Commemorating 75 Years of Nakba
The Spectral Conversations of Mourid Barghouti and Radwa Ashour
May 11, 2023
This year marks seventy-five years of Palestinians’ ongoing Nakba. Since 1948, when Zionist settler colonialism dispossessed two-thirds of Palestinians of their homeland, fragmentation and dislocation have shaped analyses of Palestinian poetics. The term, “Nakba”—meaning “catastrophe” and originally coined to describe this apocalyptic event—has since come to encompass the ongoing systemic implementation of Palestinian dispossession, captivity, erasure, and death. This articulation of ‘ongoing Nakba’ exposes the function of Israel’s settler colonial regime and, fundamentally, the Palestinian experiences of it. However, perceptions and narrations of Palestine (inexorably fractured by 1948) are not only an outcome of colonial violence. This year, as we commemorate seventy-five years of Palestinian steadfastness in the struggle for liberation and determined celebration of life, I am brought back to the intimacy and vibrancy of two celebrated authors, Mourid Barghouti and Radwa Ashour.
Prolific poet and author, Mourid Barghouti (1944-2021) and novelist and critic, Radwa Ashour (1946-2014) were married in 1970, forging an exceptional partnership that began when both were students at the University of Cairo. Mourid, who was born in Deir al-Ghassaneh, Palestine, was trapped outside of his homeland for three decades. The 1967 war with Israel—and Israel’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza—had rendered him an exile. Radwa, who was Egyptian, was profoundly impacted by Mourid’s dual-exile: first from Palestine and then, ten years later, from Egypt in 1977. Mourid, who publicly opposed the Egyptian government’s normalization of relations with Israel, was banished and not permitted to return to Egypt for seventeen years. Radwa lived with and through her partner’s precarious status of national homelessness, moving back-and-forth between Egypt and his temporary residences, primarily in Budapest, with their son, Tamim. As we move through yet another Nakba commemoration without Radwa and Mourid, this essay mourns their passing, respectively in November 2014 and February 2021. More importantly, it celebrates their lives and the enduring afterlives of their work.
Mourid’s poetry and poetic prose frequently compels us to sit just a second longer with the discomfort of loss. To inspect it from every angle. To turn it upside down and inside out. To look up close at its particularities—so close as to become momentarily unfamiliar, estranged from what it was or what we thought it was so that we can see it anew. Remembering the passing of Mourid, too soon after that of Radwa, it seems unthinkable that we might see, in this loss, something new. The pain of loss that Mourid has us examine—unflinchingly although compassionately—is the shadow of love. His long form poem, Muntasaf al-layl (Midnight), is replete with these kinds of shadows, the kind that fill the small hours. Somewhere in the poem’s midpoint he intones,“We miss the dead as much as we miss the living… Nothing equals one more hour with you.”
Rereading this poem—an elegy that is not an elegy—in conversation with Mourid’s 1997 Ra’aytu Ramallah (I Saw Ramallah) and Radwa’s 1999 Atyaf (Specters), I am overcome by the presence of shadows, specters, atyaf. I don’t mean ghosts here—the haunters of desolate space—but rather apparitions, the animated memories of people, living and passed, that we carry with us. And in the spectrality that pulses back and forth between these works I find myself sitting inside what feels like a conversation between Radwa and Mourid.
It is not surprising or exceptionally insightful that I point out the resonances between these two works. I Saw Ramallah and Specters both detail intimate and quotidian vignettes from Radwa, Mourid, and their son Tamim’s lives together and apart—before, during, and after Mourid’s exile from Egypt and across the series of displacements that shaped his life since 1967. And yet, the way I Saw Ramallah and Specters seem to converse transcends the autobiographical reflections of a married couple. Spectrality constitutes a formative and yet ephemeral space where these two narratives meet in turns, like surf upon the shore.
I Saw Ramallah chronicles Mourid’s return to Palestine after a nearly thirty-year forced absence, from 1967 to 1994. This visit—as neither a citizen nor tourist—was made possible during the Oslo period characterized by an onslaught of capitulations by the Palestinian leadership of which Mourid was openly critical. That his return was facilitated by a process he rightly feared would prove detrimental to Palestinians is one of the many incongruities of Israeli settler-colonialism and occupation laid bare by this writing. “The long Occupation” he states, “has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”
This critique resonates with a concern expressed by Ghassan Kanafani in the 1960s that “the relationship uniting Palestinians has become one of exile and displacement rather than revolution.”1Kanafani, Ghassan. “Al-Muqāwimah Hiya al-Aṣl.” Al-Dirāsāt al-Siyāsiyyah al-Muǧallad al-H̱āmis, Dar Manshurat al-Rimal, 2015. However, where Ghassan Kanfani often mobilized the symbolic image to counter this estrangement, Mourid—having lived through the assassination of this man, his friend, in 1972 and the losses of subsequent decades—grew cautious of the proliferation of symbols in lieu of tangible Palestine, of material justice. He writes, in I Saw Ramallah, “I only started to believe in myself as a poet when I discovered how faded all abstracts and absolutes were.” Mourid encapsulates complex realities, emotions, and experiences with the astounding precision and concision of sensory detail. “Politics,” he writes, “is the family at breakfast. Who is there and who is absent and why. Who misses whom when the coffee is poured into the waiting cups.” Who, he asks, would dare to make Palestine into an abstraction? I Saw Ramallah is as much about Mourid’s journey of fleeting return as it is a contemplation on the act of writing it. That is, how to write Palestine. With what he calls the “justice and genius of the language of the camera,” Mourid formulates a language and form from the particulars—that is, from a refusal to settle for an idea.
Radwa’s Specters, like Mourid’s I Saw Ramallah, stands on its own as an exceptional piece of prose, pushing the boundaries of genre. And yet, the shadow of these two extraordinary minds in conversation hovers, not intrusive but immanent. Ashour blurs the boundaries between memoir and novel, nesting stories within stories like the unfolding accounts of Shehrazade. Within the novel she narrates the process of writing Specters, a story about the fictional Shagar Abdel Gaffar, who is herself writing a historical work called The Specters about the massacre of more than one hundred unarmed Palestinian villagers on April 9th, 1948 by the Irgun and Stern Gang in Deir Yassin. Radwa muses that Shagar would disagree with Aristotle that poetry expresses universal truths whereas history is confined to the particulars. Shagar’s history of Deir Yassin, she writes, is “a paradigmatic event, enabling her readers to consider the general”—that is, to see the universal through the particular details of history.
Radwa’s contemplations on the act of writing, the imbrication of history in literature, the universal in the particular, and the public in the private all resound in Mourid’s I Saw Ramallah, just as Mourid’s provocations resound in Specters. “Can the defeated be let off politics?” Mourid asks, as a provocation to critics who expect literature (suggestively by all who suffer from systemic injustice) to be free from—to absent themselves from—the weight of history and the muddy waters of politics. Radwa and Mourid’s politics—grounded in the particulars of Palestinian lives—absconds with the reification of liberatory struggle in symbols, icons, heroes. While never aligning with a single political party, their writings evoke the demands of revolutionary socialism to bring around liberation through structural change; that is, through attention to the modular components of systemic oppression necessitated by the frameworks and ideologies of settler colonial and neoliberal regimes. Their liberatory poetics articulate a shared interest in examining not only loss, but also the author’s responsibility: what they write and how, and for whom. Their poetics center Palestine in a way that is never reductive or idealistic, always focused on the particular as a path to the universal.
In a provocative examination of acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Abdul-Rahim al-Shaykh asserts the repeated provocation of Darwish’s writing that Palestinian poetics “should not remain imprisoned within tragedy” just as “the Palestinians themselves should not be forever destined to present evidence that they are who they are, and not ghosts.” The spectrality of Mourid and Radwa’s writing is evocative of al-Shaykh’s reading: they do not express tragic imprisonment within the haunted narrative of ghosts, but rather something else. And yet, these two works of Radwa and Mourid are replete with the shadows of human loss. The specter of Mourid’s brother, Mounif, looms large. Following decades in exile, Mounif died after being denied entry into Palestine at the border. Mourid writes, “When I entered Deir Ghassaneh, his hand was in mine; we walked side by side to Dar Ra’d, our old house.” He is accompanied by other martyrs of exile, as well, including Naji al-Ali and Ghassan Kanafani. “They are here,” Mourid writes. But, they are not ghosts. While their fates may haunt us, they are not themselves haunting. Ashour dedicates a significant section in Specters to illuminating the ancient Egyptian concept of the ka—born with the body, attending it through its lifetime and, although immortal, accompanying it to a final resting place. This spectrality, then, reflects a kind of conversation—an afterlife—across space and time and beyond life and death.
In their works, I see Radwa and Mourid’s specters in conversation: the shadow of Radwa in I Saw Ramallah and of Mourid in Atyaf. When Mourid wrote,“We miss the dead as much as we miss the living […] Nothing equals one more hour with you,” he knew Radwa would read it—yes, because she was his wife, but also because she was the translator of Midnight. His first mention of Radwa in I Saw Ramallah recounts an intellectual companionship as university students, exchanging their work on the steps of the library. They nurtured this devotion and companionship in their son, Tamim, also a prolific poet who collaborated with Radwa for the translation of his 2008 poetry collection, Fil Quds (In Jerusalem). Although there is much to mourn in the loss of Radwa and Mourid, it is in the shadow of this loss that we can see it anew. Radwa’s atyaf, the ka, or its Arabic equivalent, qarin, are entities, she writes, of companionship. In this companionship we celebrate Palestinian life, the life-affirming practices of sumud—steadfastness, continuity, futurity and inheritance—that respects Palestine not as an idea, a ghost, or a lost paradise but as an embodied living place whose shadow, accompanying us in our respective exiles and displacements, is not only (or even most importantly) the shadow of loss but rather of an enduring, infinite love.