Continuing our exclusive serialisation of Guy Mannes-Abbott's essay introducing Mourid Barghouti's Midnight:
II. In 2004 I also ‘discovered’ the poetry of Mourid Barghouti, whose classic memoir I Saw Ramallah  I admired already. Barghouti’s account of displacement arrived in English in 2000, through the American University in Cairo Press, whose backlist is now being introduced in Britain by the newly formed Arabia Books. I Saw Ramallah appeared in the UK in April 2004, while in October Barghouti lectured on Arabic poetry, and read his own, at the Southbank Centre in London. I decided to watch, listen and weigh from a distance. A notably dignified figure, Mourid spoke of poetry’s centrality to Arab culture, the great days of rebel poets and golden poems. He read his own in English and without a quip, leaving their blooms to explode in the silent, already stunned, air. The audience realised they were hearing work of lasting rarity; poems that wrestle with the particular and universal in unique ways.
Thus began a quest for every poetic line available. I found some by ‘Mureed Barghouthy’ in Salma Jayyusi’s Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, a few more in Banipal magazine and a booklet published by the Aldeburgh Poetry Trust. Twenty six in all. Barghouti’s memoir was an exquisitely exact, occasionally angry account of his double displacement as a Palestinian poet. These poems were different again; written in concrete language without nomination or guaranteed tears, accessible as well as very good. They exhibit an openness which encloses great depths, their lines draw landscapes in your palm, catch the skin with universal truths.
In the spring of 2005 I drove to meet Mourid at a writer’s event at the University of East Anglia. Initially cagey, our conversations grew into a series during a short tour from Norwich, via a performance at Aldeburgh, back to London. There, in a noisy hotel bar, many cigarettes and more words cemented something between us beyond the political or even literary. Something in the realm of spirit. Before returning home to Cairo, Mourid also introduced me to Ahdaf Soueif, the novelist, translator of I Saw Ramallah and author of the essays collected as Mezzaterra.
Barghouti and I stayed in contact through 2005-6. He lit up my day with occasional calls and honoured me with hearty meetings on visits to London. There were more readings and late night conversations peppered with spontaneous translations and scrupulous explanations. Meanwhile, I worked away at an extended essay about his work and life, focusing closely on the poetry. By now I’d realised or uncovered much of what the poems don’t say. I wanted to celebrate, as well as contextualise, the precise not-saying of Mourid’s work; it’s refusal of rhetorical bluster, anthemic claim or accusation, its unimpeachable creative responsibility and ethical clarity. Undoubtedly poetry of the highest aesthetic order, what is not-said and how it’s not-said earns it universal importance.
III. A longish poem called A Night Unlike Others is one notable example of this refusal to nominate, wave banners, or confine the particular within its particularity.
Part III tomorrow...
Welcome to a World of Literature
Everything you need to know about the world's great writers and emerging voices is being collected and shared on the English PEN Online World Atlas
. Head over to the Atlas to create (or edit) a profile for your favourite author or book, leave a comment or contact another user, and discover your next great read. We believe that great writing has the power to change your life and change the world, one book at a time.