Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti died at the age of 76 in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday. His suddenly deteriorating health had not been made public, as he proceeded stoically towards his final days, much in the way he had navigated his life.
Palestinian leader and politician Hanan Ashrawi called him “a cultural and literary giant whose life and works embody a searing longing for, and love of, Palestine” on her Twitter feed, hours after news of his death sent shockwaves across the diverse worlds he knew, was part of, or touched.
The global mourning for Barghouti’s passing is not only testament to this poetic and literary virtuoso and to his political commitment, but also, and equally, to his striking personality. Barghouti carried himself with dignified humility that made him accessible and approachable despite his apparent solemnity, accentuated by his straight posture, a metaphor for his moral and political uprightness.
Mourid, immediately recognised by his first name alone, was one of the foremost Palestinian poets of his time, but he may not have received his due recognition before his death and in the explosion of grief that has flooded social media since Sunday.
Poet, memoirist, lecturer and former Radio Palestine broadcaster, Barghouti published over a dozen poetry collections and two autobiographies chronicling his dispossession, exile and return – as a visitor – to his homeland of Palestine for the first time in 30 years.
Mourid was born in Deir Ghassana, hometown of the prominent Barghouti family, near Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank in 1944. His family moved to Ramallah when he was seven years old in search of a better education before Mourid moved to the Egyptian capital in 1963 to enroll in Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts Department of English Literature.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly in 2003, he said that at the time he had come to Cairo in an attempt to “keep off the mapped road” for young Palestinian men at the time: get a degree, then a job in a Gulf state, marry and make money.
However, Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Palestinian West Bank meant that Mourid could not return to Ramallah or remain in Egypt when his residency permit expired. He was forced to conform and to take a job in Kuwait, and it was then that he also realised he had developed feelings for an Egyptian colleague at Cairo University, Radwa Ashour.
He returned to Egypt, and they married in 1970. The couple revealed later in life that this had been against Ashour’s family’s will, since they had not wished to see their daughter have a Palestinian refugee husband. Their love story lasted for a lifetime and in many ways continued to define much of their public personas as both evolved into prominent literary figures in their respective fields.
Ashour became a critically acclaimed novelist, distinguished academic and politically independent rights activist. Their only son Tamim rose to fame as a prodigy poet in his twenties. The scholarly literary family’s nod to the love between Mourid and Radwa was expressed in their poetry and fiction.
It is no coincidence that the vast majority of people who mourned Barghouti chose to do so by sharing a favourite black-and-white photograph of him from the 1970s with Ashour, capturing a smiling moment of the young and happy-looking couple, their eyes wandering away from the camera.
After returning to Cairo in 1971, Barghouti became an anchor and political commentator for Radio Palestine, on air from the Egyptian capital after 1960 under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but then closed down by his successor president Anwar Al-Sadat. The latter then re-opened the radio station, before having Barghouti arrested and deported in 1977. Tamim was only five months old.
Barghouti then spent 17 years in exile, mostly in Budapest in Hungary as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) cultural attaché, during which the family miraculously kept together despite their separation, meeting up only during Ashour’s summer vacations and mid-year recess from Cairo University.
Despite his PLO affiliation, Barghouti guarded his political independence and refused to join any Palestinian faction. “I am a member of the PLO, yes,” he said in 2003, “but I am not in one of its rooms, only in the courtyard. I never refrain from participation.”
Barghouti published his first memoir, I Saw Ramallah, in 1997 following his return to his homeland for the first time in 30 years. Edward Said described it as
“one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now have.” The riveting autobiography was translated into English in 2005 by Ahdaf Soueif.
Its sequel, I was Born There, I was Born Here, was published in 2009 and translated in 2012. It is an account of Barghouti’s visit to Ramallah with his son Tamim for the first time, “introducing” him to Palestine and Palestine to him.
Both memoirs display Barghouti’s masterful and succinct prose, in which every word is measured like poetry. His famous passage on coffee in I was Born There, I was Born Here is one of the most-admired lyrical descriptions of the smell, taste, colour and circumstances of drinking and making the beverage in contemporary Arabic literature.
Though a committed Palestinian voice, he cringed at simplistic poets and poetry.
“I don’t write about blood, rifles, the nation or even the word Palestine. Yet, this is poetry that couldn’t have been written by someone from Luxembourg or Denmark. The pain that is inside appears even when you write about a forest or a flower, without using canned, overused vocabulary. I’ve developed my own definition of poetry; it is extracting the surprising from the banal,” he said.
In one of his last Facebook posts in October 2020, Barghouti quoted himself from I Saw Ramallah:
“I rubbed the leaf of the orange in my hands As I had been told to do, so that I could smell its scent.
But before my hand could reach my nose I lost my home and became a refugee.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly