Book review: Two Palestinian women recall their lives in exile

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Both Salwa Salem’s and Ghada Karmi’s childhoods were violently disrupted by what Palestinians call al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe — the involuntary mass exodus of nearly three quarters of the Palestinian population when the State of Israel was established in 1948. Marking the destruction of their country, this event would define their lives as ones of exile. In their respective memoirs, The Wind in My Hair and In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story, Salwa Salem — who dictated her memoirs while dying of cancer — and Ghada Karmi — a medical doctor and academic who is a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the British press — recall idyllic childhoods in Palestine before 1948 in a society rich with culture and defined by the extended family. Their individual experiences, chronicled in their engrossing works, give a window into that of a generation of Palestinians born into dispossession.

It is not difficult to think that if their fates weren’t scattered to the wind by al-Nakba, Salem and Karmi may have become fast friends had their paths crossed in an intact Palestine. Both are strong-willed women who rebelled while still attempting to respect their families’ wishes (or at least most of the time). What is quite compelling about their memoirs is how they both managed to cope with coming into their own in a culture that was not theirs, while their parents were helpless, watching them reject many of the practicesthat had been the guarantors of security in pre-diaspora Palestinian society.

Both Salem and Karmi’s families were residing in cities that were conquered during al-Nakba. Before Israel took their place,they were part of a new urban class of those who had left villages for the more cosmopolitan cities such as Jerusalem and Jaffa. Though her mother always remained proud of her rural fellahi background, Salem’s father yearned for something more grand than village life allowed and established a successful fruit distribution business in Jaffa. Karmi’s father, from a notable Tulkarem family, was a linguist in Jerusalem, and his wife an institution in the city’s well-to-do social scene.

However, though they were too young to understand what was happening around them, both Salem and Karmi realized as young girls that their worlds were being threatened

However, though they were too young to understand what was happening around them, both Salem and Karmi realized as young girls that their worlds were being threatened. Massacres were happening across the country, and after one that occurred in a Jaffa mosque, Salem narrates, “From then on every gunshot, every flash, frightened us. My brothers and I cried all the time. We asked our mother why the Jews were so evil, why did they want to kill us and take our city. My mother did not know what to answer. Like all the people of Jaffa, she was confused and could not understand what was happening.”

Karmi begins her book with a third-person recounting of the day her family left their Qatamon, Jerusalem house, thinking their move would be a temporary one until the unbearable violence in their city simmered down. Especially traumatic for this young girl was leaving behind their fellaha housekeeper Fatima, who with her embroidered peasant dresses, Bedouin health remedies, and unbending resilience symbolizes a Palestine that was stolen from Karmi that day in 1948.

Both girls found themselves displaced to new and strange cities. Salem recalls confusedly overhearing her parents discussing possible solutions to their situation. “I can remember them speaking in a corner of the room one dawn after the five o’clock prayers,” Salem writes, “They were making plans and I heard the word ‘Nablus’ repeated and thought maybe it was the name of somebody.” Soon after, Salem’s family was relocated to the city of Nablus, where her father, among the more fortunate, managed to rebuild his business.

Karmi’s more voluminous book goes into greater detail regarding the conflict before 1948, between the new Jewish immigrants and the British mandate authorities on the one hand, and the Jewish militias and the Palestinian resistance on the other. From Qatamon, Karmi winds up with her mother’s family in Damascus. Used to the spacious home they left behind, staying with relatives they had never met before in an overcrowded house, along with other refugees, was something of a shock to Karmi.

Karmi found herself with fewer privileges and didn’t enjoy much empathy from the adults around her, and so she took her frustration out on her two youngest (and spoiled) cousins. Nearly killing her cherubic cousin Hisham by trying to kick him off of a ladder, Karmi writes, “No one had a good word to say for me after that. Guilt was now added to my sense of exclusion and misery. Child psychology was not an art known either to my mother or any of those around her. Children, like adults, were expected ‘to get on with it’ and I was left to fend for myself.”

Just as Karmi does not understand or accept why her brother Ziyad was granted more privileges in their new situation just because he was a boy, Salem resented not being able to start school when her brothers did — and was eventually put in the same class as her brother Ihsan, two years her junior: “I almost hated him, and hoped that he would fail. He was a symbol of great injustice as far as I was concerned. … No one in the family was calm — they all had their difficulties and troubles. And in times like these, the first to pay the price were the girls.”

Perhaps it is partly the injustice that robbed them of a normal childhood that drove Salem and Karmi to seek out paths radically different from that of their parents

Perhaps it is partly the injustice that robbed them of a normal childhood that drove Salem and Karmi to seek out paths radically different from that of their parents. Salem became very politically active as a schoolgirl, officially joining the outlawed Ba’ath party at the age of 15. Influenced by her intellectual and politically savvy brother Adnan, Salem devoured every book she had access to, and organized subversive actions with her fellow students against the Jordanian governmentauthorities. Salem was actually shot in the leg by Jordanian soldiers during an all-female demonstration during which the protesters marched to the British consulate and tore down its flag. When she awoke in the hospital, Salem was surprised to see that her mother, though scolding her for ruining her new blue velvet suit, had tears in her eyes. However, Salem writes, “I discovered afterward that her tears were the result of the tear gas that impregnated my clothes.”

Meanwhile, after some unhappy months in Syria, Karmi and her family moved to London where her father had secured a job with the BBC. Karmi spent her girlhood trying to navigate between the Arab world well preserved in their family home (her mother, resentful of being taken out of her element, stubbornly refused to learn any English all the years she lived in London) and the English world in which she was being educated and socialized. Karmi’s parents, just trying to cope with their own survival and so confident that their solid Arab culture would naturally be embraced by their children, did not appreciate the struggle their daughter was going through.

Karmi recalls of her siblings, “[W]e were left to find our own accommodation to the schism in our lives between our Palestinian Arab origins, so zealously maintained by our mother, and the new society we had joined; between our identity as Arabs and Muslims and that of the European, Christian country around us; and above all, between the awareness of our bruised and dislocated history and the British indifference and hostility towards it. I resented my parents deeply for throwing us so unthinkingly into this cultural and political morass. In the years that followed, we were forced to feel our way forward uncertainly, trying to make sense of these contradictions and resolving them in our own different ways.”

Back in Nablus, Salem struggled to convince her father to let her study abroad. The compromise came in her moving to Kuwait, where she could be watched over by her brothers. However, in that humid country where every time Salem stepped outside she felt “the need to take a shower,” Salem did not find the freedom she so desired. Her brother Adnan, who was so encouraging of her interests while he was still in Nablus, was now hypocritically repressive of her and scared away any man who expressed the remotest interest in her. But to the surprise of all around her, Salem found the person with whom to spend the rest of her life through the traditional arranged marriage (after her frustrated parents hosted various potential suitors of varying quality who merely sized Salem up like a piece of meat). Throughout her two-year engagement to her fiance Muhammad — who had been living for some time in Vienna but still sought to marry a Palestinian woman — Salem fantasized about the utopian life she would have in Austria while she continued to establish her economic independence working as a teacher in Kuwait (teaching being one of the few professions thought suitable for a woman at the time).

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Karmi and Salem both encountered difficulties integrating into their new countries and at times, unabashed racism. Karmi felt more English than Arab, yet was not considered English enough by many around her. And once she and Muhammad made their home in Vienna, Salem was confronted with perceptions of Arabs so absurd that she brought her marriage album to university to demonstrate that Arabs met her peers’ ideas of what was “civilized” and that the concept of footwear was not new to her upon arrival in Europe. “They looked at me astounded and compared me with the photographs, because they could not come to terms with the idea. I had greatly confused them. They could not imagine that such a wedding ceremony could be for an Arab woman.”

While Karmi and Salem strained to find their place in exile, another convulsion, the 1967 war, struck the region and once again set their lives on new trajectories. Both had grown irritated with the rejectionism by the West of the rising Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who galvanized the Arab world by standing up to the West and nationalizing the Suez Canal. All the while, Israel was taken for granted in the women’s adopted countries as a plucky little state and the plight of its indigenous Palestinian population was totally forgotten (for Karmi in London this was particularly cruel as the British colonialists were much responsible for her dispossession in the first place). The tragedy of the 1967 war — when the dream of Arab nationalism collapsed with Israel’s breathtaking defeat of the Arab armies and subsequent occupation of Syrian, Egyptian, and the remaining Palestinian territories — brought the women’s loss as Palestinians to the forefront.

Salem explains the psychological significance of the 1967 war: “This is why the generation after ours, those born around 1967, is so different. Israel, for them, is a reality with which they have lived since they were born; they are extremely aware of the situation and have no illusions about the Arab countries. They know that they are alone and that is why they gather in the squares and fight the occupation themselves, with whatever means they have. As for us, we had so many dreams, so many words and ideologies. We believed in socialism and in pan-Arabism. Today everything is different.”

The 1956 Suez Canal crisis had caused much tension in Karmi’s school life. She was bullied by some Jewish students and made the subject of ridicule because she was Arab. She had felt even more alone in an environment of hostility. A decade later, the personal and political intertwined once more when the 1967 war witnessed the failure of her marriage to an Englishman who did not attempt to understand Karmi’s history. And worse, he told her, “ ‘I can’t help admiring Israel. I mean, they fought well against enormous odds and they deserved to win.’”

Karmi recollects, “I was crushed by the thought that my life had been nothing but a sham.”

Karmi recollects, “I was crushed by the thought that my life had been nothing but a sham. The sense of belonging I had nurtured was only a pretence that I could no longer support. I may have become English in culture and affinity, but in all the ways in which it mattered I was not. And my sense of isolation amongst my colleagues forced me to face another melancholy realization. Even had I wanted their acceptance they would never have given it. Their opposition to my stand on the conflict between Israel and the Arabs meant I could never be one of them. But then, whom was I one of? And could I go back to being the split personality that had caused me such anguish?”

Both women struggled to find answers to the question of where they belonged. Salem sought the answer by moving to Parma, Italy. Salem’s growing family would no longer face the harsh racism they did in Vienna. And though Salem writes of feeling more content while in Italy, she was still disturbed by the repressive measures imposed on her family back in Nablus, to where she could travel only with an Israeli-issued visitor’s permit. Additionally, she writes of her regret that her children did not know of the warm extended family that she so enjoyed as a child. Though Salem’s voice wanes towards the end of her story, compromised by her present pain and her ill health, she explains how she instilled in her children their Palestinian heritage yet encouraged them to find their own way in life. “I believe I have succeeded in giving my children a foundation for facing life,” Salem writes. “In this, I am content.”

Contentment came less easy to Karmi. “By the mid-1970s,” she writes, “I had latched passionately onto the cause of Palestine as an inspiration, an identity, a reason for living.” This new direction took her back to the Middle East, where she found that she was as out of place as she was back in London, having been so young when she left the region that she did not fully appreciate or learn the nuanced social norms that would distinguish her from any other foreigner. “The sentimental idea that I would somehow ‘find’ myself among my fellow Arabs and settle down with them happily, perhaps for good, had taken firm hold. But to my dismay it soon became clear that I was as alien to them as they to me,” Karmi explains.

Much to the shock of her liberal Israeli friends, when asked her impressions of the country, Karmi writes, “Only one word came to mind: apartheid.”

Karmi eventually returned to “the forbidden place,” or what is now called Israel, in 1991. Much to the shock of her liberal Israeli friends, when asked her impressions of the country, Karmi writes, “Only one word came to mind: apartheid.” Not recognizing it to be the country of her youth, Karmi did not find a rush of memory when standing in front of the taxi stand at the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus gate where she parted with Fatima so many years ago. Similar was the lack of fulfillment when she visited her family’s old home, now rented by Orthodox Jews who were visibly discomforted by Karmi’s presence. However, it was the call to prayer emanating from the Haram al-Sharif that reminded Karmi of the Palestine she once knew: “The unmistakable sound of another people and another presence, definable, enduring and continuous. Still there, not gone, not dead.”

Though Salem’s story was concluded by her death from cancer, Karmi’s is a reminder that the Palestinian one remains unresolved. The reader may put down the book feeling dissatisfied that she never did find Fatima ever again or learn of the beloved peasant woman’s fate, or even find her own place of belonging in exile. But if the ending were a satisfying one, it wouldn’t be a Palestinian story, now would it?

Maureen Clare Murphy is Arts, Music and Culture Editor of The Electronic Intifada.

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