In search of Fatima 2

Part II: England

The loss of their country has a profound affect on all the family; each deals with this loss in different but very complex ways. The children settle in fairly quickly, picking up the English language and customs and making friends, though this is easier for the two younger ones.

The mother, on the other hand, is traumatized and falls into depression. She refuses to learn English or adopt any English ways; she recreates Palestine in their house in Golders Green. That the family ends up living in Golders Green is ironic, as this is essentially a Jewish area of London. In fact, life in England is full of ironies, paradoxes and contradictions.

The parents never discuss Palestine, their life there, leaving, the trauma. It’s as if it’s just too painful a subject so it is simply locked away. Also, for the parents, England is temporary. For it to be anything else would be a betrayal of their former life, their country and their culture. The life of exile puts severe strains on family relationships – husband and wife, parents and children, children and parents and eventually they all go their separate ways, each in a small world of his or her own making. It is only when there is a crisis in the Middle East that somehow they come together or at least there seems to be a meeting point.

Ghada is enrolled first at a convent school where she meets and befriends a Jewish girl, one of many whom she befriends throughout her school and later on in life. Eventually, she moves to another school where there are even more Jewish girls and, like most girls schools, there were cliques. Because of this she ends up making friends with mostly non-Jews, but still maintains her best friend Patricia.

Arab-Israeli politics never featured in any of these friendships. In fact, there was very little hostility towards Jews by the Karmi family. Firstly, Judaism was a familiar and respected religion and many of their attitudes towards family, children and friendships were similar to those of Muslims. Secondly, the family blamed the British rather than the Jews for the loss of their home and land. It was at this second school that Ghada first experienced or, rather, recognized racism directed at her; her illusion that she was ‘English’ rather than ‘Arab’ began to wane.

As a child, Ghada desperately wants to be part of her adopted country. To feel and be English is vitally important to her and as such, she begins more and more to reject her parents, their lives, their Arabness and even after the first stirrings of racism and anti-Arab, she continues in her quest to be English and accepted by the English.

The are two defining moments in Ghada’s life when she comes face to face with the reality of her being an Arab and a Palestinian in Britain. The first was the Suez crisis. In July 1956, President Gamal Abd El Nassar of Egypt took the decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. Furthermore, Nassar had awakened Arab nationalism: for the first time, Arab nations and the Arab Diaspora held their heads high. However, the reaction by the media and the general population to all of this in Britain was viciously anti-Arab feelings which spilled over into Ghada’s school (she was by then in the 6th form), where she was ostracized and berated. On 29 October, Israel invaded Sinai and massacred 47 men, women and children in the border town of Kafr Qassem, shooting them at close range. Things came to a head in school when Ghada, provoked by the incessant racism towards her, finally took revenge and had a fight with one of the main instigators. In her own words:

‘The Suez crisis had challenged too many of my assumptions about Jews, about myself and about England, and I was lost in a welter of raw feelings and gut reactions, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which I could not fit together.’

She had been living in a fool’s paradise; what she had thought were genuine friendships with fellow Jewish and English students turned out to be flimsy and superficial ones. Nevertheless, it takes her another 10 years before her illusions are finally shattered altogether.

In the next 10 years, she becomes a doctor and makes a series of choices that involve rejecting her Arab and Muslim identity in favour of an English one. She chooses to drink alcohol, eat pork and marry a non-Muslim, and thus becomes even more isolated from her family.

Meanwhile, her sister leaves England for Syria, where she marries a Palestinian, and her brother leaves for Yemen. In the early 1960s, the Fatah movement began to take shape and by 1964, Yasser Arafat had established a guerilla organization which attracted young men and women from the refugee camps throughout the Middle East. Again, it was only with another Middle East crisis that Ghada’s Englishness is challenged and her illusionary world shattered. Even her marriage, which is already showing cracks, finally breaks apart as she realizes there are no English friends, colleagues or husband – they have all abandoned her in her Palestinian and Arab identity.

On 5 June 1967, Israeli warplanes attacked Egypt. Five days later, the Six-Day War came to an end and the Golan Heights, Sinai and Jerusalem were in Israeli hands. Once again the British media and population joined in the jubilation at the Arab defeat and Israeli conquest. Ghada had to witness this jubilation in front of her colleagues and friends who paid her no recognition. Israel’s victory was described as ‘the triumph of the civilized’, while they delighted in Nasser’s defeat and humiliation. Some of her ‘friends’ responded with remarks such as ‘you are different’ or ‘we don’t see you as Arab’ or ‘don’t get upset, it’s Egyptians we hate, not you’. When she responded with anger, she was then regarded as ‘emotional and overwrought’. Black readers will no doubt be familiar with these responses – ‘For to argue from emotion, is to be irrational or unstable.’

During this time, her husband says little, until eventually she challenges him on his opinion. The final straw is his stated support and admiration for Israel. Ghada is devastated. Once the marriage ends, Ghada decides to renew ‘the tortured love affair that waited inescapably for me, as for all Palestinians … the one with Palestine. And for good or ill it would last a lifetime.’

Ghada also realizes at this time that Palestine no longer exists in the minds of Britain, and that Israel has become entrenched in the British psyche. Golda Meir’s statement that Palestine and Palestinians did not exist was born out of ‘a new Israeli self-confidence’ due to the victory of the Six-Day War and the accompanying pro-Israeli/anti-Arab stance of the West.

Part III: In Search of Fatima

Ghada finally comes to terms with her identity both as an Arab and a Palestinian. The immediate trigger for this change is a confrontation between her and a group of Israelis (European) living in London. The confrontation is staged by a fellow Jewish doctor who invites her to his flat. Thinking it was a friendly invitation, Ghada goes along, but as she enters the room, she immediately realizes there is something wrong. However, instead of leaving, she stays, mesmerized by the whole setup. In this room she is interrogated, laughed at and verbally abused by the group. The whole scene is revolting, spiteful and wicked. At this point ‘the accumulated frustrations, humiliations and sense of being misunderstood as a Palestinian in Britain had reached a climax.’

She decides the only choice left to her is to become actively involved in the struggle for Palestine. In 1972, she sets up Palestine Action. The organization, which included a number of Jewish sympathizers and Labour party members, raised funds from Arab embassies in London. Its main aim was to publicize the plight of the Palestinian people and to promote their cause. She met with Yasser Arafat, other PLO leaders, and young Fatah fighters, including Lelia Khalid. She traveled to Jordan, Libya and Lebanon and to the refugee camps. In 1978, the organization was wound up as its role had by then become redundant. The world – except for the United States and Israel – now recognized the PLO as a genuine liberation movement and Ghada was optimistic about the future of the movement and that of Palestine.

However, this optimism was to be short lived. The PLO were driven from their base in Beirut, leaving thousands of refugees without any support or leadership. Ghada decides to try again to live in the Middle East and moves first to Syria, then to Jordan. Once again, issues of identity and belonging surface. She realizes she cannot live in the Middle East as an Arab woman no matter how hard she tries.

She loses contact with her former political contacts and hears nothing from the PLO. She has no friends in England, and the Palestinian community in Jordan was not particularly politicized. Although her sister had now returned to London following a divorce, her brother was in Denmark and her parents finally gone to live in Jordan.

Having discovered that she has ‘no natural social home in England or any other place’, Ghada decides to go in search of Fatima and their home in Qatamon in Jerusalem. It is only on the second visit that she finally finds her childhood home which is now occupied by an American Jewish family. The defining moment of the final visit is the realization that there are still some Palestinians in Jerusalem who would remain and multiply in a temporary and material exile unlike hers, which was ‘a different exile, undefined by space or time, and from where I was, there would be no return.’

In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story is a beautifully written but painful story of a life in exile and the struggle to find an identity and somewhere to call home.


The first part of this review is here: Part I: Palestine.

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

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