May 15, 1948. The world (at large) knows of it as the Israeli Independence Day. But the Palestinians call it by another name: Yawm-an Nakba (“Day of Catastrophe”) – for what name is more fitting for a day when daylight robbery was legitimised?
It is true that history is always written by the victors. So the “heroes” always win, and the “villains” always get defeated. This is the story we hear. But what about the narrative of the defeated? Who are the heroes and villains in that tale?
The formation of Israel is one of the most romanticised historic events, more so in the West. The tale of a homeless people, wandering around for centuries, endlessly persecuted, ultimately almost wiped out in the most horrific incident of planned and scientific genocide known in history; finally returning back to their mythic homeland and carving out a nation for themselves in the midst of hostile neighbours is the stuff of mythical sagas. What is sad is, the other side of this story, the tale of a people uprooted from their homeland and thrown out to become the flotsam of the modern world is largely unknown on misunderstood.
Yes, I am talking about the Palestinians. Those crazed terrorists as depicted in Western media, who take pleasure in killing women and angelic Israeli children. A race which has been so marginalised and demonised that they have lost all common decency accorded to human beings, and are on the way to becoming a footnote people in history.
It is in this context that I believe books like In Search of Fatima by Dr. Ghada Karmi becomes relevant. Because she gives a face to these “terrorist demons”. And we find with a shock that it is a human face, not very different from ours.
The country called “Palestine” has never existed as a sovereign state (but then, never has Israel). “Palestine” is more a name of an area than a country. The birthplace of three of the world’s biggest religions, the area has been claimed exclusively by all three (although Christianity has relinquished its exclusive rights recently, I think). And it has resulted in contests and counter-conquests to capture the holiest of all holy cities – Jerusalem.
Palestine and the nearby areas had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire since the early sixteenth century: a rule which was to end only after the First World War, when the Ottomans picked the losing horse. Britain, getting control of all of the Middle East with the help of Arabs by promising them a Pan-Arabic state, did their usual job betrayal after the war was won. Palestine came under the British mandate in 1922.
Jews, who had been displaced from their homeland in prehistoric times, had been meanwhile returning since the late nineteenth century. Even though mistrust existed between them and the Arabs in the region, both religions managed to exist side-by-side in relative harmony. Of course, there were uprisings against the British, and also in-fighting between various Arab groups (some things don’t change in the Middle East, it seems). However, as the years went by, Jewish immigration to the area became alarming, and the immigrants became more and more aggressive. In the period of 1936 to 1939, there was general uprising against Britain, which was suppressed: however, Britain was forced to go back from its intent to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
After the Second World War, the immigration of European Jews to Palestine increased tremendously in numbers, and the Zionist lobby grew in power all over the Western world. Britain tried to restrict these numbers, but by then the Zionist lobby was physically and financially strong. Right-wing Zionist groups like the Irgun openly warring against the occupiers. So the British Empire went back to its time-tested formula: leave a colony which had become a losing proposition. Accordingly, the English withdrew, and the immigrants settled down clinically to the task of driving the Palestinians out. The Arabs were too disunited and lacked the will- and muscle-power to fight them. Ultimately, on 29th November 1947, the UN General Council passed a resolution legitimising the formation of independent Arab and Jewish states. And on 15th of May the following year, the state of Israel came into being.
The book is divided into three parts: Palestine, England and In Search of Fatima. In the first part, the author describes her early childhood in a relatively peaceful country ending with the ultimate violent uprooting; in the second, her coming of age in England and the realisation that she is an unfortunate hybrid, English in upbringing and Arab in spirit, belonging neither here nor there; and in the third, her return to Palestine to find her roots, symbolised by her childhood nurse, Fatima.
Ghada Karmi was born (possibly -because in those days, Arabs did not keep any note of birthdays) on the 19th of November, 1939, into a world at war and a country passing through the final stages of a violent uprising. She says her mother never wanted to have her, because it was no world to bring a child into. However, soon after Ghada’s birth, the country entered a stage of peace between the Jews, Christians and Muslims in Palestine. Her childhood memories are peaceful, almost idyllic.
Ghada’s mother was from Damascus and her father was from the small village of Tulkarm. They were typical upper middle class people, and Mr. Karmi was a literate man with a collection of books. Ghada’s mother was relatively advanced in her views and socialised extensively. The children were more or less left to the nurse-cum-housekeeper, Fatima, a peasant woman whom little Ghada idolised. They lived in the prosperous neighbourhood of Qatamon in Jerusalem. One could say that little Ghada had a fortunate life in turbulent times.
However, all that was to change as the Zionist lobby gained strength, and the fights between Jews and Muslims escalated. But the author’s family, it seems, lived in the fools’ paradise that most of us live in (“This cannot happen in MY country!”) and did not see the writing on the wall until it was too late, even when their neighbourhood was rocked by extreme violence. Even if they had foreseen their eviction from their homeland, it is doubtful whether they could have done anything, because the hopelessly divided Arab lobby was anything but capable of standing up to Zionist power. So finally, in April 1948, they had to evacuate to Syria, to the house Ghada’s maternal grandparents.
Ghada’s mother, unable to accept permanent exile and always maintaining until the end of her life that they would return to Palestine one day, gave the key of her house to Fatima for “safekeeping”. They moved away in a rickety taxi to the music of exploding bombs. It is at this point, when the author realised that she had to leave her dog Rex behind, the force of loss struck her in its enormity for the first time. This is captured poignantly in the book’s prologue:
Another explosion. The taxi, which had seen better days, revved loudly and started to move off. But through the back window, a terrible sight which only she could see. Rex had somehow got out, was standing in the middle of the road. He was still and silent, staring after their retreating car, his tail stiff, his ears pointing forward.
With utter clarity, the little girl saw in that moment that he knew what she knew, that they would never meet again.
This is the first wake-up call which signifies the death of childhood for ever – the harsh reality of permanent loss.
They stayed for a year in Syria, but by the time Ghada’s father had realised that there was no future for him there; and he was realistic enough to accept that an immediate return to Palestine was out of the question. Post-war England beckoned. Against his wife’s protests, he took a job in the Arabic service of the BBC and moved to London. He ultimately succeeded in coaxing his reluctant wife to join him, along with her children. So at nine years of age, Ghada set foot on English soil for the first time, the country which was to be her adoptive motherland.
Little Ghada was not at all unhappy to leave the house of her grandparents in Damascus, which was crowded with members of the joint family. The situation was further exacerbated due to the influx of more and more refugee members. Also, the country and the household was fairly traditional, more so than the relatively cosmopolitan Jerusalem. Girls were supposed to be subordinate, women had to cover their hair and one had to pray five times a day. So it must have been something of a relief to relocate to city like London.
However, Mrs. Karmi refused to accept it as home. In their small apartment in Golders Green, she “created a little Palestine” (in Ghada’s words). Their house became a centre for all displaced Arabic people. Ghada’s mother staunchly refused to learn English and to go out and socialise with the locals. She built a cocoon around herself and became totally insular. The author says this embittered her and from her expression in the photographs in the book, one would tend to agree with her.
Ghada’s elder sister, Siham, was marked out to be a doctor: however, due to the subtle racial prejudice prevalent in British society, she could not get admission and ultimately chose chemistry as her vocation. Her brother Ziyad chose engineering, so Ghada was instructed to become a doctor by her father, even though her talent was more in literature and the humanities. But in an Arab family, you did not argue with the father – so a doctor she had to be.
Ghada talks of her school years in England as pleasant enough: racism, even though present, was basically an undercurrent. In fact, among the Arab Muslim and the Jew, the inherent racist bias was more against the latter. However, Egyptian president Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 changed all that. Overnight, Arabs became barbarian aggressors in the minds of the British.
In school, Ghada began to be isolated more and more. One incident of outright bullying by a Jewish classmate, Zoe Steiner, almost ended in an incident of physical violence. Incidentally, it succeeded in sowing the seed of a crucial existential question in the author’s mind: was she Arab or English?
This dilemma persisted throughout her teens and twenties. On the one side, she was enjoying the freedom of a liberated woman, unthinkable in the Middle East: on the other, Arab nationalism and pride were being ground into dust by Israel and her Western allies. Ghada says that at this time, the existence of a country such as Palestine was unknown in England, and she had to lie about her nationality when questioned to avoid confusion.
At this time, a Pan-Arab movement was taking shape under the charismatic leadership of Nasser, watched warily by Israel. But Ghada had no time for politics because of two important events in her life – she graduated from medical school, and married a classmate (an Englishman) against her family’s wishes.
The marriage was doomed from the start. Ghada’s family (especially her mother) was unvaryingly hostile to John, her husband – all placatory efforts from his side proved futile. And Ghada’s slowly emerging nationalism as an Arab distanced them even more. But what brought things to a head was the six-day war of 1967 between Egypt and Israel which Israel won with ridiculous ease. This foreshadowed the shape of things to come in the area – unlimited expansion of Israeli borders with impunity. Naturally, Ghada was outraged but her husband was on the side of “plucky” Israel who won against enormous odds. She felt totally betrayed, and the rickety marriage collapsed a year later.
Now, in the final part of the book, we see a new Ghada Karmi: a proud Palestinian who has embraced her identity. After the collapse of her marriage, she continued working as a doctor, feeling more and more isolated from fellow Britons when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation entered the scene, under the charismatic leadership of Yasser Arafat. Their tactics of hijacking, bombing and isolated acts of violence against Israelites helped to bring international attention to the plight of Palestinians – it also dubbed them forever as terrorists. And being unabashedly Palestinian, Ghada was automatically stamped with the label.
After a frightening encounter with a group of Jewish doctors in 1971, Ghada decided to embrace the Palestinian Cause – and the PLO – fully. She established “Palestine Action” in England with a group of sympathisers and began to travel all over the Arab world, visiting Palestinian refugee camps and meeting leaders of the PLO. She also participated in protests and political action in England. Ghada describes the magical moment when she met Yasser Arafat, the legend, face-to-face. It seemed as though she had finally found herself.
However, by 1978, the PLO had been recognised by the world at large, and Arafat was seen as the leader in exile of the Palestinian nation. Ghada says she saw no need of continuing her organisation, as it had become redundant. She felt, like many other Palestinians, that the birth of a legitimate Palestine was only a matter of time.
But Israel had other ideas: it invaded Lebanon in 1978 and forced the PLO out of its Beirut headquarters. From then on, the organisation was always on its back foot, pressurised time and again by Israel until Arafat was forced to sign the Oslo Agreements of 1993 – in the eyes of Palestinians, a shameful capitulation. On the personal front, Ghada found it difficult to adjust to Arab society, especially women’s role in it – she says that as a divorcee, she was seen as fair game by men. The most she could hope for was to be a second wife to somebody, or secret liaisons with married men. By the 1980’s Ghada began to see that
…in effect, I had no natural social home in England or any other place. Did we all feel the same?…. When and where was their (her siblings’ and hers) real home?
To get to the root of the question, she had to
…go to the source, the origin, the very place, shunned fearfully for years, where it all began…
…that is, Israel.
The book concludes with Ghada’s 14 day visit to Israel in August 1991 (something denied to most Palestinians), which she could do because of her British passport. She was helped by her Israeli friends. Ghada was shocked at what she saw in “her” country: in her opinion, nothing short of apartheid practised by Jews on Arabs, a minority without voice in what had once been their country. Even though Ghada ultimately located her house (now occupied by strangers), it was “dead, like Fatima, like poor Rex, like us.”
The book ends on a positive note, however, as Ghada lies on her hotel bed in Jerusalem. Suddenly the call to prayer comes floating in through the window. The author says:
I closed my eyes in awe and relief. The story had not ended, after all – not for them, at least, the people who lived there, though they were herded into reservations of a fraction of what had been Palestine. They would remain and multiply and one day return and overtake. Their exile was material and temporary.
Ghada feels however that her personal exile is “undefined by space and time”, from where “there would be no return.”
Is this a great book? I cannot honestly answer in the affirmative. Ghada Karmi’s style is rambling, and one feels the book would have benefited from the services of a good editor. The author rushes off on tangents many a time without returning to where she started from.
The memoirs are so steeped in her feeling for Palestine and the outrage that they have suffered that the human touch is missing in many areas (especially where she is discussing relationships). Sometimes, one feels that she has to pigeonhole people (“my Jew friend”, “my Catholic colleague”) racially just to put things in perspective. Even her relationship with her husband and subsequent breakup is only superficially treated, other than as confirmation of her growing Arab identity and its incompatibility with the normal English milieu.
Most importantly, the metaphor of Fatima, as a symbol for the lost Palestine, never takes hold in the mind of the reader.
Still, this is a book which deserves to be read.
In 1969, Golda Meir said: “It was not as though there were a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” This was the fate of the Palestinians before the PLO entered the scene with their isolated acts of terrorism – total oblivion. The PLO made them crazed terrorists in the Western mind, which was better – at least they existed!
Of late, with the increasing demonisation of Islam and Muslims in general in the West, the Palestinians have been added to those evil beings like the Al Queida who deserve to exterminated, to make the world safe for democracy. One almost feels that the crusades never ended.
Well, my friends, Palestinians are neither mythical beings nor devils in human guise. They are a people who have been unjustly expelled from their home country to wander the earth as waifs, much like the Jews in previous centuries. They are human beings like you and me, who laugh, cry, eat, drink, love, hate, live and die. They do not get the justice they deserve: let them at least have a voice.
Ghada Karmi provides that voice. Listen to it. Even if it evokes a single tear from you for the suffering of fellow human beings, she would not have spoken in vain.