Viewpoint: I'm Palestinian - but where am I from?

Mourid Barghouti, 2004

As a Palestinian bid for full state membership of the United Nations appears to be foundering, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti reflects on the very practical benefits that statehood would have brought.

For years, the Facebook team has been reminding me that I have to edit my profile and add the country I come from. As a matter of fact, I deliberately left this out because of my irresponsible fancy that writers belong everywhere and to everyone.

Fed up with the dogged persistence of that dialogue box, I finally complied and clicked the "edit" button to write down "Palestine". Oh, it was not as easy as I had thought. I am not allowed to type, I must select from an alphabetically prearranged list of countries.

Under the letter "P" in that list I found the following: Palestine Texas-USA, Palestine Arkansas-USA, Palestine Illinois-USA, Palestine Alabama-USA, East Palestine Ohio-USA, New Palestine, Indiana-USA, and Palestine Ecuador. Where was the original Palestine? The old one where I was born 67 years ago?

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If the west of the country is now called 'Israel' and the east is called 'the West Bank', where is Palestine?”

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It didn't exist. I went through the list many times and of course I found "Israel" under the letter "I". I am four years older than the state of Israel. There was no Israeli state in 1944.

The same thing happened when I had to fill an application for a visa to visit the USA. Again, there was no Palestine in their given list.

In newspapers, political discussions and even in the obscene peace negotiations (which have given us the process but not the peace) you will find references to the Territories, the Occupied Territories, Judea and Samaria, the Holy Land and the West Bank. West Bank of what? Of the River Jordan. But the west bank of the River Jordan is the east bank of Palestine - so why not name it?

Passport cocktail

For Palestine to be lost as a land, it had to be lost as a word too. If the west of the country is now called "Israel" and the east is called "the West Bank", where is Palestine?

River Jordan The West Bank is the west bank of the River Jordan... and the east bank?

Every time I hear the term "West Bank", I think of the pollution of language that has led to the assassination of the word "Palestine".

The Chinese poet Bei Dao found out about this the hard way when he visited the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco to get a visa. He told the young man standing in front of the building that he wanted to go to Palestine, and received the riposte: "There is no such country on the map, sir!"

Some years ago, PEN International Magazine published on its front cover - an undoubted honour - a complete poem of mine. However, instead of writing in the list of contents "Mourid Barghouti-Palestine", the magazine wrote "Mourid Barghouti-Palestinian Authority".

When I asked them to explain, they said there was no country called Palestine. To which my response was, "Is the Palestinian Authority a country?"

Mourid Barghouti

  • Born in 1944, near Ramallah
  • Was studying in Cairo when the 1967 war broke out - and was unable to return home until 1996
  • Deported from Egypt in 1977, he went to Hungary
  • Has published 12 books of poetry
  • His new book, I Was Born Here I was Born There, continues his autobiographical I Saw Ramallah
  • Lives in Cairo with his wife, writer Radwa Ashour

Back in the mid-1980s, I was visiting my elder brother in France, close to the Swiss border. It was summer, and other members of the family were with us. We decided to visit Geneva, travelling in two cars.

The border guard stepped out of his tiny kiosk and asked for our passports. He was amazed - in his hands were passports from all over the world, Jordan, Syria, the United States, Algeria, Britain, and even Belize. And the names in all of them showed that their holders were from one family, all Barghoutis.

He asked for an explanation of this cocktail of travel documents. But soon after my brother began, he started laughing, and interrupted - "That's enough. I don't want to understand!" He wished us a good time in Geneva.

We continued on our way, carrying with us the Frenchman's surprise at our situation. "You know, everybody," one of us said, "we really are a scandal."

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