I haven't made too many changes to this essay since having handed it in. The general thesis of the work is the same with the only major changes being the breaking up of paragraphs for readability.
The original deadline for this essay was the 13th of December 2019.
Freazy Warr, 25th August 2021.
The concept of national belonging, a form of perceived social cohesion, is defined by Kenneth Bollen and Rick Hoyle as ‘an individual’s sense of belonging to a particular group and his or her feelings of morale associated with membership in the group’ (1990, p.482). Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (1996) and Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (2004) deal with the writer's own sense of national and cultural belonging, and both present this through the autobiographical first-person perspectives of their narrator. Both narrators are unable to express their national belonging, through familial behaviours, sexual behaviours, or otherwise, and so a crux of the texts is them finding their method of cultural expression. However, in analysing the novels we can ask whether the narrators, both from a position of relative privilege, are deserving of these cultural expressions and belonging.
Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (2004) is a poetic novel detailing the authors return to Palestine after 30 years of exile. The context of the text is surrounded by the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite this, Barghouti's work doesn’t attempt to maliciously target either side, nor does his work make any sweeping statements about the conflict. In the foreword, Edward Said comments on the politics of the book and states ‘none of it is either abstract or ideologically driven’, and that the overtly political elements of the text are based on ‘the lived circumstances of Palestinian life’ (2004, ix). For Barghouti, these ‘lived circumstances’ are his exile due to the Six Day War. Exile is certainly a common trait shared among many Palestinians, with the novel pointing out that Israel ‘forbids hundreds of thousands of young people to return’ (2004, p.3). The novel also describes displacement as being ‘like death’ (2004, p.3). This notion that exile is an ending is shared by Marc Ellis, a Jewish writer who in writing on Edward Said, described exile as ‘an ending, but it is also a beginning’ (2010, p.330). Barghouti’s exile from Palestine is the end of his geographic connection to Palestine, and through the passage of time he also becomes culturally exiled. The ‘beginning’ is the social and cultural connections he makes outside of Palestine. It could be argued that, in terms of national belonging, there are two types of Palestinians. The exiled, which Barghouti represents, and the remained, who live through Israeli occupation. Though they both come from a common background, the difference between the two groups is what shapes Barghouti’s perception of his homeland and how he expresses national belonging for Palestine. In a way, his exile and subsequent cultural divergence grants him a sense of privilege in writing on his return.
His descriptions of the occupation are not ‘abstract or ideologically driven', as Said puts it, because he has not had to deal with the effects of the occupation. There is a paradox here as Barghouti simultaneously wants to express national belonging with Palestine but doesn’t want to express the feelings and behaviours which someone living under the occupation might feel. His descriptions of the occupation, though sometimes poetic, are intentionally written impartially. Describing Israeli occupation as interfering ‘in every aspect of life and death’ (2004. p.48) and that ‘Israel closes down any area it chooses whenever it wants’ (2004, p.48). Other descriptions of the occupation describe the encroachment of the land by Israel. When questioning Abu Hazim about some houses which overlook Ramallah he is told they are a settlement. His reaction to this is that ‘politics confront [him] at every turn’ (2004, p.34). His impartial descriptions of events, and reaction to the reality of the non-exiled Palestinian life, is an example of how Barghouti is unable to express national belonging through social and cultural behaviours. A study in 2004 was conducted in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip which was designed to understand the quality of life for people living there under Israeli occupation (Giacaman, et al., 2007). The research found that those living in Ramallah defined freedom as a trait for a good quality of life, but freedom included the ability to ‘move without restrictions’ (Giacaman, et al., 2007. p.73). The article also found that the constant fear due to living under occupation was another hinderance of quality of life. Quoting a Gaza high-school student who was interviewed for the study, ‘whenever I hear planes in the air, I say goodbye to beloved ones - friends in particular’ (Giacamn, et al., 2007. p.73). Though the research was conducted after the Second Intifada, and Barghouti’s memoir is before, there is a clear disparity between the attitudes of those interviewed and Barghouti’s description of the occupation. Barghouti’s exile prevents him from holding these same attitudes due to him not experiencing the occupation full time. Barghouti clearly presents his desire for national belonging in the text, but his avoidance of language which vilifies the occupation forces shows that he does not share the same cultural and familial behaviours of those who weren’t exiled.
Barghouti cannot express his national belonging through specific familial or sexual behaviours due to his cultural exile, which was the result of time spent in geographic exile. Instead, Barghouti expresses his national belonging through his use of language in describing his return to Palestine. Specifically, I Saw Ramallah, uses a mixture of poetic language and sensory language. An example of the former being ‘The gates of exile were opened to us from a strange direction! The direction that leads to the country and not to the countries of others.’ (2004, pp.22-23). Which is then followed by an example of the latter ‘I stand on the dust of this land. On the earth of this land.’ (2004, p.23). Even in describing his return, using poetic and sensory language, Barghouti is still avoiding potential abstractions. Though his avoidance of abstraction regarding the occupational forces is at odds with the cultural expressions of those who remained in Palestine, his avoidance of the abstract through poetic and sensory language is a form of cultural expression. The subject matter, returning home, demonstrates how this is an expression of national belonging. Barghouti’s text is conscious that his exile makes his ‘lived circumstances’ as a Palestinian different to those who remained. ‘And now I pass from my exile to their... homeland? My homeland?’ (Barghouti, 2004, p.13). He is aware that the place he left, and was exiled from, is no longer his own. He knows ‘that the stranger can never go back to what he was. Even if he returns. It is over.’ (Barghouti, 2004, p.4). Being exiled becomes a permanent feature of his identity. ‘A person gets “displacement” as he gets asthma, and there is no cure for either.’ (Barghouti, 2004, p.4). One critic, Anna Bernard, points out how Barghouti is using sensory language to ‘engage with the material world’, and that for Barghouti the engagement of the material world is where ‘a work's aesthetic value is chiefly located’ (2007, p.669). This creation of aesthetic value, and its connection to Barghouti’s uniquely Palestinian memoir, is an expression of his national belonging. Bernard also argues that Barghouti’s use of sensory language is a method of avoiding abstraction as the use of sensory language ‘is a political strategy intended to benefit the collective’ (Bernard, 2007, p.669). Where the collective is Palestinian people. Bernard specifically refers to this collection of ideas, the avoidance of abstraction, sensory language, and so on, as the ‘Palestinian aesthetic’ (2007, p.670). Bernard uses the very opening paragraph of the novel as an example of this ‘Palestinian aesthetic’:
It is very hot on the bridge. A drop of sweat slides from my forehead down to the frame of my spectacles, then the lens. A mist envelops what I see, what I expect, what I remember. The view here shimmers with scenes that span a lifetime; a lifetime spent trying to get here. Here I am, crossing the Jordan River. I hear the creak of the wood under my feet. On my left shoulder a small bag. I walk westward in a normal manner–or rather, a manner that appears normal. Behind me the world, ahead of me my world. (Barghouti, 2004, p.1)
The very opening of the text sets out how Barghouti is intending to approach his memoir. As Bernard points out there is a ‘deliberate purging of all patriotic or symbolic description of the scene’s constituent objects’ and sensory language is used instead (2007, p.670). This purge of the patriotic is a purge of the overtly political, but Barghouti does this to avoid his text becoming a tool for propaganda. Though this purge is at odds with the views of those with lived experiences inside Palestine, Barghouti’s ability to focus on sensory and poetic language is how he demonstrates national belonging. He is following his own specific rules to show national belonging, and not conforming to familial or sexual behaviours.
Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (1996) is a coming of age novel focused around a familial political mystery. The text is semi-autobiographical, with the author stating in an interview for The Guardian that ‘some of it did happen, and some of it didn't’. Arguing in the interview that, though not common, the experiences of the book are based on reality and that he ‘knew three families in Derry with that sort of history' (Fraser, 1996). The history which Deane is referring to is one of familial secrets based on the violence caused by cultural and religious divides in Northern Ireland. These divides are the result of English colonisation and as a postcolonial text Deane is presenting the way these divides affect the familial relationships, as well as his own state of national belonging. The familial aspect of the political mystery plays a major role in the narrator's own sense of identity. The structure of the novel consists of four chapters, with each divided into smaller sections that are given a specific date. The chronological nature of the novel follows the narrator as the mystery is slowly revealed to them, and consequently how the mystery being revealed irrevocably affects the narrator and their relationship with their family. The narrators drive to reveal this mystery is based on them wanting to find their own place in this society. We can see this at the start of the novel, where Deane presents the mystery, and the burden of the mother keeping it, through the metaphor of a shadow. The opening line reads ‘on the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence’ (1996, p.1). The silence in this case represents the cultural divide between the narrator's generation and their parents. Deane fully presents this concept of the divide soon after:
“Don’t move,” my mother said from the landing. “Don’t cross that window.” I was on the tenth step, she was on the landing. I could have touched her. “There’s something there between us. A shadow. Don’t move.” I had no intention. I was enthralled. But I could see no shadow. (1996, p.1)
The shadow here represents the political mystery. The physical divide between the narrator and their mother represents the generational divide caused by this political mystery. The narrator's inability to see the shadow represents how they aren’t aware that a divide exists. Though not obvious until the end of the book, Deane is intentionally creating a metaphor at the start to represent how this silence from the narrator’s mother, who holds the burden of truth, has not only separated the narrator from their mother, but also caused the narrator to lack a sense of identity. This is supported by another interview from Deane in the journal Fortnight where he states the following:
My view of the novel – which I find is not shared by many people – is that it’s about a young child who never earns a name. He never achieves sufficient identity (to use that terrible word!) to deserve the name or the sense of self he’s looking for in return to his parents. (Rumen and Deane, 1997, p.29)
Deane is clearly drawing a link between identity, which includes national belonging, and family. The mother's generation in the novel keeps these secrets from the narrator as these secrets are ultimately a burden, but the effect this has on the narrator is that they lose a sense of their identity. There is a clear familial connection being made here between the narrator and their national belonging. They are relying on their parents to reveal this aspect of their identity to them but are prevented from doing so due to the nature of their family’s past. In the same interview for Fortnight, Deane states that ‘There’s no talking-cure, no implication that by revealing everything you will somehow overcome it!’ (Rumen and Deane, 1997, p.30). With this interview in mind, the desire for the narrator to find their national identity through familial means is tragic. The reality of their family's past, and the violence it entails, means that the narrator is unable to truly possess national belonging regardless to what means they learn the truth. Both solving the political mystery on their own, and talking about it openly, would have the same result regarding the narrator's sense of national belonging.
Much like in Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (2004), Reading in the Dark’s (1996) narrator possesses a form of privilege. Despite this essay recognising the text being semi-autobiographical, I have intentionally used gender neutral pronouns when referring to the narrator in order to separate the fictional identity from the identity of the books author. However, the narrator, much like the author, is certainly male. Their sex and gender, along with their race, education, and sexuality all play a role in the privilege the narrator possesses in the society of the novel. In terms of national belonging, the possession of these privileges enables the narrator to explore their sense of national belonging without having to conform to strict familial or sexual behaviours. Of course, that isn’t to say there aren’t any expected behaviours for the narrator. In the subsection ‘The Facts of Life’ (1996, p.149), the narrator is taught sex-education from a restrictive Catholic perspective. Specifically, Deane presents the education the narrator receives as being a technical transaction between a man and a woman, with the expectation to produce a child. The narrator is aware of concepts such as lust, which they describe as ‘wild’ and ‘fierce’, but they can’t comprehend how it relates to the ‘feat of precision engineering’ which the Bishop describes it as (1996, p.150). The repressiveness of this sex education is realised in a later chapter when the Bishop states that ‘“Sex without love is akin to murder. You are a murderer of your own body and of the body of the woman with whom you perform the loveless act. And in murdering the flesh, you also murder the soul.”’ (1996, p.155). The hetero-expectative nature of this sex-education presents a society where homosexuals must conform to certain sexual behaviours if they wish to be active within this national identity.
The binary nature of the language used in the text also presents the same issue for non-cis people. This sex-education which the narrator receives is also an example of how cis heterosexual couples must act if they wish to belong. Though the lack of sexual liberation is oppressive for all parties, it is greatest for women who are expected to carry children. In this one aspect, Deane’s narrator only has a single familial and sexual expectation placed on them. The fact that the narrator is cis, and heterosexual is a privilege in the sense that they don’t have to change who they are in order to behave in a way which would otherwise ostracise them from society. In her book Women divided gender, religion, and politics in Northern Ireland, Rosemary Sales discusses how support of the Catholic church in Northern Ireland was an anti-colonial act and that this support enabled conservative attitudes (1997, p.5). As a semi-autobiographical post-colonial text, Reading in the Dark (1996) shows how national belonging in opposition of the colonisers can enable conservative familial and sexual behaviours. Sales goes on to point out that ‘within the nationalist movements, the rights of women have been seen as, at best, secondary to the national struggle’ (1997, p.5). Deane’s text doesn’t focus too heavily on the national struggle of Catholics in Northern Ireland. Instead, his work is about a single person, trying to understand their own identity in a situation where their parents seem unable to give it to him. Despite this, the context of the work still reveals how certain familial and sexual are necessary on demonstrating national belonging. When comparing the narrators struggle to find their identity with the wider struggle of women and minorities, who must conform to certain familial and sexual behaviours to fit in, we can ask whether the individuals struggle is relatively important.
Both Reading in the Dark (Deane, 1996) and I Saw Ramallah (Barghouti, 2004) deal with the autobiographical questioning of how each respective narrator must express and understand themselves in order to express national belonging. For Barghouti, his memoir demonstrates a desire to create his own method of expression through a ‘Palestinian aesthetic’ which doesn’t make abstractions of the complicated politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, Deane deals with his semi-fictional narrator being unable to find their own identity in relation to their national belonging. The two texts also struggle to deal with the narrator's respective privilege. Barghouti writes from the perspective of exile, so his non-absolutist ideals don’t necessarily align fully with those living in Ramallah. Deane’s narrator holds a position of privilege as they have less expected societal expectations forced on them due to their being male, cis, and heterosexual.
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