Review by Theresa Wolfwood
Readers should not be put off by the naïve and simple style of writing in this memoir. The author, lauded in the Arab world for her early bold feminism, writes with clear insight and impassioned engagement about a complex and conflict-ridden period of history in Lebanon and its neighbouring states; complexities and conflicts that are still with us today.
Khaladi, born in 1897, was the daughter in a well-to-do family in Beirut; she grew up when her father, a prominent Arab nationalist, challenged the Turkish role of her homeland. She shared and participated in his passion but the family paid dearly for this political conviction; her family history is related with personal details and political consequences; her memoir blends everything that was important to her – family, friends, society, religion and politics. Her family was impoverished because of its political commitment and her father was arrested many times and jailed by the Turkish occupiers. Her first fiancé, Abd al-Ghan, a man she knew and chose instead of accepting the usual arranged marriage of the time and culture, was executed in 1916, one of many condemned Arab nationalists.
Khaladi was engaged into the interwoven fabric of the liberation of women and the liberation of Arab states. She was involved in charity and relief work in the last years of World War 1; the war created terrible hardship and starvation was rampant. Soon she and others began to recognize her ability to organize and to speak in public (still fully veiled then). The end of the war and the end of Turkish rule was a time of brief hope for independence followed by the realization that the victorious Europeans had other plans; the Lebanese soon realized the Arab lands were the spoils of victory.
“The French arrived in our country with the mentality of an absolute ruler as though they intended to stay with us forever.”
Her father continued to work for Arab nationalism and was frequently jailed by the French. He tried to make a living in London with a company that would develop a part of Palestine; there the Zionists stymied his efforts. The author was already involved in women’s organizations when she went to England. On that journey in 1925, she removed her veil and head cover and appears in photos in European dress. She felt a sense of freedom and discovery on this trip, meeting and speaking freely to men outside her family circle for the first time. She was impressed by the freedom enjoyed by English girls. She also connected with women’s organizations that supported Arab rights, including Palestinian rights. After two years she returned to Lebanon and while at sea, resumed the wearing of the veil. She threw herself into social activism in Beirut. Within weeks she accepted an invitation to speak in public and removed her veil as she stood at the podium. Criticism and threats followed but soon many women bared their faces, “until the tyranny of the veil was eradicated.” All this in the 1920s as feminist ideas spread throughout society and women organized for their rights. Women were recognized as cultural and political leaders. She writes the history of this period with attention to the present generation.
“I am often quite astonished by today’s generation, both boys and girls, and simply want the girls of today to appreciate what they have, enjoyment totally denied to my generation.”
Many years after her execution of her fiancé, she again found a man she could love and married Ahmad Sami al- Khalidi. After much reluctance and persuasion by friends she agreed to meet him. She was impressed by the honesty and sincerity of this respected intellectual. He lived in Jerusalem and she corresponded with him, learning more about him before their marriage in August, 1929. It was a happy union and she settled in Palestine, raised a family and became involved in Palestinian life and women’s groups while al-Khalidi taught at Government Arab College and became an authority on education in the Arab world, writing more than twenty books on education.
She embraced the Palestinian cause and the betrayal of Palestinians by the British led to anger and disillusionment. Soon their school and daily life were constantly under attack by Zionist militants. The British support for the Zionist cause was publicly acknowledged by Churchill who said his heart “throbbed for Zionism.” Lloyd George said, “Well then, Palestine will become a Jewish State.”
She witnessed the years of British duplicity and “the Arab response of constant and endless struggle” until the Nakba of 1948 when she and her family and 800,000 others were driven out of their Palestine homeland, by the Zionists. Like many committed to the Palestinian cause today, Khalidi could not understand the indifference and gullibility of so many leaders and people globally and how they readily accepted the powerful Zionist propaganda machine.
Her husband continued his work when they returned to Lebanon, establishing schools and a clinic near the border with Palestine. He died young, his work incomplete, at the age of 55. The author became less active in public life in Beirut, devoting herself more to her family and agonizing over the injustices that still afflicted her homelands-the injustices suffered by Palestine, and the horrors of conflict in Lebanon. She was close to despair in those final years, feeling that, “the light of truth is now almost extinguished” and her accomplishments in women’s liberation almost obliterated. But she ended her memoir in 1978 with hope not only in her God, but in the decency of humans to overcome cruelty, conflict and injustice and restore the rights of Palestinians and peace in the region. She died in 1986 hers hopes still unfulfilled.