A Review of “Rebecca”

Warning: Please don’t read this review if you have not read the novel. Major spoilers ahead.

Rebecca is a classic of Gothic fiction: when one sets out to review a classic, it is always a bit dicey, as though some blasphemous act is being committed (even if the review is favourable). However, I feel that I must share my feelings about this magnificent work: so I plunge in, setting my apprehensions aside.

Rebecca is an exquisitely crafted novel: from one of the most famous opening lines in the world of fiction(“Last night I dreamed we went to Manderley again”)to the very end, there is hardly a word, sentence, paragraph or pause out of place. The characterisation is painstakingly done and superb. As the story moves towards its predestined semi-tragic ending, the reader is never allowed to relax or withdraw from the story even for a minute.

The Story

The novel opens on the French Riviera, where the unnamed narrator is companion to a rich American lady vacationing there. She meets and falls in love with the middle-aged widower Max de Winter there; and after a whirlwind courtship, marries him. She accompanies him to his country estate, the forbidding Manderley, where she is immediately onset by feelings of inadequacy; the whole mansion seems to be pervaded by the unseen presence of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. The forbidding housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, adds fuel to fire by continuously insinuating that Rebecca de Winter was a real lady and the new lady of the house is a simple social upstart who can never measure up to her.

Things come to head when Mrs. Danvers cleverly manipulates Mrs. de Winter into wearing a costume at a party, which Rebecca wore on a former similar occasion: Max simply explodes, and asks her to change immediately. Subsequent to this scene, the housekeeper almost persuades the young bride to commit suicide. However, distraction arrives in the form of a shipwreck on the shore, following which Max tells his young wife the truth about Rebecca.

Rebecca, contrary to the charming exterior she presented to the world, was a cruel and manipulative woman who tortured her husband continuously with the stories of her escapades with various men. Ultimately, she tells Max one day that she is pregnant with another man’s child, and that he is powerless to denounce her: he would have to raise the child as his own. Goaded beyond limit, Max shoots and kills her, then sinks her body in the sea within his boat, letting it be known that Rebecca died in a boating accident.

The sunken boat is recovered following the shipwreck, however, and holes drilled at the bottom are seen. A verdict of suicide is brought at the inquest. But a crisis is precipitated by Jack Favell, Rebecca’s disreputable cousin and her lover, who claims that Rebecca could not have committed suicide because she had visited a doctor before her death and had some momentous news to impart. He, along with Max and his wife, are sure that this information is proof of her pregnancy: however, rather than submit to Jack’s blackmail, Max decides to face the music.

The novel’s final bombshell explodes when the doctor reveals that Rebecca indeed had momentous information; and that suicide is entirely believable, because she was suffering from cancer and would have died within a few months. The reader, along with Max and Mrs. de Winter, understand that Rebecca’s provocation of Max into killing her was her final act of revenge and escape from a lingering death. The story does not have a happy ending, however: a frustrated Mrs. Danvers finally goes over the edge and torches Manderley, herself perishing in the fire.

The Analysis

Rebecca is a novel which works on many levels. It can be read as a straightforward Gothic mystery, and is none too the less satisfying for it. The secrets are sufficiently sordid, the mood satisfactorily noir and the characters morbid in their preoccupations.

However, when start to look in depth at many of the many-layered themes in the story, Ms. du Maurier’s genius as a storyteller comes to light. The fact the protagonist is never named, and the novel goes under the name of her dead antagonist is extremely significant. The whole novel, in fact, is driven by three women characters. The dead Rebecca who is beautiful, cruel, miasmic, yet strangely attractive and desirable: the current Mrs. de Winter who is pretty, sweet and extremely likeable yet uninteresting (like Disney’s Snow White): and Mrs. Danvers, dark, brooding and evil like a witch. It is almost a perfect maiden-nymph-crone triad of the pagan goddess (though I doubt whether the author intended anything like it). The protagonist’s lack of identity, and Rebecca’s all-pervasive one, is almost painfully stressed.

From the male viewpoint, Rebecca is the perfect dream-girl who once possessed becomes the antithesis of what she represented as an unattainable ideal. Max tries to exorcise her first by killing her, but proves unsuccessful. Like a fairytale prince, it is through unselfish love for a pure maiden that he is redeemed. When he faces up to his crime, he finds deliverance at the last minute. However, Max still has suffer the final punishment – the loss of Manderley – along with which the crone-figure also disappears, allowing him to finally make a new life with his princess.

Does the novel have any flaws? IMO, the only one I found was that the story was too manipulative: the author has laid out a road-map for the reader, and carefully guides him/her along it without allowing any diversions. The revelations are placed at the correct places with clock-work precision. This is not necessarily a flaw in a mystery novel, but it does take away from the spontaneity of the story a bit.

On the first reading, enjoy Rebecca as a mystery: go into the depth of the narrative structure and craft, and the psychological undercurrents, in subsequent ones. This novel warrants careful analysis, especially if one is an aspiring writer. It will give invaluable insights into craft.


The Magical Landscape of Childhood

A couple of days back, I caught my son watching “Bob the Builder” on TV. He is thirteen going on fourteen, has the beginnings of a moustache under his nose, and has started reading Agatha Christie of late: so this was a sort of regression, and it surprised me. My son was acutely embarrassed.

This was one cartoon he used to watch in KG after coming back from school, as my wife fed him by hand. It was not the cartoon as such, but those memories he was trying to revisit. He had finally come to the realisation that his childhood was ending, never to return. It was a poignant moment.

I left him to it and walked away. I could feel my eyes moistening.


Does childhood really die?

I don’t believe so. There is a child in all of us – this is the world that writers and artists cater to. A world of make-believe, a world of wonder: because this is what childhood is all about – the sense of wonder.

Incidentally, I am reading the complete set of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. For those of you who don’t know, this enormously popular comic strip was created by Bill Watterson and was syndicated from November 1985 to December 1995. Calvin is a six-year old with a supercharged imagination (sometimes dark and sadistic) and Hobbes is his stuffed tiger toy which magically comes to life when they are alone. Calvin is an attempt on the part of the cartoonist to imagine the grown-up world through the eyes of a seriously weird kid.

In one way, Calvin is the natural successor of Charlie Brown of The Peanuts.

The world of “grown-ups” is many a time incomprehensible to children – the same way, a child’s world is often a closed book to many adults. A great many writers, however, carry a child within them, and is often able to look upon the world from both angles – from within the child and without.

The most touching story in this regard is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This is a magical fable of a pilot (the author) crash-landing in Sahara desert, and coming upon a little prince who has arrived there from a distant asteroid the size of a house. He is on the lookout for a goat to eat undesirable plants such as baobabs on his tiny home so that they don’t overrun and engulf the place. The author draws a goat and cage to keep it in, so that the goat does not eat a rose which grows on the asteroid, the one love of the prince’s life. The prince is overjoyed and the author gratified because his drawings have never been taken seriously by “grown-ups”.

The beauty of this small fairy tale is the amount of rich detail it manages to pack in. On his travels, the prince meets many people on other asteroids; their homes are as small and limited as his, but their concerns are much more grand and global and, ultimately from the prince’s point of view, extremely foolish. But these grown-ups never realise that. The pilot, with his child’s imagination, can easily empathise.

Here, as well as in the Calvin cartoons, the child’s naiveté is used by the author to point out the stupidity of the adult world: the child has his illusions, but he does not consider them absolute. He’s quite happy to live in his little world provided the grownups let him.

The world becomes not only incomprehensible but frighteningly so in the hands of the horror writers – Stephen King’s The Shining comes immediately to mind. Danny Torrance is blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you look at it) with ESP, the ability to see into other’s thoughts. Isolated with his recovering alcoholic father and mother in the snowbound hotel Overlook, Danny is pursued by the phantoms of the evil dead within the hotel – they want him there as a permanent resident. For this, they try to get his father to murder him. Danny’s claustrophobic effort to escape the unspeakable evil pursuing him makes for a gripping story, but underlying the out-and-out ghost story is the demons that plague all of us: alcoholism, failure and domestic violence. Children see much more than we think.

This motif of the “lost child” is used by Ingmar Bergman in his movie The Silence, which also features a child trapped in a hotel in a strange country with an unintelligible language. The movie straddles the line between reality and fantasy, and is much more disturbing than The Shining. But the underlying theme is the same – the child’s eye view.

Moving on to more pleasant matters, there is one area of fiction where we adults can let our imaginations roam without feeling guilt – science fiction and its sister, fantasy. Here, all stops are pulled, and the author can take us millions of light years away to “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. The trappings of science are often just props to build a rip-roaring tale. The suspension of disbelief, a gift of childhood, is assumed the moment one picks up an SF paperback (even when the author is someone like Isaac Asimov, who goes to great lengths to provide “scientific” bases for his fantasy worlds). The fact is that the child does it all the time – like in the movie Jurassic Park 2, when the tyrannosaur walks into the backyard and the adults are frozen in fear, the child takes a photograph.


My son is leaving this magical realm. This transition is painful, like all rites of passage: but at some point of time future I am sure he will understand (like I did) that one need not leave permanently. The land is always there – we need to only believe in it. It may be sometimes frightening, but that is also part of the thrill. We can be grownups in our “official” lives, and escape to childhood the moment the shades are drawn.

I do it every night.

By nandakishorevarma Posted in General


Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he’s expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo: No.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: ‘Cause I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind — driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix?
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
(Neo nods his head.)
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. (long pause, sighs) Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
(In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.)
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Long pause; Neo begins to reach for the red pill) Remember — all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

  • The Matrix

I do not think many of us would need an explanation where the famous dialogue is coming from: the 1999 movie “The Matrix” is iconic in the SF canon. The basic premise that nothing is what it seems: we are all puppets of an oppressive system which keeps us in blissful ignorance. There will be the occasional doubt, the flash of sudden clarity, gone before it can be clearly registered in the mind. You remain a slave unless and until you are ready to swallow the red pill (which itself has become a metaphor)

I was reminded of this movie the moment I picked up the book Debunked! by Richard Roeper, popular columnist from The Chicago Sun-Times. In this book, Roeper goes on to enumerate and systematically demolish various “conspiracy theories” – defined as “an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation” (Wikipedia). We have many, some truly momentous and global (“9/11 was an inside job”) and some of a more mundane nature (“American idol is fixed”).

The basic premise of a conspiracy theory can be explained in one sentence – “nothing is what it seems”. They usually highlight some arguably improbable aspect of a famous incident and try to establish that the incident did not happen in the way the official report of it goes. So why was it modified? Because some conspiracy is to be covered up. By whom? By “THEM” – the all-powerful establishment, corporate group, fifth column… and those who debunk the theory that such a conspiracy happened? Why, obviously they have been bought off – or frightened into submission.

The beauty of this scheme is that a conspiracy theory can never be disproved even if they cannot be proved; because all adherents will simply dismiss any evidence against it as manufactured. And since unusually powerful underground agencies are at work, nothing is beyond their power. Our only recourse is to swallow the red pill.

One of the most famous and enduring theories of recent times is that the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed by the US Government itself, to provide them with a valid excuse to wage war with the Islamic world. Even though it takes a staggering leap of faith to believe that the government of a country would murder so many of its own citizens and destroy millions of dollars’ worth of property to build up a pretext for war, conspiracy theorists do so based on one flimsy piece of “evidence” – steel does not melt, so the twin towers could not have collapsed in on itself due to fire from external impact. It was the work of strategically planted bombs within the facility. This they will repeat, even after we comprehensively prove that steel does not have to melt, only deform for the building to fall down. But as Roeper says, no amount of common sense arguments will satisfy the conspiracy theorist – he will still hold on to the most tenuous of circumstantial “evidence” to substantiate his pet theory.

I did not find Roeper’s book earth-shaking – it’s funny and good to while away a few hours on a long haul flight or a boring wait at a doctor’s or dentist’s, that’s all – but it got me interested in conspiracy theories in general. Because with advent of the internet, they have been spreading like wildfire. India is no exception. One of the persistent ones is the one about Rajiv Gandhi being born a Muslim (Feroze Gandhi, his father, is Feroze Khan according to this legend) and a converted Christian. The story goes on make all kinds of accusations about Sonia’s family and ultimately hints that her whole idea of marrying Rajiv Gandhi was a takeover of India. (This is surprisingly paralleled by the urban legend of Barack Obama being a Muslim, and the Islamic takeover of America.)

Another legend doing the rounds is the one about the Taj Mahal being a Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalaya. According to this, there are locked chambers inside the building where the original Hindu idols are stashed. But God alone knows why the government wants to keep it hidden.

Why do we believe in conspiracy theories? Wikipedia discusses exhaustively on the subject. According to my reading, the main reason is a sense of insecurity. As W. B. Yeats said:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In an increasingly complex and frightening world, where there is no stability any more, we have a need to believe it’s not all just random. There are enemies, within and without. Hindus suspect Muslims, Muslims suspect Hindus, Americans suspect Arabs, conservatives suspect liberals… so when something goes wrong, it’s a plot: by the dreaded “THEM”. The faceless, nameless horde which swoops down on us in the darkness of night; the dark figures pulling the strings which manipulate the puppets who are running the government. It’s a classic case of shadow projection.

Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. For example, the Reichstag fire was used by Hitler to “prove” that communists were plotting against Germany and was key to the establishing of Nazi rule. Similarly, politicians have used isolated incidents worldwide as proof of conspiracy to cement their rule and as an excuse for ethnic cleansing.

A heady dose of common sense is the only way to fight against such nonsense. We have to swallow the red pill – but not in the sense Morpheus meant. The red pill here would help us to shine the cold, hard light of logic on the nebulous strands of vapid fancy which constitute such theories, and see them evaporate.

But then, they are always good for good science fiction story!

A Review of “In Search of Fatima”

May 1book cover5, 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.


Palestinian_refugeesThe 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

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.