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Book Review: Karmi Memoir Tells Jerusalem Story of Loss and Rediscovery

Ghada Karmi, In Search of Fatima, revised edition (London: Verso Books, 2009).

                                                                         ***

Ghada Karmi’s memoir, In Search of Fatima, describes the author’s life in Qatamon and later: growing up in London, her growing awareness of and advocacy for her identity as a Palestinian, and finally, her return to Palestine, this time as a tourist. The book is mesmerizing because the account is richly detailed. At every turn, the author mines her memories and explores their meaning.

The first quarter of the memoir describes the Karmi family’s life in Palestine until 1948, after which they sought temporary refuge in Syria. Prior to Ghada’s birth, the family had faced threats from the British troops and the Jewish Zionist gangs, as did other Palestinians, but they also had to be on the lookout for Palestinian threats. Her father opposed Haj Amin al-Husseini, and that made him a target. (His brother was assassinated in Beirut for that reason, the author reports.)

The family’s living situation greatly improved when they moved to Qatamon a year before Ghada was born. For a while at least, they knew some years of calm. Home is associated with the maid, Fatima al-Basha, who seems to have provided Ghada with warmth missing from her mother. Fatima occasionally slept at the Karmi house when conditions were too dangerous for her to risk walking home to the nearby village of al-Maliha, three miles southwest of Jerusalem, where she lived with her two children and her brother.

Prior to 1946, the Karmis had a rich social and cultural life. Ghada names the families in her Qatamon neighborhood, and one gets a sense of a middle-class community that included a mixture of Arab (Muslim, Christian, and Jewish) and foreign families. The author’s description of her mother’s activities include the custom of having an open house on a specific day of the week, for which she would prepare an array of refreshments for the women who came to socialize. A Jerusalem women’s movement engaged in political and charity work. Community life included concerts and lectures at the YMCA and the Arab Orthodox Club, while the Rex Cinema was a destination for sibling ventures. Family outings included trips to the Grand Hotel (then still known as Hotel Odeh) in Ramallah and the beach in Jaffa. Literary clubs provided opportunities to listen to poetry recitals.

Presumably her father later informed her of the family’s interactions with Jewish neighbors, some of whom, she reports, were happy living among them and expressed no interest in Zionism but seemed afraid of the Zionist militias. She reports conversations her father had with his friends, all of them scoffing at the notion that Jews believed they were entitled to Palestine and would have it, too. Such thoughts seemed pure fantasy to them, too outlandish to give credence to. Until the end, they never saw how they were being outmaneuvered and outwitted at every turn.

Photo Boys Troop from the Jerusalem New City YMCA, 1938

A glimpse back in time to life and boyhood in pre-Nakba Jerusalem

The book is mesmerizing because the account is richly detailed. 

The pace of bombings in the city picked up in early 1948, and the family found itself huddling away from windows for safety (see The West Side Story). The Deir Yasin massacre on April 9 proved to be a tipping point for the Karmis, as for many families; soon thereafter, they packed a few suitcases and headed for Damascus to stay with the children’s maternal grandparents. Ghada would never again see her beloved Fatima, but learned that she too became a refugee when al-Maliha fell.

In Damascus, Ghada observes, her family never spoke of their home or even of Jerusalem; their focus was the immediate present. Syria was flooded with Palestinian refugees, all of them looking for work. Ghada’s father applied for a job with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was hired in July 1948. He went alone to London for one year, and the family joined him the next summer.

Video Deir Yasin Village and Massacre

A firsthand recounting and reconstruction of a landmark trauma in Palestinian and Jerusalem history, the Deir Yasin massacre of April 9, 1948

Ghada Karmi (front right) and her family in British Mandate Jerusalem

The Karmi family. Ghada is the small girl standing in the front at her father’s knee.

Source: 

British Mandate Jerusalemites Library Facebook page

The second, longer part of the memoir describes Ghada’s acculturation into British society, her sense of herself as an English girl, and later as a foreigner among the British. The house chosen by Hasan Karmi for his family is in Golders Green; he seems to have been unaware that it was then perhaps the most Jewish neighborhood in London. The Karmis settle into a country that is still recovering from World War II; London seems massive, homes are dingy, and food is rationed. She recalls that people were kind but reserved. They appeared to have sympathy for Palestinians. Of all the children, Ghada’s sister Siham (the oldest of the three, and a substitute mother for her siblings) fared well; she knew enough English to manage, and she and her parents were committed to her higher education. But she never felt that she was able to fit in, and after getting a degree, Siham returned to Syria to work, convinced that her future could only be in the Arab world.

Ghada’s mother made no effort to adjust to her new environment. For her, the stay in London was temporary, until her children got their education and they could all return to the Arab world. She was a vivacious woman who was out of her depth; she had no interest in learning English or meeting British people. She found her neighbors baffling. Ghada explains: “For us Arabs, the idea of the neighbours keeping to themselves so as not to annoy others was bizarre. In our understanding, neighbours by definition were supposed to be friendly and helpful, very much concerned with other people’s affairs.”1 Ghada’s mother only emerged from her shell years later, when Arabs started to settle in London and she could return to hosting and visiting, as she had done in the past.

Adapting to the UK, or Not

Ghada’s father adjusted better to the new environment—not surprisingly. He had been to London for training programs while he was employed by the Mandate government in Jerusalem and so he knew what to expect. In Jerusalem, he had been an avid reader and collector of books and had scoffed at the suggestion that his library be transferred to his family’s home in Tulkarem. (Presumably when the family left and the home was seized by the state, it, like most if not all other empty homes in Qatamon during and after the war, was looted first before being turned over to Jewish immigrants, and his book collection is either lost or among the tens of thousands of books stolen from Palestinian homes in a joint operation by the Haganah-Israeli National Library.2

Video The Great Book Robbery

The story of how Palestinian homes in Jerusalem (and elsewhere) whose owners fled in search of temporary safety were systematically looted, including their libraries, even before the war had ended

Her parents never referred to their home in Qatamon or the circumstances that forced them out of Jerusalem.

In London, he would resume collecting books and spending his leisure hours on the work that would later establish his name as a scholar of Arabic, compiling several Arabic-English dictionaries. He decided that his children would study useful subjects that could provide a good living. Siham embraced his plan that she study medicine, but she couldn’t get accepted to medical school, so settled for chemistry. Brother Ziyad went for engineering. Ghada would be the one to fulfill his practical ambitions, even though she leaned more toward literature and history.

Like many immigrant parents, Ghada’s parents are a bundle of contradictions. They expect their children to retain their culture and sense of themselves as Arab and Muslim in a foreign environment and to understand without being told why their daughters must marry within their parents’ faith. This, even as such customs seemed remote, and an alternative cultural education to the dominant environment was never offered. In an amusing scene, Ghada describes her parents and her Jewish friends’ parents responding in an identically hysterical manner to the news that one of their own is contemplating marriage outside the tribe.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ghada writes that her parents never referred to their home in Qatamon or the circumstances that forced them out of Jerusalem. The war and their exodus are never acknowledged. Within a few years, the failure to talk about their family history has erased all memory of Jerusalem and even Damascus from their younger daughter’s memory. Decades later, the need to uncover that history while shaping the future would occupy most of her energy and become her focus.

In 1952, Ghada was granted British citizenship, as were her brother and father; her sister did not want it, and her mother was especially hostile to the idea. Today one might think of citizenship as a convenience—not necessarily a statement of allegiance but rather a way to facilitate movement and employment. But for the Karmi family and others, this step was charged. In the 1950s, the memory of the British role in the theft of Palestine was too raw to file away in the background. Ghada’s father seems to have taken no joy in his new citizenship, even though it freed him from the unpleasant exercise of applying for annual residency.

Ghada absorbed the dominant culture—she became a reader and frequented libraries, took in art shows, had piano classes, and shared the majority’s prejudices. Eventually her identification with the dominant culture included looking down on other immigrants. Her best friends are Jewish girls, and their families took her in.

Then and now, wars remind Arabs how fragile their standing in the West is and how swiftly normalcy can be stripped away. The nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 was put to Ghada in an accusatory way by British peers, and thus started the process of her questioning her place in English society. (For sister Siham, that war and the virulent British response to Gamal Abdel Nasser was the last straw; she would leave for Syria as soon as she completed her degree in chemistry.)

To Ghada’s great regret, she entered medical school in 1958. In retrospect, the author writes that she acquiesced to her father’s plans for her future only because she was sufficiently influenced by a culture that discouraged parental defiance. She also feared being cast outside the tribal tent. (That would happen anyway, a few years later.)

Defiance—and Return

In medical school, Ghada met the man she would marry, John. “Predictably,” the marriage was opposed by her parents and Siham (by then happily married to a Palestinian in Syria). Nothing John does, including converting to Islam, makes a difference; in Ghada’s eyes, her family has failed to notice that over the years, she has become English herself. Her father reluctantly attended the ceremony and reception, but her mother refused to see her or talk to her for months.

The marriage is short-lived. The two were probably not very compatible from the start, but it is not hard to see that the 1967 War drove a wedge between them, too. Ghada is caught between her confused sense of herself as an Arab and British sympathy for Israel accompanied by gloating that Egypt (reduced to its president, Nasser, the country’s nemesis) was so thoroughly defeated. So often, people admire power, and Ghada discovered that her British husband was rooting for the victor.

In the final section of the memoir, which bears the title of the book, Ghada finds allies and in 1972 sets up an organization, Palestine Action, to present the Palestinian point of view on Middle East events. (It ceased operations in 1978, its role redundant as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) gained recognition at the United Nations.) Allies of the group include progressive Israelis, a controversial association for Palestinian activists at the time. By the mid-1970s, she had made trips to Lebanon and met with Yasser Arafat. It was after meeting Palestinian fighters who were putting their lives on the line that she decided in 1977 to move to Lebanon and work as a doctor in a refugee camp, Ein al-Hilweh in Sidon. Eventually she realizes that she belongs neither in England nor in the Arab world—she is regarded as a foreigner among the British, despite living among them for decades, and among Arabs, for the same reason.

Portrait of In Search of Fatima author, Ghada Karmi

Ghada Karmi today

Credit: 

Ghada Karmi Facebook page

She realizes that it is time to return to Palestine, which she does in 1991. She spends her time in Palestinian areas conquered in 1948, meeting those who remained inside Israel. In Jerusalem, she makes her way to the Haram al-Sharif, the Islamic shrine and pilgrimage destination. “Looking up at the golden Dome of the Rock, I felt an ineffable joy and pride in its solid, unchanging beauty. What had those who had claimed this city and this country for their own ever made that could compare to this?”3

Qatamon is her final destination, to search for her old home. Only after several attempts does she find an old-timer who had lived in the area prior to 1948 and could identify the location of the Semiramis Hotel, a reference point from which Ghada had directions to her home. She learns that older structures had been torn down in the area. Dejected, she concludes that her home is gone.

But it was not—a few years later in 1998, armed with a better map, Ghada returned, found it, and entered the home. Being inside flooded her with long-buried memories. Unable to get information about the current owner, she left, dejected.

But just when she thought all hope is lost, she was revived by the call to prayer:

Qatamon is her final destination, to search for her old home.

The unmistakable sound of another people and another presence, definable, enduring and continuous. Still there, not gone, not dead.

I closed my eyes in awe and relief. The story had not ended, after all—not for them, at least, the people who still lived there, though they were now herded into reservations a fraction of what had been Palestine. They would remain and multiply and one day return and maybe overtake. Their exile was material and temporary.4

A Coda

The first memoir ends on a hopeful note. Unfortunately, her optimism would later dissipate, as she records in a second memoir. Return: A Palestinian Memoir is an account of her work at a Palestinian ministry for several months in 2005 as part of a UN Development Programme initiative for expatriates.

During this stay, Ghada was able to finally trace Fatima’s exodus from al-Maliha to Bethlehem; the family maid was long dead by this time, but her grandson tells Ghada that Fatima had never forgotten them and eagerly awaited Hasan Karmi’s weekly BBC radio program on Arabic poetry and proverbs so that she could hear his voice, which carried with it memories of a family she loved and longed for.

Notes

1

Page 187.

2

Benny Bruner, dir., The Great Book Robbery (2012–17). See also The Great Book Robbery.

3

Page 439.

4

Page 451.

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