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Engaging Palestinian Literature: A Jewish Journey Into Empathy

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I SAW RAMALLAH MOURID BARGHOUTI
Random House

I never acquired a taste for overt rebellion. Instead, I sought my independence in books -- books that promised to expand my personality by destroying it first. As a high school junior, I hid a "Short Introduction to Atheism" in my underwear drawer. In college I tore off the cover as quickly as I acquired the most recent addition to the New Atheist canon to evade the glares of those who would judge an Orthodox Jew for reading Christopher Hitchens.

As an adult, I found a new genre, not for the sake of teenage rebellion, but to understand, to identify -- in short, to empathize. But how often do we use empathy to challenge, and therefore expand, our borders of understanding? Do we believe in a line beyond which we are no longer obligated to learn about the Other, their life, their struggles, joys, idiosyncrasies, merits and weaknesses? Even if we dare not say so, we take this tack in our approach to Arabs in general, and Palestinians specifically. Do we know any Palestinian literature or poetry? If not, why not? What do we fear it will teach us about the experience of the most Other in the contemporary Jewish psyche?

I crossed this last line in devouring a memoir by Mourid Barghouti, entitled "I Saw Ramallah." Barghouti, a venerable poet and academic, writes a stunningly intense account of his anger, frustration and alienation engendered by his forced exile from his home in Ramallah. He spreads the blame, with the Zionist project/"Occupation" receiving the brunt of it, but the book works best the poetic transcends the political in descriptions of the identity-shattering experience of exile, of eternal foreignness.

My first reaction entailed intellectualization. I read Barghouti's story, but maintained the perspective of outsider reading in, not looking to get lost in any foreign world, or empathize with any characters. I knew the ready-made answers to specific claims, and deflected each challenge to my core beliefs. I believe it all to contain logical truth, but, perhaps as important, the rationalizations distance us from a raw emotional truth. To feel so much pain caused by your dream, your ancestors' dream is a kind of assault, leaving you wheezing for air, bloodied and bruised, mugged of your certainty.

Reading him wax poetically about his longing for Jerusalem, my Jerusalem, the country I learned to love from before I can remember, the city my ancestors prayed for in the pits of the hell of exile, in the midst of crusades, massacres and the Holocaust, aroused hatred in my heart. I felt violated, as if his simple longing to return to his home violated my life, somehow. My anger and sense of violation seems incommensurate with my actual love toward Israel. Israel and I, like many Americans, have a complicated relationship. But it's my relationship. Not his, not theirs, not anyone but my nation, my people.

Then I read it again.

Yes, Barghouti writes with the inherited rhetoric of the Palestinian narrative where people who kill innocent people on buses, in restaurants, in clubs, in hotels, on resorts, in open crowds, receive acclaim as freedom fighters or as martyrs. But he also writes with the pen of a poet, with the undying love of a people, the mothers, the gardeners, the innocent children and land he lost. Literature doesn't make explicit arguments; its power comes from stories, from the mood it evokes, the setting it creates, and the actions and relationships of the characters. Literature is not a political stem-winder, but the wrenching tale of human beings retaining their humanity despite the circle of conflict that closes off their lives. For me, reading this book, besides going against some serious, if unspoken, rules of most Jewish culture, dismantled my insides. Imagine reading beautiful poetry, then reading that poet speak of you, your people, and your hopes as destructive. He hates the gospel you grew up upon, the gospel that will always define you. It's easy to hide behind your inherited narrative, but true empathy grows from denying this impulse.

I grew up bombarded with the importance -- religious, historical and cultural -- of the Land of Israel and moral superiority of its soldiers. We turn the Palestinians into a rock-throwing, suicide-bombing, anti-Semitic horde before we acknowledge their humanity. None of this speaks to the correctness of the "sides" in this conflict. Rather, as both the Israeli Author David Grossman and Barghouti point out, poetry and literature allow author and reader to transcend political factions, questions of inheritance and pride, into that realm in writing in which we tap into the universality of the human experience. And so, much of Barghouti's poetic language sounds like a beautiful prayer that echoes the most famous Jewish Diaspora song, Psalm 137:

How did I sing for my homeland when I did not know it? What love is it that does know the beloved? And why were we not able to hold on to the song? ... But what remains to the exile except this kind of absentee love? What remains except clinging on to the song, however ridiculous or costly that might be? And what about entire generations, born in exile, not knowing even the little that my generation knows of Palestine?

The irony of two similar narratives leading to a vicious cycle haunts me.

In the end his power lies not in the political rants throughout the memoir, but in the poetic portraits of a world lost, both the world of his past, and the world of a future, lost, cut short by circumstances out of his control. The stigma of an exile, of a stranger, a foreigner, tattooed his life and eats away at his total experience of being:

Displacements are always multiple. When it happens you become a stranger in your places and to your place at the same time. The displaced person becomes a stranger to his memories and so he tries to cling to them. It is enough for a person to go through the first experience of uprooting, to become uprooted forever.

The basis of literary conversation should be grounded in an intimate knowledge of our "enemy's" humanity: That we and they are not donkeys or trigger-happy, blood-thirsty monsters. We can all benefit, no matter how much we might disagree with them, from exposure to the impassioned, genuine, frustrated thoughts of the Other in our lives that defines so much of our identity. If we only read books we find palatable, our personalities would forever stagnate. Our empathy, and through it our personality, expands through challenging our prejudices. I harbor no delusions of literature solving political problems. So much of propaganda entails convincing one's side that the other is a monster, a sub-human, a rat or a cockroach. The truth is much more complicated; literature illuminates complexity. For that simple reason, I find Barghouti frustratingly beautiful, and urgently important to read.

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