“Sometimes People Write Poetry with Their Feet”: A Conversation with Tamim Al-Barghouti

Over the past twenty years, thousands of people have attended
performances by the Palestinian-Egyptian poet Tamim Al-Barghouti. In
conversation, he speaks with the booming voice of someone practiced at
commanding a crowd. He is deliberate about word choice, rummaging around
for the precise match, and thoughtful about what he will say on the
record. When we met this summer, at a hotel in Amman, Jordan, he
recorded our conversation on his phone. He knows that his words can have
serious consequences. In 2003, Al-Barghouti was pressured to leave
Egypt, his home country, after protesting the American invasion of Iraq.
“People came to my house, blindfolded me, and threatened me with
Kalashnikovs at four o’clock in the morning,” he told me. “I didn’t see
any legal documents, no stamp, nothing.” One of the armed men, who did
not identify himself, told Al-Barghouti to buy a plane ticket and leave,
he said. He was able to return to Egypt several weeks later, but he was
denied the right to work there, and so he had to leave once again.

When we met, Al-Barghouti had just finished speaking at a conference
concerning the effects of occupation on human development in the Palestinian territories.
He’s currently working with the United Nations Economic and Social
Commission for Western Asia—he calls it his “nine-to-five.” Al-Barghouti
has a Ph.D. in political science, from Boston University, and he has
taught the subject at Georgetown, the Free University of Berlin, and the
American University in Cairo. He has also published six collections of
poetry. He recently released “In Jerusalem and Other Poems,” his first
book translated into English. He’s been frustrated, in the past, he
said, by the difficulty of translating his work, and he selected the
poems in the collection—composed, in Arabic, over the course of a
decade—primarily because they were the most translatable. Missing from
the book, for instance, is a poem called “Ya Masr Hanet,” which
Al-Barghouti wrote during the first sparks of the Egyptian revolution,
in 2011, and which was subsequently projected onto screens in Tahrir
Square. Al-Barghouti was not satisfied with any English version.

“Words have—like human beings—they have a shadow, they have a smell,
they have an aura about them, and they change drastically once you move
them from one language to another,” he said. He used the example of
matar, the Arabic word for rain, which connotes generosity, good luck,
bounty, or rescue. “In English, a rainy day is not the best day one
could have.”

Al-Barghouti’s mother, the Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, convinced her
son to embark on the translation project, and she did most of the
translations herself. His work was beginning to have an impact on
people, she told him, and non-Arabic speakers wanted to understand it.
Al-Barghouti believes that such comprehension is impossible—the
translation provides “just a taste,” he said. His experiments with
various dialects cannot be conveyed in English, he explained, and his
allusions to Arab mythology and history require a degree of familiarity
for which the footnotes are a weak substitute. Still, he loved working
with his mother on the book. “She would liberate me from this feeling I
get whenever I’m speaking in English or writing in English, which is
that I’m swimming in a sea of jelly,” he said. “She would try, with
these huge, huge wings—like this Egyptian goddess of justice—separating
the waves like Moses and allowing me to move.”

Ashour died in 2014, at the age of sixty-eight, before the project was
completed. To that point, Al-Barghouti had repeatedly put off finishing
the book. “And then when I lost my mother, after she had decided to do
that, I felt it was my duty to have it published,” he said. He finished
some of the translations himself.

Ferial Ghazoul, a professor of comparative literature at the American
University in Cairo, told me that the best way for Westerners to get a
handle on Al-Barghouti as a figure is to think of him as a sort of
spoken-word rock star. Al-Barghouti told me that in the streets of Cairo
and the Palestinian territories, children compete at reciting his poem “In Jerusalem,” a
mournful narrative poem that follows a cab ride into and then back out
of Jerusalem, in which the speaker laments that the city he loves
regards him only as “a footnote or a margin.” “In Jerusalem beauty is
octagonal and blue,” he writes, “Supporting, gentle listener, a golden
dome/ That looks like, I think, a convex mirror/ Containing the sky,
playing with it, pulling it close.” The rival political groups Hamas and
Fatah have both aired the poem on their respective TV channels, and a
recording of it became a popular ringtone.

Al-Barghouti’s tastes run to allegorical, epic, and narrative poetry; he
believes that the responsibility of art is to help people reimagine the
very order of the world, envisioning, for the future, “a more beautiful
form of government, a more beautiful form of man-woman relationship, a
more beautiful relationship between humans and nature,” he told me.
“Power exists mainly in human imagination,” he went on, pushing his
chin-length, midnight-colored curls out of his face. He added, “If
people in the street decide that the policeman is only someone dressed
in a weird way, then he would become someone dressed in a weird way.” In
the poem “The Little Sky in My Hands,” Al-Barghouti writes, “I try to
turn a policeman into a human being/ Since he looks like one/ I will
appoint a few kings and presidents I know/ To new positions/ As waiters,
bartenders/ Or offer them other honest jobs.”

Al-Barghouti’s father, Mourid Barghouti, was also a well-known
Palestinian poet. Al-Barghouti was five months old when his father was
deported from his home in Egypt, during President Anwar Sadat’s attempts
to broker peace with Israel. The separation was painful, but
Al-Barghouti has warm memories of summers and holidays spent with his
father in Budapest, where he lived in exile. “Budapest is a beautiful
city with a lot of marzipan and nice sweets—so it’s heaven for a child,”
Al-Barghouti said.

“My father would write, all through the year and in the summer, and wait
for my mother to come to read the poetry to her,” he said. “And I would
be there. He writes only in standard Arabic. So there’s something
strange about this kind of speech—it’s not the speech we use everyday.
It has more—more vowels. So more music in it. Also at that time,
cartoons were dubbed in standard Arabic. As a kid I would watch these
movies where you had heroes fighting aliens, defending the Earth. So my
father is speaking the language of my heroes!” He went on, “I remember
as young as four or five, I thought that if I could speak in standard
Arabic I would be physically able to fly.” He began to think of writing
as a source of power, a kind of “self-defense.”

Al-Barghouti wrestles with the desire to write as an individual and the
obligation to be the people’s poet. “Sometimes people write poetry with
their feet, by walking,” he said, by way of explaining the writing
process, which he considers a collaboration between himself and the Arab
people and those listening. “A little kid standing, facing the tank in
Palestine. Faris
, a fourteen-year-old boy. He lost his life. That act of courage is a
poem, right there. I didn’t write anything, I just read it off his

Though Al-Barghouti’s activism is best known in connection with
the Palestinian territories, he’s outspoken about the situation in Egypt, too. “I’m O.K.
to have it on record: I think the current government in Egypt is the
worst in this century.” He went on to say that he couldn’t think of a
worse Egyptian government in the last hundred years. When I asked if
he’d ever be allowed back into the country, he replied, “Let’s see,
after this gets published.” When I asked Al-Barghouti if he was
interested in a political career, he said that he was not, because he
can accomplish more as an artist, and because, in his view, there are
not “any proper governments.” His parents held similar views. He
mentioned his father’s memoir, which explains that, for Arab people,
politics “is the family at breakfast. Who is there. Who is absent and

Al-Barghouti is optimistic, though, that increased human connectedness
will upend traditional power relations. “If you have a million people in
the streets and you confront them with a thousand tanks, the million
people, though unarmed, would physically be able to defeat the one
thousand tanks,” he said. What happened in Tahrir Square during the Arab
Spring brought this possibility into focus, he added. “The change in
action has already begun. There will be setbacks, but I don’t think it’s
reversible.” He is adamant that the resistance will transcend borders.
“Today, as Nero wears the diadem, cry woe to Rome and to Jerusalem,” he
wrote on Twitter, in January. We must resist our Neros, all of them,
together, he told me.

“One good thing about most dictators is that they are not very sensitive
to art,” he said. “They are too thick to recognize the threat that
beauty represents to them.” When they do recognize the threat, and move
to quash it, people create proxies—if they close the galleries, people
will paint on the walls. No dictator can take creation itself away, nor
erase from the people’s consciousness existing art that has already
worked its magic. “How are they going to prevent the Egyptians from
reading ‘Macbeth’?” he asked. “How can they jail William Shakespeare
and Al-Mutanabbi?”

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