I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouthi (translated by Ahdaf Soueif)

This autobiographical book tells the story of love and exile through the eyes of the celebrated Palestinian poet and author Mourid Barghouthi who visited Dubai’s Emirates Literature Festival last month.

Mourid is forced to leave his hometown of Ramallah, after the 1967 war. He enrols at a university in Egypt to study English Literature, and there he meets the love of his life Radwa Ashour. After thirty years, he returns to his homeland and leaves behind his son at the same university. The story effortlessly travels between past and present.

Not only is the reader invited into the author’s life, but also held by the hand through the streets of Palestine. What distinguishes this book is that it does not relate the author’s life from birth, narrating one event after the other. Instead, it presents it using Mourid’s poetic language which surges through the pages. He writes so authentically from the most vulnerable places in his soul – of a land he did not visit in decades, of friends departed, and a family he left behind.

What is also great about this autobiography is that it offers the reader insights into Mourid’s life before fame came to him. He too doubted himself had it not been for Radwa who would repeat, “You’ll be a poet one day.”

Mourid writes of his trips to Ramallah. He says that although he did not react the way most people react, like kissing the soil and crying, he still felt deeply emotional. The internal conflict he presents is that he will never have a homeland, and that even in his own homeland he feels like a guest, as he does everywhere else. These thoughts make one wonder if a home is a real place, a people, or just an idea that comforts us. When faced with reality, says Mourid, we find that our safe-haven for this ‘ideal’ place resides only in our imagination.

It is clear why this book won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature: it centres on the notion of humanity, whether good or bad, and how this quality allows us to find common ground with others.

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