Book review: diary from pre-Nakba Palestine

In recent years, a growing number of Palestinian memoirs have been published in English. These have tended to be from activists and writers such as Ghada Karmi (author of the phenomenal In Search of Fatima) and Raja Shehadeh or by Palestine Liberation Organization officials such as Shafiq al-Hout (forthcoming in translation from Pluto Press). A Young Palestinian’s Diary 1941-1945: The Life of Sami ‘Amr is an interesting departure from this pattern, because the late Sami ‘Amr (although he was latterly a successful bureaucrat and businessman in Jordan) did not live a particularly noteworthy life. Furthermore, since the diary ends in 1945, the work lacks any kind of narrative or reflection of the catastrophic events of 1948 — the year that normally forms the backbone of most Palestinian memoirs.

In terms of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, Sami’s diary is mostly apolitical, apart from one short entry in which he predicts that the Zionists could drive the Arabs out of Palestine. The diary is almost totally prosaic, sometimes boring. The star of the book, however is Kimberly Katz, who translated Sami’s diary from the handwritten Arabic manuscript. This professor of Middle East history also introduces the work with a 65-page historical contextualization (the diary itself is only 83 pages long) as well as embellishes the diary itself with copious explanatory footnotes on almost every page.

Sami’s work is not a memoir, but a diary recounting day-to-day events: his career aspirations, his family problems and, most of all, his preoccupation with finding the right woman to marry. Although Katz notes that Sami later hoped it would be published, it certainly doesn’t read as though it were ever intended for public viewing.

Indeed, some of Sami’s private thoughts are downright embarrassing. In one passage, written as a letter on the event of the birth of his nephew, he speaks in a very patronizing way about his brother-in-law’s Bedouin heritage. Katz informs us that this letter was in fact delivered to his brother-in-law, who tore it up in disgust. While this reflects badly on the young Sami, it is interesting historically, as it is evidence against the Zionist myth that the Palestinians were all nomads who would be equally happy living anywhere in the Arab world (of course, like the rest of the Palestinians, the Bedouin too did not not agree to leave their own country forever).

Another reason for my assessment that Sami did not originally intend the diary for publication is that it often leaves out contextual information, using first names without introducing characters, skipping over major life events, and so forth. Katz uses the introduction and the footnotes to fill in the gaps left by Sami.

Having first discovered the diary through a chance 1999 encounter with Sami’s son on a flight to Jordan, Katz has obsessively and scrupulously joined the dots by questioning family members in Amman and Hebron: mainly Sami’s son Samir and wife Suhayla. For instance, Sami tells us that his brother was arrested while in the British army, but does not specify the charges. It is only through Katz’s interviews with the family we learn that the brother went AWOL from the army in Egypt and escaped back to Palestine, where he was caught and imprisoned.

It is refreshing to read a book put together by a true expert. Katz has an impressive grasp of the historical background to the daily events that Sami recounts, and as a reader of Arabic she is able to draw on and reference the wider Palestinian and Arab historical literature. She indulges us with a brilliant historical overview of the inter-war period in Palestine, and the challenges faced by the population: the increased pace of Zionist colonization, the expulsion of the Palestinian leadership in the wake of the British suppression of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, the privations of the Second World War and the issues facing Palestinians who joined the British war effort.

All this background greatly enlightens the text of Sami’s diary, which otherwise would have come over as frustratingly abbreviated, and would have raised more questions than it answers. One particular passage in the diary stands out, in which the future-ghost of the Nakba stalks the imagination.

On a holiday from work, Sami visits the village of Jarisha near Jaffa. We learn in one of Katz’s footnotes that Jarisha would be destroyed during the Zionists’ 1948 ethnic cleansing (by the Irgun, according to PalestineRemembered.com’s entry on Jarisha). Because Sami is writing after a pleasant family day trip, and not reflecting on past events in later life, the village is not idealized or romanticized. Instead, he and a cousin simply enjoy a pleasant day of boating on the river. The footnote thus bestows a solemnity and significance on a scene that would otherwise have seemed entirely normal.

In the same entry, Sami freely travels through Hebron, Jerusalem, Nablus, Tulkarem and Jaffa all over the course of about a week. Such a trip would now be almost impossible for any Palestinian because of Israel’s apartheid policies.

Moments like these make this work a truly valuable addition to the genre.

Asa Winstanley is an independent journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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