy at those days and it is gloomy now.

“Those whose countries did not suffer any military occupation (especially a very long one) [could] never imagine the plight of the Palestinian people today. After 1967 we thought that Israel conquered those huge territories — Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza — to bargain for its being recognized and accepted in the region. This turned to be very naïve. Israel wants to be a regional superpower determining the destiny of all the neighbouring states. It does not want to be even a normal part of the region. It wants to remain a ‘West’ in the ‘East.’ The Israelis are not struggling for ‘survival’ as they would like everybody to believe: they are struggling for ‘domination’ and ‘hegemony.’ By this they serve their interests and those of the universal Superpower, the United States. The two of them are not interested in peace for the time being.”

As for who was to blame for the 1967 War and whether Israel had planned a war of expansion at the time, Mourid Barghouti is certain: Israel started it and had pre-planned the expansionism that it would facilitate.

“Once I was asked by a Brazilian newspaper why the West ‘misunderstands’ Islam. My answer was ‘because it is in their interest to misunderstand’ — and when misunderstanding serves your interests you will decide to misunderstand. The whole world — and unfortunately some Arabs and even some Palestinians — now think, or were made to think, that the problem started in 1967. This fallacy is based on intentional misunderstanding, i.e. a criminal one that leads us to forget that Israel itself is a settlement. The Palestinian Nakba [catastrophe] started with the early Jewish settlers, decades before the holocaust. [The Jews’] presence — living, working, worshipping and moving in Palestine — has never been a problem; it is their political and military presence as the owners and occupiers and the rulers that created the problem. When you build a settlement you confiscate land and you expel people. If you get away with it, you expand and do more confiscations and more ethnic cleansing. This is the name Ilan Pappe [the prominent Jewish Israeli historian] gave to 1948. If the world keeps addressing 1967 as the core of the issue, we’ll reach nowhere. This ‘intentional misunderstanding’ is intended to make the world, the Arabs and the Palestinians themselves, forget the refugee problem, the Palestinians’ ‘right to return’, and to preserve the ethnic purity of an exclusively Jewish state. Any piecemeal negotiation about this or that settlement here or there, in the West Bank or around Gaza, is an absolutely useless effort.”

Barghouti’s comments about Israel’s settlements and the creation of the state of Israel echo an observant point he makes in his book:

“If you hear a speaker on some platform use the phrase ‘dismantling the settlements,’ then laugh to your heart’s content. These are not children’s fortresses of Lego or Meccano. These are Israel itself; Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography and the trick and the excuse. It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs. The settlements are their book, their first form. They are our absence. The settlements are the Palestinian Diaspora itself.”

“The Israeli settlement policy means two dangerous things,” Barghouti tells me. “First, Israel alone has all the right to exist wherever it chooses, with no right to the Palestinians to resist or protest; second, and much more important, is that this policy will ultimately lead to the death of the two-state solution. The Wall and [Israel’s] defiance of international law are the result of the US’s unconditional of Israel, and [neither] gives a damn for international law or world public opinion.”

Will this backfire on Israel?

“Israel’s practices and policies will backfire on it only if there is a genuinely organized Palestinian peaceful resistance, an end to Europe’s shameful and disgusting hypocrisy and connivance with Israel and, more importantly, if the US is clearly defeated in Iraq and changes course. Israel must not be above the law forever. The problem is that, for Europe and the US, every thing Israel does is ‘legitimate’ and ‘legal.’”

I ask him, ten years after his return to Ramallah and his villge of Deir Ghassan, what he has heard or witnessed about the Occupation’s on-going effects.

“We have reached a point of history where the term ‘occupation’ is no more a bad or shameful word: the US defends its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Barghouti says. “Israel has been occupying Palestine for decades now and expects the Palestinian people to thank her for that. But wait a minute, not all occupations! The US raised hell because of the occupation of Kuwait. The US generals now blame the Iraqi resistance on ‘foreigners,’ the marines being the natives! Israeli occupation has turned the life of every Palestinian into a ‘postponed life.’ The ‘immediate’ are death, prison, displacement and raids. Anyone interested in statistics can go back to figures to see the extent of destruction of the Palestinian economy, education, culture and property. If you add to that the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and its failure, you can imagine the misery of life under such conditions. Anyway, history tells us that all occupations end. All that Israelis are doing is postponing ‘the end’ as much as they can. Europe and US are helping them to have a very, very long adjournment.”

Barghouti’s criticism of Israel does not detract from his sharp criticism of the Palestinian Authority (PA), from Arafat to the present PA, for their contribution to the misery imposed upon Palestinians within Palestine and scattered in the Diaspora. It is his role as a poet, he says.

“I have been critical of the official Palestinian performance for more than 30 years now, since the early days of Arafat’s leadership,” he says. “With the PA that was brought by the Oslo Accords, this performance has deteriorated in almost all fields and my disenchantment with the PA grows with almost every decision and statement. It is, among other things, the PA’s intentional blindness (this time) to the unimaginable daily suffering of more than four million displaced Palestinians. This leadership, with its useless concessions in Oslo, has divided the Palestinian people into categories and zones, and I am amazed how easily this was done after all the sacrifices of this great people. But while my understanding, as a human being and as a displaced person and as a poet, of what it means to be displaced might result in writing a book or some poems, the leadership’s understanding should result in decisions and policies. Unfortunately this is not the case now.”

Tied in with this self-criticism of the PA, I ask whether Palestinians and the Diaspora could and should do more to reclaim what Barghouti calls Palestine’s “song” — “[O]ur song is not for some sacred thing of the past but for our current self-respect that is violated anew every day by the Occupation,” as he wrote in his book — almost 60 years after the Nakba and 40 years of occupation. How is it, I ask, that Palestinians haven’t reclaimed the truth from Israel, a history that Israel has regularly used to portray itself as the righteous, long-suffering victims in this conflict?

“The original sin of the Palestinian leadership is its illusion that by offering concessions they can get peace,” Barghouti begins. “The matter of fact is that instead of peace the US and Israel gave us ‘a peace process’. The peace process is only a euphemism to allow Israel to confiscate more land, build more settlements and walls.”

Barghouti adds, “After the Oslo Accords, the newly formed Palestinian Authority made the deadly mistake of looking at itself as a government and looking at the little land it controlled as a ‘state.’”

“This illusion gave Israel (and always with it the US administrations) the right to order us to behave politely as a state. The idea of the Palestinians being a people under military brutal occupation was the first victim of that illusion. That was the source of the calls for ‘reciprocity’ and the polluted terminology of ‘both sides’ — and the most disgusting term, ‘the vicious circle of bloodshed.’ That’s what gave Rabin the chance to [appropriate our status as the victims], as if our country was not under his occupation.

“The stupid idea of a Palestinian government is scandalously challenged and exposed every day by Israeli checkpoints and closures. Our leadership wanted us to believe that we were directing our affairs and our lives while we are actually directed by Israel. The only government in the occupied territories is the Israeli government. It is Israel who allowed the elections and it is Israel who preferred not to accept their outcome. The Fatah government was corrupt, [this] Hamas government is bankrupt, politically and financially — but Fatah failed because it believed it was a government and the same thing applies to the failure of Hamas. There is no government under occupation. Israeli permission to travel abroad or even to move to a nearby village is needed in every single case and for every single person, including ‘the president’ himself. This PA behaves as if we are subjects of the state of Israel, begging her to release some tax money or to remove a checkpoint or to be generous enough to grant Abbas an audience with the Israeli prime minister. How can you ‘reclaim history’ with such behaviour? … The Palestinian Diaspora … are left now without even a spokesman or any organised body to represent their case.”

Barghouti’s book details the effects of Israel’s occupation on Palestine and Palestinians. But what effects has it had on Israelis? Surely 40 years of often brutal occupation and colonization must have left a detrimental effect on Israel’s collective identity and society as well?

“The crime of Zionism lies in its refusal to see us, the Palestinian people. Zionist Israel thinks that we are there to be expelled, to be kicked around, to be displaced to be killed or to simply to disappear by a way or another. This is a sick society. Shalomet Aloni, a former Israeli minister of education (and a member of the now dead Peace Now movement), said to a Hungarian journalist, Alajosh Chrodinak, in a TV documentary that Israeli mothers brought up their babies and educated them as decently as they could, teaching them all the good values and norms of behaviour; then on the child’s eighteenth birthday the Israeli army would take those decent children to serve in the Occupied Territory checkpoints and kill Palestinians — and what we get back is killers and angry soldiers who are ready to shoot for the simplest pretext. Now, even this simple critical approach to their government is diminishing away,” Barghouti says.

“Israel is not ready for peace; there is no peace camp in Israel now. Even their intellectuals like Amos Oz and David Grossman learned quickly how to talk like Sharon and Olmert when it comes to the ‘right to return’ of the Palestinian refugees. The ‘great’ Israeli writers are worried about the Jewish purity of the State! Fortunately we still have the brave voice of Ilan Pappe. He has to be mentioned here with respect. Occupation and morality is a contradiction in terms, they never went together and they never will go together. Those who support Israel in Europe and in the US know very well that they are supporting a state that occupies the Palestinian people’s homeland and this support is immoral.”

I ask Barghouti what he expects ten years down the line, assuming, sadly, that it will mark 50 years of Israel’s occupation.

“I will never forget a poem by Bertolt Brecht, in which he says: ‘Because the situation is what it is, it will not remain what it is.’ We are, also, in this helpless and hapless situation partly because of the connivance and collaboration of the Arab dictatorial regimes with the US. This will not go on forever. The US itself will not remain the single policeman of the world forever. But it will take its time. Occupiers come and go. People remain. There will be a lot of suffering [along] the way.”

Bill Parry is a freelance journalist and photographer who has published
articles and photos on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the UK-based news
The Middle East, and the Times Higher Education Supplement. He lives in London, England and can be reached at bill_parry AT ntlworld DOT com.

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