Refusal to surrender: “My Father was a Freedom Fighter” reviewed

3 March 2010

“From afar,” writes Ramzy Baroud, “Gaza’s reality, like that of all of Palestine, is often presented without cohesion, without proper context; accounts of real life in Gaza are marred with tired assumptions and misrepresentations that deprive the depicted humans of their names, identities and very dignity.”

Palestinian-American author, journalist and editor of the Palestine Chronicle, Ramzy Baroud’s latest book My Father was a Freedom Fighter is an antidote to the US, European and Israeli media’s decontextualization and dehumanization of Palestinians. It’s also an instant classic, one of the very best books to have examined the Palestinian tragedy.

As the title suggests, Baroud relates the life of his father, Mohammed Baroud. Each step in the story is located in a larger familial, social, economic and political context, one distinguished by eyewitness accounts and made concrete by an almost encyclopedic wealth of detail. But neither the book’s detail nor its deep reflection conflict with its compulsive readability. It’s quite an achievement.

Sub-headings such as “The World from the Train” point to Baroud’s method. Inside — in this case inside a carriage hurtling through Egypt’s Sinai — are Mohammed’s immediate thoughts and feelings. Outside is a historically pinpointed setting which involves Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington as much as Gaza or the Egyptian desert. And the interpenetration of inner and outer worlds is accomplished to an extent that is rare in fiction, let alone in nonfiction. Describing the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada, Baroud writes of “a culmination of experiences that unites the individual to the collective: their conscious and subconscious, their relationships with their immediate surroundings and with that which is not so immediate, all colliding and exploding into a fury that cannot be suppressed.”

Mohammed Baroud was born during British mandatory rule in the village of Beit Daras in southwestern Palestine. The British Mandate was supposed to guard Palestine’s territorial integrity while tutoring the people for independence. Instead Britain promised Palestine to Zionism without proposing — in the words of British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour — “even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” When the natives revolted, British forces bombarded their homes, detained them en masse, and demolished much of Jaffa’s Old City. Britain also organized and armed the joint British-Zionist Special Night Squad as well as the Jewish Settlement Police, which had a base in the settlement of Tabbiya, which neighbored Beit Daras.

For Mohammed Baroud’s village — near the airport through which the notorious Czech arms consignment was delivered, helping to tip the balance during the 1948 Palestine War — had great strategic importance. On 21 May 1948, Zionist forces from Tabbiya (who had been taught to farm by their Palestinian hosts) and elsewhere bombed women and children fleeing the besieged village, killing 265. But Beit Daras held out until July, when its remaining inhabitants fled to Gaza and Hebron, clutching property deeds, keys and cloths full of earth from the village.

Ramzy Baroud’s account of the Nakba, or the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-48, is brilliant and painful. He describes the chaos on the strafed and shelled roads, “some people carrying on with a great sense of urgency, others wandering aimlessly, in a daze,” bloated or blown-up corpses littering the way, and shoeless feet bleeding, mothers screaming for lost children.

In what would become the Gaza Strip’s Nuseirat refugee camp, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) provided bread and water. Later the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, brought tents. Later still the refugees built mud and straw shelters. Mohammed, overshadowed at home by his elder brother and uncomfortable in the poverty-stricken and claustrophobic conditions of the camp, now jumps a train to Egypt. In the first of a series of attempts to find strength and fortune outside, he spends a year teaching the Quran to Bedouin children.

Back in Gaza he joins the Egyptian army, writes to and receives a reply from the idolized Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, perches in a tree to read Russian novels, and falls in love with Zarefah, an illiterate refugee who has worked in a textile factory from the age of eight. It takes Mohammed several years as an ointment seller and quack healer in Mecca to earn the dowry.

He survives Israel’s massacre of 1,200 Gazans during the 1956 Suez War. He survives the June 1967 War, in which discarded Soviet rifles confronted “American hawk missiles, West German Patton battle tanks and French Mirage fighter jets.” Three years later, he survives then Israeli General Ariel “The Bulldozer” Sharon’s “pacification” of Gaza by “shock therapy,” during which the Israeli forces executed and deported young men and destroyed 2,000 houses in August 1970 alone. Mohammed joins the Palestine Liberation Army, because after two decades in the camps the refugees had come to believe in independent, armed action. He becomes part of the National Leadership Committee in 1978 and calls for civil disobedience. Mohammed and Zarefah also supply hunted fighters with cigarettes, food and blankets.

My Father was a Freedom Fighter details a life that is unrelentingly harsh. Pregnant Zarefah lives on weak tea and garlic soup. Mohammed and Zarefah’s first son dies of a high fever, of poverty really. Later Mohammed sells carpets in Ramallah and buys scrap metal in Israel, but the siege imposed during the first Palestinian intifada, as well as Mohammed’s unusual decision to send his daughter to study in Syria, plunges the family back into penury. Zarefah dies aged 42.

Ramzy is first named George, in honor of George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and also as a statement against Muslim-Christian division. As a boy, the author Ramzy collects used bullet cartridges and tear gas canisters, all marked as manufactured in the US. He experiences the thirsty boredom of curfews and runs with the boys who fire marbles by slingshot at helicopter gunships. One day he and his brothers are lined up, as were so many Palestinian youth, to have their limbs broken. The Israelis get as far as asking, “Which hand do you write with?” before they are seen off by the screaming, fighting women of Nuseirat.

Then comes come the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s which according to Mohammed were “the best-timed disaster that had ever befallen Gaza.” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres share the Nobel Peace Prize with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat. The PLO dies so the elitist, collaborationist Palestinian Authority (PA) can be born. PA police forces persecute political opponents and fire on unarmed anti-Oslo demonstrators. Mohammed, now separated from his children by checkpoints and oceans, digests news of “a Palestinian massacre committed by Palestinian police,” and understands that he will die a refugee. Mohammed “both feared death and wished for it often, contradictions that were not unique to him, but shared by most Gazans.”

Mohammed is proud of the partial victory that removes Israeli colonies from the Gaza Strip, and despite his “fragile religious beliefs,” he votes enthusiastically (in January 2006) for Hamas and its “culture of resistance.” When the Hamas government clamps down on an attempted Fatah coup, the siege of Gaza is made absolute. Aged 70 and dangerously asthmatic, Mohammed has no power for his oxygen pump, no clean drinking water and no medicine. Israel refuses him permission to visit the West Bank for medical care and to see his sons.

Mohammed’s death, though related without any sentimentality, made me weep. The good news is that, even separated from his family, he didn’t die alone. Thousands of people attended his funeral, “oppressed people, who shared his plight, hopes and struggles.” This solidarity echoes that of Beit Daras during the series of assaults in 1948, when the village “lived its most communal time. Men shared all, and women cooked for all.” The hero of the book, before Mohammed, is the Palestinian people.

My Father was a Freedom Fighter is an invaluable social history of this people. It charts the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on Gaza from the 1930s, the ferment of new ideologies in the 1960s, the rise of a class society and also of Palestinian-led nationalism, and then the reawakening of the Islamic movement in the 1970s and its evolution to armed struggle. The book examines the continual struggle between Palestinian masses and co-opted elites as well as between Palestinians and Israel. It recounts endlessly repeated assassinations, demolitions, expulsions and massacres, but the overall picture is one of a people growing stronger, or at least less fearful, because Mohammed Baroud’s was the generation which moved from being intimidated and idealistic to being clear-sighted and self-assured.

By putting his father at the center of his narrative Ramzy Baroud takes us a step into novel territory. The reader not only understands Mohammed’s position cerebrally, but can also fully identify with the resistance choices (sometimes inevitable) which Mohammed makes. This is because the character, though attractive, is an unidealized and entirely solid human being. For instance, Baroud doesn’t shy away from showing Mohammed’s violence unleashed against Zarefah during a fit of depression and anger induced by the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt. The same Mohammed refuses to move from his damaged and dangerous home in the Nuseirat refugee camp because from its window he can see his beautiful wife’s grave.

Mohammed, like his people, is both flawed and heroic. Both Mohammed and his people know this: “The simple refusal to surrender [is] the most poignant form of resistance of all.”

Robin Yassin-Kassab has been a journalist in Pakistan and an English teacher around the Arab world. His first novel, The Road from Damascus, is published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin. He blogs on politics, culture, religion and books at qunfuz.com.

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