Interview: Launch of Leila Khaled biography by EI contributor canceled after Zionist pressure

The cancelation of the Manchester launch of Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation has only brought the book broader publicity, said author and Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Irving in an interview yesterday.

The biography has received unexpected attention after a phone harassment campaign led to the cancelation of its 24 May launch at a Manchester bookstore. Another Manchester launch has been scheduled for 25 May at the Manchester Digital Laboratory.

Perhaps it is only fitting that the legendary Palestinian revolutionary Leila Khaled is in the headlines once again today. Khaled was forced to flee the coastal Palestinian city of Haifa during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine and eventually became involved with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist Palestinian party. She is most famous for forcing the world to pay attention to Palestine’s plight by hijacking two passenger airplanes in 1969 and 1970. An image of her holding an AK-47 while wearing a kuffiyeh, the traditional checkered scarf, is one of the most recognizable icons of the Palestine liberation struggle.

Khaled was interviewed by The Electronic Intifada in 2008 and was the subject of a recent documentary film by Lina Makboul, Leila Khaled, Hijacker. But as Sarah Irving pointed out during our interview yesterday, hers is the first biography of Khaled.

“An exploration of a whole life”

“Although, of course, the book deals with the two hijackings that made Khaled famous, that’s really only a part of it for me, not the most interesting bit, despite accusations by people who haven’t read the book that it will ‘glamorize terrorism,’” Irving wrote to me after our interview.

“The whole ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series of which this book is one of the first is about looking at people who have been part of radical movements and devoted their lives to activism, and to ask firstly what makes people do this, and secondly what impact it has on their lives,” Irving added.

“So Leila talks about issues such as her childhood in Haifa and then Lebanon as a refugee, and the assassination of her sister, apparently in mistake for her, and the impact on her life and her family of the political choices she’s made. And also the different issues for women within radical movements, especially once they marry and have children and other family commitments. So it’s an exploration of a whole life, not just two famous incidents.”

Irving also mentioned that there are plans for her to do an event along with Khaled in Amman in August and other events are in the works. The book should now be available in stores in the UK and US.

Maureen Clare Murphy: Can you tell us about your new biography of Leila Khaled?

Sarah Irving: It’s started to feel like a very old biography because this project has been going on for a good five years, if not more. I came up with the idea because she visited Manchester in 2002 just after the big Israeli re-invasion of the West Bank in spring of that year. I had just come back from the West Bank at that point and so I was invited to meet her along with a small group of other women from Manchester at somewhere called The Pankhurst Centre, which is a women’s center.

By a mutual friend we vaguely stayed in touch and one day I thought, that would be quite interesting, someone should write a biography of her; I wonder if there is anything. And I was really surprised to discover that there simply isn’t. There’s an autobiography that she wrote along with a Lebanese academic called George Hajjar that came out in about 1973. But obviously that only covers the first 25 years of her life. I slightly by accident decided to write this biography, she was very keen on the idea, and was extremely cooperative.

A substantial part of the biography is based on a week of interviews that I did with her in Amman, at her home, in 2008. But as I mentioned this has been going on for quite a while, that was four years ago. So there’s also a lot of material from follow-up interviews, interviews with other people, and also background material.

Partly I was interested in where women figure in the Palestinian resistance, and I was also just particularly interested as someone who comes from I suppose a secular, left-wing political background, in the way in which people forget now that so much of the history of the Palestinian resistance is the secular left, and that that’s kind of dropped off of the agenda.

And that may seem like a historical interest, but one of the things that’s quite interesting with what’s going on with the launch, is the fact that some of the attention it’s been getting has been from anti-Islamic commentators who just obviously have this blanket idea that anything that has to do with Palestine, anything that has to do with the Middle East, as being about religion. There’s this perception that it’s entirely about religion when it’s so blatantly not; it’s about rights, it’s about land, it’s about people. And yet one of the ways that people in the West try and sideline the Palestinian issue is to pretend that it’s a religious conflict.

MCM: You mentioned the noise around your launch event in Manchester, which was ultimately canceled after the local bookseller which was to host the event was subject to harassment. What can you tell us about what happened?

SI: Basically, I have a long association with Blackwell’s, which is one of the two main bookstores in Manchester. I used to work there about 15 years ago. And so I went to them to do a launch partly because it was a place I have a friendly relationship with; I still have friends on the staff. And everything seemed to be going absolutely fine, we sorted out all the details and posters and started to publicize it. And then I got a phone call on Monday afternoon from a member of staff saying, ‘Have you had any contact from anybody?” And I thought, OK, what’s going on here, and I said no, because I hadn’t heard anything.

They had been under total phone blockade all day from when they opened that morning. It’s a reasonably big book shop, it has three floors, and they’ve got maybe two or three phones per floor — it’s a multi-line system, so you can effectively have nine or ten members of staff all on the phone with people all at one time. It takes up a shop’s worth of staff, and they just could effectively not do anything.

And they’re a mainstream bookshop, they just were not expecting this, they’re not set up for dealing with that kind of thing, they’ve never experienced it before. The last time they got caught up in any book controversy was The Satanic Verses controversy with Salman Rushdie in the ’80s. So they were just in shock and this poor staff member was completely and utterly freaked out, he was terribly upset. And he was terribly upset and embarrassed and, quite frankly, quite angry at having to cancel. It’s not something that they did particularly willingly.

And I’ve talked to other staff members since, and they’ve been fantastically supportive as individuals but they were absolutely floored by what happened to them. Certainly in terms of people were ringing up, it sounds as if people were quite aggressive, and it sounds as if any were from Manchester, they were in the minority — they were from different parts of the country. Some of them mentioned a specific blog, a specific post from the Hurry Up Harry blog, which is a fairly nasty Zionist clearinghouse blog in the UK.

So this was very obviously a coordinated campaign, it all happened at once, they were all briefed to be taking up and wasting time. And because Blackwell’s is a mainstream bookshop, everybody’s very polite and they can’t go “f- off” and slam the phone down. So the manager regrettably took the decision to cancel and since then, the manager’s taken a slightly odd position, for instance he’s told the local paper that contacted them that it’s postponed, that it’s not canceled. But it is canceled.

MCM: Because there’s no reschedule date.

SI: There’s no reschedule date, I don’t think he’s interested in rescheduling. So I’m not quite sure he’s maintaining this odd fiction that it’s been postponed because it hasn’t been, it has been canceled.

The Zionists who did this lobbying did so because they perceived it as a soft target because it’s a mainstream bookshop. For instance, they haven’t gone after Housemans, which is a left-wing book shop in London which is hosting a London launch [on 2 June].

This has gotten the book far more attention and interest than it would have otherwise. It’s been covered by the local paper, and I’m calling it a local paper, [but] Manchester is a city of three million people and this is the main paper that is pretty widespread across the city. They’re not normally sympathetic to Palestine, the article is not sympathetic but it’s not as bad as it could be from the Manchester Evening News. And there’s a certain amount of interest as well as from The Electronic Intifada but also from the left-wing as well as from the Zionist right, apparently the Jewish Chronicle are running a piece, I hear.

MCM: Do you think these strong-arm tactics by Israel apologists are effective, or are they in some ways counter-productive because your book is going to get attention from some quarters that it might not have received otherwise?

SI: I think it’s been very counter-productive for them. Apart from press attention and the stuff that’s been going on on Twitter because of this, one of the things that has happened is that as well as the support I have received from people already involved in Palestine solidarity and that kind of agenda in Manchester, the Manchester literary and creative community have been unbelievably supportive. The kind of people that are friends of friends and who I know as names or I have seen presenting talks before or whatever, but have never really had anything particular to do with because I’ve always been on the journalism end of things rather than the creative end of things, have come to absolutely out of their own volition and out of the blue and have offered their help and support, which is absolutely fantastic. And even if Palestine is not for them one of their key issues that they’re involved in, people are seeing this as a freedom of speech issue.

MCM: This might be asking the obvious, but why do Zionists find a biography of Leila Khaled so threatening?

SI: I don’t think it is asking the obvious, because I’m not quite sure. The fact that they targeted this did surprise me slightly. Partly because it’s outside London, and partly because I’ve got the impression with events like this in Britain at the moment that they were concentrating on things that directly addressed the State of Israel as it is now. So I would not have been surprised at all if they had gone for one of Ben White’s books, something like Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, because that directly engages with the State of Israel as it exists at the moment, and exposes that.

This is something that is specifically about a Palestinian subject and taking a historical look. I was slightly surprised that they’ve even bothered to [target] that. I would guess that their argument is that this is glorifying terrorism, or something along those lines. But I’m not sure whether or not they even have a coherent analysis of why they particularly decided to target this.

Apart from anything else, from what the staff at Blackwell’s told me, a lot of the callers had no idea what it was they were really opposing. Some of them thought that Leila was actually going to be there, which is completely impossible, she’s been denied UK visas since she came in 2002. More broadly, obviously they have this desire to deny the fact that Palestine exists, it has a history, that there is a right to resistance, all those kind of things. But why they’ve gone for this particular book specifically, I’m not entirely sure, and I don’t know if they’re sure either, though.

Note: the original version of this post inaccurately stated that the rescheduled Manchester book launch is on 26 May. It is corrected to state that it’s 25 May.




Her own My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary is a little dated after 39 years, of course. It's also (inexplicably) out of print, although Internet editions are widely available. But it remains a key text on both Khaled's life and the broader history of the Palestinian movement.


Sorry, her biography may be fascinating, but NOTHING in the world, not even ethnic cleansing, can justify the hijacking of passenger planes, a form of struggle that is as hideous as it is counterproductive.

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.