This is a poignant and sad memoir, and a vivid description of the life of one of the many Palestinians displaced by the “Nakba”, told by a woman torn from her childhood Jerusalem home with her family, forced into a permanent exile that was promised to be brief – the first of countless betrayals for her and many Palestinians.
We never set eyes on Fatima or our dog or the city we had known again. Like a body prematurely buried, unmourned, without coffin or ceremony, our hasty, untidy exit from Jerusalem was no way to have said goodbye to our home, our country and all that we knew and loved.
After a long life as a physician, author and activist, Karmi looks back on her displacement with a deep sense of longing and disconnection. The whole country was in turmoil in 1948 as many fled, were killed; women raped and wholesale massacres throughout Palestine, as the new state of Israel turned against the inhabitants of the land they wanted.
Fatima was her family´s housekeeper and her beloved nanny. The search for Fatima is a metaphor for a long and fruitless search for the security of home and culture. Somehow the terror of the Nakba seen through the memory of one childhood becomes more real and understandable in this memoir than all descriptions in scholarly histories.
She writes: When I look back, I see how that time in my life is overlaid with areas of silence, impenetrable to memory. I was aware that everything had gone wrong with us…. Around me, events succeeded each other with a relentless momentum, heading for some cataclysm.
For her family it was an end to a way of life. After living in Syria with relatives, her father went to England, with full awareness that it was the British who first betrayed Palestine. But he gets a good job and manages to exist with some degree of acceptance. But her mother, who did not work outside the home, lived in total denial, convinced of eminent return and creating a cocoon of Palestine around her. The children grow up with part of their lives in this false environment and much of their lives as proper middle class English children – going to Christian and secular schools, making friends with the English children, including many Jewish students.
For some years the memories of life in Palestine faded; her family rarely discussed their fate or attempted to impart a sense of history to their children, unlike, as she says, communities in refugee camps who kept and still keep memory of their villages and towns, even the interior of their homes, alive and discussed. Soon Karrmi thought little of the Arab world, thinking it inferior to the English culture which she embraced. She inculcated the mindset of the dominant power.
Later she writes: It never occurred to me that in all this that I was myself an object of that same disdain the English meted out to my fellow foreigners, or indeed that, as a Palestinian I owed the loss of my homeland ultimately to them.
She became a physician and married an English physician but world events suddenly forced her to face her heritage during the Anglo–Egyptian conflict over the Suez Canal. As Nasser announced the nationalization of the Canal on her mother´s crackly radio, she says: I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I was imbued with a sense of pride in being an Arab such as I had never felt before.
Her new political awareness leads to discrimination and rejection by many English colleagues and friends, finally to divorce in 1968 in the wake of the Six–Day War. Her sense of belonging is shattered; she sees it as pretence. And Palestine itself had few friends. … any notion of Palestinian rights to the same land [as Israel had occupied] was absurd; and any criticism of Israel was anti–Semitic. (Maybe only now in 2009 is that beginning to change.)
She reacts by starting solidarity and aid groups in the UK, visiting refugee camps in Lebanon. There she was introduced to the PLO and as it grew in acceptance and power, she felt by 1978 that her organizations were redundant and the better future for Palestinians was about to begin.
Seeing no place for herself in England, she finally goes on a brief trip to Israel, the forbidden place, in 1991, a guest in Tel Aviv and Haifa of Jewish friends, meeting Israeli Arabs and many migrants from Europe – confusing her and challenging all her ideas of Palestinian life and solidarity. Along the way she exposes the deep roots of colonialism and sense of entitlement that even very liberal Israelis feel.
Only at the end of her visit does she make the most painful journey – in search of her home. She finds the street, but her home is gone, replaced by a Jewish kindergarten. Her feelings of disillusionment and displacement overwhelm her. But in 1998 she returns again and finds her home, still there, smaller than her childhood memory. Different. The house and garden have all been changed by their Israeli occupants.
She finally understands: it wasn´t ours any more and had not been for fifty years. Our house was dead, like Fatima, like poor Rex, like us. There was no finding Fatima or her lost roots.
That night in her hotel she hears the call to prayer. The unmistakeable sound of another people and another presence, definable, enduring and continuous. Still there, not gone, not dead. Her hope is renewed.
Karrmi continues her activism and is a noted scholar, teacher, writer and public spokesperson for the Palestinian cause. In a speech in Toronto in 2009, she urged practical, persistent work on the international boycott–divestment–sanctions (BDS) campaign; she called for public awareness of Palestinian victimization by Israel, and for action to end the injustice of decades. As I write this I learn that the Trade Union Congress in Britain, representing 6.5 million workers has just voted overwhelmingly to endorse and work for the BDS campaign. Years of activism can seem lonely and futile, but in 2009 Karmi and others are seeing the fruit of their commitment.