In search of Fatima

Part I: Palestine

In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story by Ghada Karmi is a story of displacement and loss. A yearning for that place in one’s mind that can never be reclaimed. It is a yearning known only to the displaced and the refugee, a yearning for their childhood and that place called home which is forever lost.

In Search of Fatima provides us with a personal and political history of Palestine from 1939 onwards. The suffering and injustice endured by the Palestinians from the time of the British mandate to the present is reinforced by Karmi’s personal account. In 1880, there was a Jewish population of 3,000, in 1948 it was 806,000 and in 2003 it was 5.4 million, accounting for 38 per cent of the world’s Jews.

We discover that the state of Israel was built on British betrayal, at the very least complacency by surrounding Arab states and terror by the invading Jews of Europe – the Haganah Irgun Zvei Leumi and Lehi or Stern Gang, Menachem Begin and David Ben Gurion (all long before Hamas and Islamic Jihad were ever dreamed of). Reading the activities of these terror groups, you begin to see the irony of Israel’s insolent denunciation of ‘Palestinian terrorists’. In Karmi’s words, the Irgun Zvei and Lehi or Stern Gang

‘were known in Palestine as the terrorists and were responsible for a spectacular campaign of violence against anyone who stood in the way of their aims. It is ironic to think that the term “terrorist” which has now become virtually synonymous with Arabs, especially Muslims, started life as an appellation for Jewish groups in Palestine.’

Their activities consisted of bombing, blowing up buildings, drive-by shootings, threats of destruction of property (loudspeakers telling you to leave your property or it would be blown up) and snipers murdering individuals who were just going about their business.

We are reminded that it was the British who allowed the Jews into Palestine, invaders from Russia, Poland, Germany, from Europe. So through a systematic campaign of terror, the Jews of Europe drove out the Palestinians, the indigenous people of Palestine.

Reading In Search of Fatima leaves one feeling desolate. The Palestinians just could not believe that they would be abandoned by Britain, by the UN, by the Arab states that surrounded them. They believed that the ultimate aim of the Jews was to have Palestine to themselves. There was still a certain amount of hope that in the end the British and other Arabs would come to their rescue. ‘How could I or you have known that they would do this to us? How could anyone imagine that they would want to give half of our country to immigrants?’

On 14 May 1948 the British mandate over Palestine ended and the state of Israel was born. Arab village after village was conquered by the Jews and the village people made refugees. Palestinians fled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and eventually some to Europe and the US. Their lands and homes were appropriated by the Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Karmi’s family fled one afternoon to Damascus where her mother’s family lived. They stayed there for 18 months. Her father hoped to get work either in Syria or Jordan, but there were just too many other Palestinians looking for work. Eventually, he was offered a job with the BBC in London and the family moved there in 1949.

Alongside the political, we are given an insight into different levels of Palestinian day-to-day life in Qatamon, a middle class district of West Jerusalem, and Tulkarm, her father’s home town from which her family name derives. The family’s maid Fatima al-Basha lived in a village called al-Maliha, three miles out of Jerusalem, but eventually because of the political crises she moved into the family home when it became too dangerous for her to travel back and forth to her village due to the presence of Jewish snipers.

Fatima’s story gives us an insight into peasant life, dress, food and cultural practices. Interestingly, it is these aspects of Palestinian life that are appropriated as identity markers by middle class Palestinians, especially those living in the Diaspora. Karmi herself is the youngest of three children and her childhood life is very much centered around Fatima, her brother Ziyad and Rex, their pet dog.


In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story by Ghada Karmi, published by Verso, 2002.

Update: Part 2 is here.

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