Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Ghada Karmi’s Return: A Palestinian Memoir is a journey at times clouded in red mist

The Palestinian author's second memoir is a compelling account of an extended visit to the country of her birth.
A visit to a Palestine dominated by Israel’s policies, products and separation wall, visible in the picture above of Silwan, near Jerusalem, inspired Ghada Karmi’s second memoir. iStock
A visit to a Palestine dominated by Israel’s policies, products and separation wall, visible in the picture above of Silwan, near Jerusalem, inspired Ghada Karmi’s second memoir. iStock

Although a renowned doctor, author and academic, Ghada Karmi declares in the opening pages of her new book that, for a while, when asked what her profession was, she would answer: “I’m a full-time Palestinian!” Healing and teaching might have produced results, yet “being a Palestinian was the only thing that felt real”.

Karmi’s family left Palestine in 1948 for England. In 2005, after more than 50 years in her adopted country, many of them devoted to pro-Palestinian political activism, Karmi decided to revisit her homeland. Previous trips were short and painful. This trip, while no less painful, would be longer and more productive: she would work with a Palestinian Authority ministry, and along the way would get to connect with a place she knew “more in theory than in practice, more as an abstract cause than a living reality”.

Return: A Palestinian Memoir is thus an account of a two-fold mission – a professional project to present Palestine to the outside world; and a personal pilgrimage. Both of Karmi’s undertakings prove to be emotionally agonising journeys that reveal as much about the Palestinian struggle as about Karmi herself.

Soon after arriving in “this torn-up, unhappy land”, Karmi starts work and is met with indifference or outright hostility by her new colleagues. She is cold-shouldered and her suggestions are stonewalled, but she manages to find allies who take her under their wing, inviting her into their homes, sharing anecdotes about annexed land and bisected families, and showing her round her ravaged birthplace.

As Karmi explores, her feelings become as integral as her observations. We see her discomfited in a Ramallah supermarket at the profusion of Israeli products, almost all labelled in Hebrew, and stunned to learn that a car with Israeli number-plates can jump queues at checkpoints. She is feisty during heated disputes, furious with officious soldiers who demand her passport, shocked at “the seal of Israeli ownership” stamped on Jerusalem and the cruelty of the separation wall, and ashamed of her impotence while listening to stories about displacement and dispossession.

It is when Karmi visits “strangulated” Gaza that she is truly engulfed, even paralysed, by her feelings. Over the course of two compelling chapters Karmi takes us through “a spectrum of despair”, from visits to refugee camps and news of a kidnapping, to interviews with inward-looking women and an exchange with a Hamas leader who justifies suicide bombings.

Karmi has a knack for momentarily disorienting her reader by flitting from idyll to chaos. In Gaza she surveys the calm, glittering sea with its graceful waves; some lines later the spell is broken by the pungent stench of raw sewage and the brutal reality of “the encaged, tormented place”. A landscape once full of “unfettered hills” and old villages and mosques is now an “ungainly carve-up” seething with sprawling Israeli settlements, row upon row of “red-roofed excrescences”.

As might be expected from such an outspoken critic, there are swaths of Karmi’s book where her righteous ire bubbles over and a red mist clouds any prospect of compromise or counterargument from debating partners on either side of the conflict. A less strident tone is in evidence when Karmi travels over the border to visit family in Jordan (the chapter title, Interlude in Amman, being appropriate on more than one level) and when she picks up where she left off in her acclaimed memoir In Search of Fatima (2002) and discusses London life and the trials of motherhood.

Return is compulsive reading, whether its author is embroiled in office politics or trying to make sense of national politics. The book is punctuated with bouts of violence and ensuing fear of reprisals, none of which prevents Karmi going out and seeking answers. As she learns, she teaches us. Often it is the smallest details that captivate: the country most young Palestinians want to study in is America (“the very country”, Karmi says, “which perpetuated Palestinian misery by giving Israel the arms it used against the Palestinians”). Footnotes – each one elucidatory rather than scholarly – provide dates and concrete facts, covering topics such as the history of the PLO and the enmity between Hamas and Fatah.

Karmi’s first memoir was affecting because it skilfully traced her dislocation in exile.

What makes Return even more affecting is that Karmi feels just as dislocated back in her native land. Anguish and frustration permeate this tale of homecoming, but at the same time it smoulders with defiance and is crafted with considerable intelligence and beauty.

This book is available on Amazon.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance ­essayist and reviewer.


Updated: May 7, 2015 04:00 AM