I Saw Ramallah

Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah
translated by Ahdaf Soueif
(London: Bloomsbury, 2005)
First published: 1997

On the veranda Fadwa told me that Umm Khalil would come to visit me after work, and that Saji would come with her. Abu Hazim added that Bashir al-Barghouti telephoned this morning and invited everybody to dinner at his house. Fadwa’s daughter, Sawsan, phoned from Amman and her sister, Leyla, from America. The telephone, now that the era of letters is over, is the sacred tie between Palestinians. On the West Bank and Gaza the telephone has developed into the mobile carried in the pockets of the representatives of the newborn Authority in a way that antagonizes ordinary citizens. They are antagonized even though they know that normal land lines are not available on the West Bank and Gaza and that there is a kind of necessity for the mobile. But other things contribute to their feelings: the kind of houses that are bought by the ministers, the undersecretaries, and the directors, or even those that they rent at high prices; the luxurious cars they ride in. The marks of personal power do not fit with the absence of their national power or with the power of Palestinians in general according to the strange arrangements of Oslo.

In 1966, poet Mourid Barghouti left Ramallah and travelled to university in Cairo. Forbidden from returning to Palestine after the Six Day War in 1967, he has lived in exile ever since. In I Saw Ramallah, first published in English in 2000, Barghouti recounts his return to the West Bank for the first time in thirty years. Eventually arriving in Ramallah, and wanting to call members of his family in Amman and Cairo, he tells his friend: ‘“Today is the international day of telephones”’. Here, Barghouti clearly sets out the value of the telephone as a medium for connecting cultures and locations.

But, even as he highlights its role in connecting family and friends separated by conflict in this passage, the memoir stresses the difficulties of cross-cultural conversation and the ways in which telephonic infrastructure in Palestine remains subject to oppressive power regimes: ‘normal land lines are not available on the West Bank and Gaza’. Stressing elsewhere that ‘the displaced person can never be protected from the terrorism of the telephone’, Barghouti repeatedly points to the telephone’s relationship with distance and death: ‘The telephone never stops ringing in the night of far-off countries. Someone woken from sleep picks up the receiver and hears a hesitant voice at the other end telling them of the death of a loved one or a relative or a friend or comrade in the homeland or in some other country—in Rome, Athens, Tunis, Cyprus, London, Paris, the United States, and on every bit of land we have been carried to, until death becomes like lettuce in the market, plentiful and cheap’. Simultaneously a tool for communication and a technology of violence, the telephone in I Saw Ramallah has the capacity to both bridge distances and expose the divisions between us.

by Sarah Jackson