It became an instant favorite of mine.
It's a book about loss, about the exile's fraught relationship with return. It's evocative. It's unforgettable. It's written by a true poet and beautifully translated by Ahdaf Soueif.
Edward Said called it “one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement we have.”
But after three years I have yet to finish it, refusing to read the last chapter, which is only three pages long. I am saving it, but for what or why, I don't know exactly.
At my bedside it remains despite countless moves that keep my books boxed up and in storage for months or years on end. This one though, always remains within arm's reach.
Tonight I picked it up, leafing through the pages without real purpose . . perhaps looking for some sort of comfort or poetic insight to cope with the terrible news streaming out of Gaza. But instead of finding solace my heart sank deeper and my stomach clenched as my eye caught one paragraph in particular. It's a passage that describes the special place the telephone has in the lives of Palestinians, a people displaced by war and occupation:
The details of the lives of all whom we love, the fluctuations of their fortunes in this world, all began with the ringing of the phone. A ring for joy, a ring for sorrow, a ring for yearning. Quarrels, reproach, blame, and apology between Palestinians are introduced by the ringing of the phone. We have never loved a sound so much, and we have never been terrified by one – I mean, at the same time. Bodyguards – or your luck, or your intelligence – can protect you from terrorism, but the displaced person can never be protected from the terrorism of the telephone. (Page 127)
The terrorism of the telephone. Today the phrase takes on new meaning as Israel's indiscriminate onslaught drags on and the most moral army in the world continues to make its "courtesy calls" - a warning call to Palestinian families to flee their homes before they are bombarded.
But in the midst of such incalculable human suffering, countless massacres and the lack of safe places to evacuate to, these calls amount to little more than cruelty disguised as mercy. The pained language of an unnamed writer describes how they induce a different kind of death:
I'll tell you what is harder than dying in Gaza by an Israeli missile deluxe. What is harder is that you get a phone call from the Israeli army telling you to evacuate your home because it will be bombed in ten minutes. Imagine; ten minutes; and your whole short history on the surface of Earth will be erased.
Gifts you received, photos of your siblings and your children (dead or alive), things that you love, your favorite chair, your books, that last poetry collection your read, a letter from your expatriate sister, reminders of the ones you loved, the smell of your bed, the jasmine tree that hangs off your western window, your daughter’s hair clip, your old clothes, your prayer rug, your wife’s gold, your savings; imagine; all this passes in front of your eyes in ten minutes, all that pain passes while you are struck by surprise.
Then you take your identification papers (passport, birth certificate, etc.) which you have ready in an old metallic candy box, and you leave your home to die a thousand times, or refuse to leave and die once.
"I Saw Ramallah" is a book that gives life-affirming substance to a tragedy whose dimensions only seem to grow.
Tonight I won't finish it.