Edward Said has described Ghada Karmi’s memoir as a ‘novelist’s envy’. Praise indeed and well deserved. Ghada will be well known to many readers of this magazine as one of the most prominent representatives of Palestine in Britain, a regular in TV and radio studios, as well as a staunch supporter of the Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
In her book Ghada unpacks her multiple identities: upper middle class Palestinian, Muslim, woman, atheist, doctor of medicine, daughter of a father to whom the Queen awards an MBE at Buckingham Palace for the excellence of his professional Arab/English translation skills, and most unexpected of all, 1950s teenager living in one of Britain’s most Jewish areas, Golders Green.
But this is no postmodern indulgence. Ghada is in no mood to celebrate these identities. Only one identity really matters, the one the world tried to eliminate from her childhood memory, and the one that Suez, Nasser, the 1967 Middle East war, PLO guerrillas, good old fashioned English racism, as well as Zionism, insisted on reviving. The question to the teenage Ghada, ‘You say you are from Palestine? Don’t you mean Pakistan?’ is particularly offensive precisely because it is asked in innocence. Zionism poisons most, though by no means all, of her Jewish friendships at school. When she finds Zoe Steiner’s notebook full of made-up tales about herself, her family, and all the other Arabs in the world, smelling of camels, she wallops Zoe. There’s hardly a way back to English middle class tranquillity after that.
Her recreation of childhood memory of Palestine slipping into oblivion, a blend of childhood naivety with mature reflection, is devastating. No punches are pulled. The squabbling, corrupt, aristocratic Palestinian leadership receives no mercy. Not only are these leaders incapable of standing up to the Zionist militias, their murderous internal feuding spills over and threatens members of her family. Hatred for the Jews grows as the Zionists start the killing spree that would wipe out her country. But this is no European-style anti-Semitism. This is hatred for Jewish migrants who turn into colonisers and who murder and expel Palestinians.
Earlier her family, along with many other Palestinians, befriend the migrants. The German Jewish doctors fleeing Hitler, and providing first class medical support to Palestinian families, earn enormous respect. Shlomo Goitein, the world’s leading expert on Jewish history in the medieval Islamic Arab world, is a family friend. We suddenly have a fascinating, if momentary, insight into a very different outcome for Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine.
But, above all else, there is Fatima, the peasant maid. This is Fatima who becomes an additional mother, Fatima, whose peasant manners upset and infatuate in equal measure. (Think carefully when you read this book about Fatima’s brother’s cure for Ghada’s brother’s earache.) This is Fatima with a kaftan, black with a bodice of intricate dark red embroidery. This traditional dress was typical of the villages of Palestine–each region had its own distinctive pattern and colours. Before the Naqba ‘no woman who was not a peasant would have been seen dead in such a kaftan,’ writes Ghada. ‘No one could have known that this despised peasant costume would become a symbol of the homeland, worn with pride by the very same women who had spurned it.’ Finally, this is Fatima, completely shattered, who had no choice but to stay behind when Ghada’s family realised the game was up and quit the country.
Ghada’s search for her is real and poetic at the same time. But in her conclusion (the final paragraph of her book), Ghada misunderstands the reason why she cannot find her, or at the very least identify with her. There is an unfinished argument here about detached intellectuals and mass resistance movements. Maybe she should address that in her next book.
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