‘Among the Almond Trees’ by Hussein Barghouthi: An Excerpt

Palestinian writer Hussein Barghouthi was in his late forties when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He had feared it was HIV, so when the cancer diagnosis was confirmed, he left the hospital feeling a bitter joy because his wife and son would be spared. The bittersweetness of this reaction characterizes the alternating moods of narration and reflection that distinguish this meditative memoir, Among the Almond Trees.

Translated from the Arabic with an Introduction by Ibrahim Muhawi

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An Excerpt

After an absence of thirty years I have returned to live in the countryside near Ramallah—“returned to the beauty that had been betrayed.” I had exiled myself from my beginnings voluntarily and chosen to live as an expatriate. Yet I am one who has perfected “beginnings,” but not “endings.” My return, therefore, is an imperfect “ending.”

The moon was full and the air freezing as I walked among the shadows of the almond trees in the orchards around our house contemplating this “ending.” What had made me come back was the disease of cancer, and a pain in my lower back unceasing to the point of tedium. And boredom, as Kierkegaard said, “is so terrifying that I cannot but say it is terrifying to the point of boredom.” My sickness has now come to be my outlook on life.

ere was no space for me at all in the action of the intifada except to haunt the Ramallah Hospital, as it has now become my Kaaba, or last Wailing Wall.3 But here there is room for me between the new births on the upper our and the morgue refrigerator below. I mean I am in infirm, wandering around on the outskirts of things, on the edge of what is happening. For example, in the hospital’s strange hallways, inhabited by beings with green caps and green gowns, a pathologist walks behind gurneys that carry anesthetized people who have not woken up, or will never awaken. At the emergency entrance there is a bottleneck of ambulances with red crescents like the one I used to see in the sky behind the mountains. All around me are the martyred and the wounded, and I am roaming the hallways asking about the hematologist. A nurse answers nervously, “We’re in a situation of emergency. Can’t you see?” Then I realize I am a superfluous person, an obtrusive sick man moving toward his destiny, alone with his worries. I’m not a visitor here, or a healthy person, or a wounded youth, or about to become a martyr, but just an “ordinary sick person,” an expression that is caught between the dictionary of the living and the dead—between the new births on the upper our and the morgue refrigerator on the lower. What should a human being feel who can observe what is going on but is forbidden from “interfering” and whose nose is filled with the smell of medicines rather than saffron, what should his feeling be between two floors?

That is what made me return to the countryside, to a beauty that I had betrayed before—a return whose plot had not been perfected.