Curse of the Achille Lauro: A Tribute to Lost Souls by Reem al-Nimer (Cune Press)
In 1985 four Palestinian commandos booked passage on an Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro. According to their plan, they should have remained undercover, acting as holidaymakers, until they reached an Israeli port. Then they would disembark and engage Israeli troops.
But fearing discovery, the four instead hijacked the liner and, panicking, started to threaten passengers. They shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old New Yorker who used a wheelchair.
Footage of his body being thrown from the vessel became a standard news trope, used ever since to paint all Palestinians as terrorists.
Mohammad al-Abbas, known as Abu al-Abbas, had masterminded the operation in his role as military commander of the Palestine Liberation Front, one of the many factions of the armed Palestinian resistance active in the 1970s and ’80s.
Curse of the Achille Lauro is an attempt by his widow, Reem al-Nimer, to tell Abu al-Abbas’ life story, to place his record as a fighter in its personal and historic context, and to offer a portrait of the heyday of the Palestinian resistance.
In some measure al-Nimer succeeds in her aim.
The book is mainly structured as two parallel stories — those of al-Nimer and her husband, respectively the daughter of a wealthy Nablus banker living in Beirut and a refugee boy brought up in the camps of Syria.
Pairing the two biographies allows the book to do unusual and interesting things. Firstly, it contrasts the lives of two people at the opposite end of the social and economic spectrum among diaspora Palestinians but who both devoted their lives to what they saw as “the cause” at various stages over three decades.
This helps to give a rich, challenging picture of Palestinian society, one not often encountered in personal accounts.
Fluid and acrimonious
Secondly, it allows al-Nimer to illustrate the extraordinarily fluid, complicated, often acrimonious relations between Palestinian factions in the 1970s and ’80s, and between militant Palestinians and the countries which sponsored them, gave them havens and often exploited them for political ends.
When the US led an invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu al-Abbas knew that — with accusations linked to the Achille Lauro and other militant operations attached to him — he would likely be arrested by Western troops. That was despite how he was supposed to be covered by an amnesty dating from the time of the Oslo accords a decade earlier.
His fears were well-founded. Abu al-Abbas died in US military custody in Baghdad during 2004.
This insider’s account of the machinations of the resistance organizations is juxtaposed with a deeply personal portrait of Abu al-Abbas not only as a political and military leader, but also as a man who was utterly absorbed in his people’s struggle.
In one moving scene, al-Nimer describes how her husband used to pay large sums to Palestinians still living in the area of his home village, near Haifa, to take photos and send them to him. Then he would spend hours piecing the images together, trying to build a complete picture of the homeland his parents fled while he was in his mother’s womb, and which he only visited late in his life.
Sad and confused
And, despite the obvious love and loyalty Reem al-Nimer has for her late husband, her account of the years in Baghdad leading up to his death cannot hide the fact that Abu al-Abbas was, by that time, a soldier who no longer knew how to fight for his cause.
Skeptical about the Oslo accords, conscious of the arrogance shown by many senior Palestine Liberation Organization members when they moved to the occupied West Bank and Gaza from Tunis in the 1990s, but devotedly loyal to Yasser Arafat, Abu al-Abbas cuts a sad, confused figure in the final chapters.
The melancholy tone to the ending is heightened by al-Nimer’s account of her husband’s last months in an American jail in Iraq surrounded by bickering officials from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Abu al-Abbas spent those months writing letters of life advice to his son and reading the great Arabic poet al-Mutanabbi.
As an overall account, though, the book is let down by a poor style and production. At times, the reader gets opinion, reflection and sometimes extravagant speculation, where more information and detail would give a richer and more interesting picture. Al-Nimer suggests, for example, that her husband was murdered in prison but does not present any convincing evidence.
In an attempt to build up tension and drama, the opening sections of the book are delivered in a staggered style which, in the absence of a sufficiently confident or skilled writer or editor, is distracting.
And the grammatical mistakes and typos are so abundant as to be irritating.
Nevertheless, this is a brisk, engaging read which offers an informative, if partisan, portrait of the personal and political complexities of the international Palestinian armed resistance. It’s regrettable that this book hasn’t been better edited or presented, but it still represents a welcome addition to the history of the Palestinian struggle.
Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.