Book review: Abdel Bari Atwan’s “Country of Words”

A Country of Words: from the Refugee Camps to the Front Page is a remarkable Palestinian memoir, exceptional because of its abundance of compassion, humor and humility. Its author is Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic-language daily al-Quds al-Arabi who also wrote The Secret History of al-Qa’ida. Individuals have their own lives and create their own narratives, and for Atwan, his story begins in Palestine. Born in the Gaza Strip refugee camp of Deir al-Balah in Gaza in 1950, Atwan’s life has been marred by tragic incidents, including the premature death of his father and later his brother, who supported his education.

Atwan grew up in Gaza, moved to Jordan to continue his education, and then to Alexandria for further schooling. He then moved to Cairo for university, then to Libya, Saudi Arabia and finally for work to London, where he grew in stature as a defender of Palestinian rights and Arab dignity. In his memoirs, Atwan comes across as a sympathetic, principled and international figure all at once, aware of the temptations of power and the universal value of humaneness, which cannot be cheapened or compromised.

Atwan recalls his experience in the refugee camps of Deir al-Balah and Rafah and situates that within the collective Palestinian refugee problem. Here, as it has been in other Palestinian memoirs, it is asserted that the collective forms an indispensable background to the individual: “my story is linked to that of my family’s, which in turn is entwined with the tragedy of Palestine’s recent history” (p.19). Atwan, whose family hails from Isdud in historic Palestine (near present-day Ashdod), moved to Jordan to continue his secondary school education after Israel occupied Gaza in 1967 and life became tenuous.

He recounts what his mother told him about her secure life in Isdud and how she was cruelly evicted from it. The Israeli occupation to Gaza in 1967 triggered worries of previous encounters with the Zionists who unleashed punitive measures on Palestinians, making life impossible for them and forcing their displacement. Atwan excels in describing life for the Palestinians and interspersing his narrative with doses of humor; for example, when a British parachute fell in Gaza, Gazans made silk trousers of it!

Egypt, through Atwan’s eyes, is wonderful and spirited, cheerful, and forgiving, as opposed to the austere kingdom of Jordan, where he endured manual labor to eke out a living for himself and his family back in Gaza. He reflects on the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt as a promising, hopeful time during which the Arab world felt united and dignified, because, Atwan writes, Nasser did not compromise on his principles: “General Nasser had led Egypt since 1954 and was seen by many as the great hope of the Arab world. His ideology inspired me then and still does today. Egypt had become the focal point of a renaissance: the capital of Arab culture and the pan-Arab political movement” (p. 86).

In Egypt, Atwan was treated as a representative of the Palestinians. However, after Nasser’s death, the political climate was no longer as welcoming and Atwan was deported by Egyptian authorities. It is a reminder of the precarious and vulnerable state of Palestinian refugees even in states run by supposedly friendly regimes. It also demonstrates how Palestinian activism has largely been at the whims of more powerful and cynical ruling elites in the Arab world.

Atwan sought refuge in Libya, where his pursuit with journalistic endeavors bore fruit. He wrote an article on the Shah of Iran at a time when Libyan-Iranian diplomatic relations soured; the article won Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s favor and was published in the front page of al-Balagh newspaper and Atwan was upgraded to “senior writer.” In Saudi Arabia, the next leg of Atwan’s exile, dissent was null. Atwan’s apparent gift for writing was appreciated, but his flamboyant, critical writing style earned him the wrath of the information ministry in Saudi Arabia.

Recruited by al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, Atwan moved to London, a move which proved critical to his career: “Journalists and editors had been exposed to greater press freedom and professionalism in London and this had a dramatic effect on the Arab media in general” (p.124). But it did not take much time for Atwan to fall out with al-Sharq al-Awsat given its conformist line to traditional Middle Eastern regimes. He became the “London bureau chief” of the Saudi-owned newspaper, al-Madinah and met the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Atwan’s term with al-Madinah ended after his boss was replaced due to disapproval by the Saudi state, eventually replacing him with a new editor with whom Atwan did not agree.

Atwan’s life as documented in his memoir has undergone a meteoric rise, crossing arduous lines. He returned to al-Sharq al-Awsat, but only for a short period of time, before forming his own newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi. Al-Quds al-Arabi witnessed dramatic ups and downs and nearly folded; but the admirable sacrifices of its staff and their principled determination saw the paper through to more successful times. Atwan’s career encompasses rich encounters, close relationships with historical and controversial figures, attachment to ordinary people’s lives, which he recounts with vividness and excessive humor. His encounter with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is warmly, but critically, rendered. An entire chapter is devoted to Arafat, who Atwan views as an historic figure who through selfless devotion, despite his selfish domination of the Palestine Liberation Organization, contributed monumentally to the rise of Palestinian nationalism and identity. His encounter with al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden is documented in his first book. Bin Laden invited Atwan to meet him in Afghanistan, and that earned Atwan the title of “expert” on al-Qaida.

There is much charm, wit and eloquence in Atwan’s memoir, but there is also some contradiction. The Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s, for Atwan, stifled the Palestinian struggle, and was a far cry from their longstanding ambitions for a dignified independent state. But he sympathizes with his family in Rafah, Gaza, who saw in it an opportunity to live in relative peace: “I realized how the different mindsets and political goals of those who live abroad and those who have remained in Palestine could prove decisive on the road to a just settlement; this is a crucial aspect of the peace process which should not be overlooked.” Atwan urges his family “not to concede too much” (p.274). Atwan sided with the late Palestinian intellectuals Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, who dissented against Oslo and Atwan considered great friends whose company he sought and found enriching. Atwan’s vision for Palestine coincides with theirs and many other Palestinians: “we have to learn to live together in peace and cooperation in a multicultural society in one democratic secular state for two people. We manage it here in London, it is working in South Africa, and there is enough room for everyone in Palestine” (p. 282).

Atwan is an engaged, descriptive writer; but he does not seem inclined to reflect theoretically on what he writes. Since he sympathizes with his family’s political views, one expects his sympathy to be more developed, in that he does not offer insights as to how the Palestinians’ inside and outside views of the conflict and the solution to it can be bridged. The book is an invaluable narrative from a familiar and eminent Palestinian media figure, but it lacks the reflective subtlety of a scholar.

Atef Alshaer obtained his first university degree in English language and literature from Birzeit University in Palestine. He then obtained a masters in linguistics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, where he is currently a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures.

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