The timeless relationship between Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti and the late Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour — as traced through their literary works — is one of the twentieth century’s great love stories.
Barghouti writes about their relationship in his seminal memoirs, I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here. The story begins when they met as students at Cairo University in the 1960s. She and some of their colleagues listened to him reading a poem on the steps of the Cairo University library when they were not yet twenty. They took part together in literary gatherings at the Faculty without it occurring to them that a personal interest had developed, or was developing, between them. They were students and limited their conversation to professional matters such as their studies and never went beyond these into any intimate topic. The collegial spirit continued between them until the four years of study were over and he went to work in Kuwait. He used to write regular letters about his new life in Kuwait to her. He realized, however, that his letters to Radwa contained nothing of his news or the events of his life and concerned themselves only with his unspoken feelings about that life.
On his first visit to Cairo during the summer holidays, they found themselves talking like a mother and a father, and sometimes like a grandmother and a grandfather. They talked like a family of two that had been together for ages.
They married in 1970, and Radwa went to the U.S. for a time to study toward her PhD. Their only son, Tamim, was born in 1977. In that same year, 1977, Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat visited Israel and ordered Barghouti and many other Palestinians to be deported from Egypt. Barghouti was prevented from living in Egypt for the next seventeen years which resulted in his remaining the father of an only one child.
On their continued years of off-on separation, Radwa would dedicate her time to caring for her son without the presence of his father, except for short and intermittent periods. When she was obliged to undergo a life-threatening operation, she would be alone with Tamim, who was not yet three years old, while Mourid was in Budapest and forbidden to be by her side.
Barghouti was later able to return to Egypt and later even to Palestine; a journey documented in his I Saw Ramallah. Later yet, he is able to bring their son Tamim, who is Palestinian-Egyptian poet and academic to see Palestine for the first time and wrote this experience in his second memoir I Was Born There, I Was born Here. Barghouti used to tell Ashour stories about Palestine, which added to Radwa’s personal interest and talented research, almost total knowledge of everything about its villages and its peoples — their names, life stories and their sorrows; hence her production of her multigenerational epic, The Woman From Tantoura. Prior to this great novel she had written her intriguing masterpiece, The Granada Trilogy about the expulsion of Arabs from Andalusia.
The two of them were married for forty-four years, until death did them apart when Radwa died on December 1, 2014 after a long struggle with cancer.
I leave you now with one of Mourid Barghouti’s beautiful poems written in 1983 dedicated to his wife Radwa Ashour titled You and I:
You’re beautiful like a liberated homeland
I’m exhausted like a colonized one.
You’re sad as a forsaken person, fighting on
I’m agitated as a war near at hand.
You’re desired like the end of a raid
I’m terrified as if I’m searching the debris.
You’re brave like a trainee pilot
I’m as proud as his grandmother may be.
You’re anxious like a patient’s dad,
I’m as calm as his nurse.
You’re as sweet as dew
And to grow, I need you..
We’re both as wild as vengeance
We’re both as gentle as forgiveness.
You’re strong like the court’s pillars
I’m bewildered like I’ve endured prejudice.
And whenever we meet
We talk, without pause, like two lawyers
AUTHOR & TRANSLATOR: DINA AL-MAHDY
POEM: MOURID BARGHOUTI
IMAGE: MOURID BARGHOUTI