Poet Mourid Barghouti's prize-winning novel, I Saw Ramallah is a thought-provoking chronicle of displacement. In it, the author tells the story of his return to his birthplace of Dier Ghassanah, in Ramallah, Palestine, after a protracted exile of over thirty years.
His experience on this journey: of encounters, thoughts, emotions, and memories, tell us not only of his trip, but of himself, his village, his country, and his people. Essentially immersing us in the Palestinian perspective, and driving home the point that for its people, the much debated "question of Palestine", is not a theoretical, religious, or political question, but an existential one affecting millions of lives.
What does it mean to be Palestinian, in this age where the nation is under new management, and its natives have been scattered far and abroad?
What are the consequences of exile; being uprooted from your home, distanced from friends and family, and condemned to live life in other people's nations, on other people's terms?
What is it like to return home, a consummate victim of such displacement, to find that your home has not yet returned to you?
From the loss he feels at the Palestinian border in remembrance of those who died in exile, through his recollections of the uncertain years spent in diaspora, to the wistful nostalgia of his old home, crushed by the present devastation of its inhabitants, the harsh reality of the Israeli occupation hits the author in more ways than my words can capture. Yet his words, graceful and elegant, capture these tumultuous sensations clearly. Providing staggeringly poignant insight, into the quandaries of Palestinian life.
In this way, Mourid succeeds in giving us a taste of that visceral experience: of being a native and a foreigner, a local and a stranger, at home yet remote, all at the same time. For when I opened his book, I was a stranger to his place, a foreigner to his culture, and a distant observer. But when I closed it, I had seen him, I had seen his family, and I had seen his city. I had seen his Ramallah, and it belonged to someone else.
Review originally written for the Lagos Book & Arts Festival (Nov. 13 2015)