Once the poster girl of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and one of the most wanted women in the world, Leila Khaled now lives a somewhat quieter life in Jordan.
Leila Khaled, the 1970s Palestinian revolutionary, is still passionate
It looks like Leila Khaled has stood me up. It's my last day in Amman, and she's arranged to meet me in front of the Sofra restaurant at noon. It's now 12:45pm. Tired of the unwanted attention I'm receiving as a woman standing alone on the street, I duck into Café des Artistes next door and order an overpriced espresso in the hope they'll let me use their phone to call her again. She answers this time and tells me she is stuck at a meeting for the Palestinian National Council, but will meet me in another 30 minutes.
Khaled is not an easy woman to track down, and she seems to prefer it that way. She has no self-generated online presence, and her telephone number and email address have changed half-a-dozen times in the past few years. There is a Twitter, Facebook and even a MySpace account in her name, but it's clear she isn't administering any of them.
Eventually, two and a half hours late, her driver finally pulls up in a nondescript, ageing Japanese car. She steps out of the vehicle only long enough to motion me into its back seat before we speed off in the direction of downtown Amman. She prefers another restaurant to the one I suggested. Is that OK? A short, smoky ride down Rainbow Street and we arrive at her venue of choice, where the owner and staff treat her like a celebrity as soon as we step inside. We are ushered to a private corner table, our order is on the house and even the music is turned down to accommodate her interview.
The first thing I consider as I sit across the table from her is her beauty, which remains undimmed by the passing years (Khaled is 68), and how she must have cut a stunning figure when she emerged as the face of what many considered a newly minted terrorist organisation.
Splashed across the pages of newspapers, many marvelled at how Khaled was so elegantly attired as she boarded planes with her male companions, dressed as if heading out on holiday while concealing weapons under her clothing. I wonder about her willingness to undergo a reported six plastic surgeries, while still in her late 20s, to remain unidentifiable and continue hijacking planes for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). She shrugs off talk of the surgery with a deep exhale of her ever-present cigarette. She calls it "a minor sacrifice. Now women are going to change their faces, their lips, and all these plastic surgeries that they do to beautify themselves, but they didn't beautify their minds." She continues, "I did that. Beautified my mind."
She recalls how her face was doctored to look like she was an accident victim, and how even an Israeli security officer in Amsterdam didn't recognise her as the woman whose face adorned "wanted" posters in the airport, allowing her to board the El Al plane she subsequently hijacked in 1970 in an unsuccessful mission that led to the death of her partner, Patrick Arguello. She begins to tear up as she recalls his demise, detailing how he was killed in front of her eyes. "We didn't harm anyone." She insists her missions were specifically non-violent and all passengers from the hijacked planes were set free unharmed. "I know there was panic. I myself tried to calm people. I told them our story. It was our instructions not to harm anyone. And people were safe."
Khaled was born in Haifa in 1944, the youngest of five children. Her fourth birthday coincided with the Deir Yassin massacres, and it's at this age that she became a refugee when her family fled to Lebanon. Her father, however, stayed behind to fight for their home. In Lebanon, all she could think about was returning to Haifa. After the 1967 Israeli occupation of the remaining parts of Palestine, she decided that she had to do something. But hijacking planes seemed like an extreme course of action, especially for a pretty young woman of 25.
"Why did we choose to use that tactic? The Palestinian question was not known in the world. And when Israel occupied all Palestine, the international community understood that Israel was a weak state who is surrounded by the vicious Arabs. The oasis of democracy among dictatorships had the right to defend itself. And they forgot everything about us. The world dealt with us only as refugees who needed some aid. In the UN they established a body called UNWRA and that was it. That was the solution they gave us.
"We had to put forward a big question, but in a violent way: who are the Palestinians? That was the question that we intended the revolution to answer and the world to answer. Not a bunch of refugees who needed only aid. And at the same time we had a political cause: we wanted to release our prisoners from Israeli jails."
She contends that hijacking was an effective, short-lived tactic of the PFLP, used for only three years until 1970, because the world began to respond to the struggle of the Palestinians: "They hijacked our homeland, nobody asked us. Nobody asked why the Israelis did so, why the Zionists did so. Why they were supported by the West, and the Americans in particular. Nobody asked that question why. We had to ring that bell and we rang that bell and it was effective." She says she regrets absolutely nothing.
Passing on lunch, she instead orders a black coffee and continues to chain smoke, despite a recurring cough. She speaks very slowly, with emphasis and intensity, choosing her words deliberately, peppering the conversation with phrases and words such as "the cause", "comrades", "factions", "missions" and "operations". She insists that these are not her personal goals, but her people's and organisation's goals, and that she chose to carry them out by joining the resistance. Aware of her status as an iconic revolutionary figure, she says she feels honoured to be able to represent Palestinian women in this way. Khaled scoffed when asked if she had personal fears. "Not at all," she said emphatically. "I'm afraid of being homeless. This frightens me."
I recall watching a clip online from one of Khaled's televised interviews from the 1970s, in which she says "if it does good for my cause, I'd be happy to accept death", and she mimics this sentiment today. That, coupled with her utter decisiveness, catches me off guard. She comes across as a revolutionary with a capital R, and one who is stuck in a time capsule. There is something dated, yet cinematic and larger than life, in both her terminology and mannerisms. She's the female heir apparent to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. It's as if nothing has changed as far as her devotion to the cause, and something about it both shakes and shames me.
As I review my questions, I feel as if I'm searching for her doubt, some sense of ambiguity or humanness. She's not a machine, a fembot of the revolution - or is she? Her commitment to Palestine seems absolute, and in this I see my own doubts and insecurities, my own desire to not be solely defined by Palestine and struggle.
But there are other sides to Khaled. In a 2006 Swedish documentary about her life, she tells a hilarious story about running into her mother at the airport. Neither had communicated to the other that they were flying that day, and when her mother saw her she looked terrified. "Are you working today?," she asked her daughter. Khaled laughed and assured her mother that she had nothing to fear by getting on the plane, that this was not a "business trip" for her.
Despite the fact that she hijacked several planes, Khaled served only a short prison sentence in London during the 1970s and was freed in a prisoner swap. For the most part, she says she is able to travel freely and has just returned from a recent historic trip to Gaza. When asked if it was her first time back in Palestine, she says no, "the first time was in that hijacked plane". Her mood brightens and she smiles as she recounts how she saw Palestine, and specifically her hometown of Haifa, from above. She jokes that she was "practising her right of return in a unique way" by ordering the pilot to fly the plane over Haifa when she was involved in the hijack of TWA Flight 840 in 1969.
She enthuses about her trip to Gaza, which occurred shortly after the November 2012 invasion. She was able to get across the border with cooperation from the Egyptians, but her husband and sons were unable to accompany her because her husband was stripped of his Palestinian ID in the late 1960s. "But I have a Palestinian ID," she tells me proudly. So why doesn't she visit Palestine as often as she wants? "Because the Israelis will only let me in long enough to arrest me," she says with a deep laugh.
She marvels at how smoothly the Gaza trip was coordinated and likens the visit to "a beautiful dream. I couldn't believe I was there with my people." She speaks of this visit with almost complete wonder, as it came upon the heels of what she considers a dual victory: the end of Israel's most recent invasion of Gaza and the successful Palestine UN bid. Her last time in Gaza was in 1996. "Gaza this time, I saw that the people are proud, very proud, although they live in very difficult conditions. It's inhumane, but still they were proud because they said they were resisting. They saw the Israelis afraid and going to their shelters. They said we don't have shelters. They kill us. People didn't leave their houses while the F-16s and Apaches were bombarding them. I asked why and they said as long as there is a resistance, it's okay."
Khaled says she is optimistic about the future, that the recognition of the international community designating Palestine as a UN non-member state was an important achievement, one that needs to be built upon by the next generation. She speaks of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as one of the many tools available to continue moving the Palestine cause into the mainstream. She believes it's spreading all over the world, and that many are jumping on board because of their experience of using it in apartheid-era South Africa. She's encouraged that the parallels are being made. "BDS is a peaceful means for people to express their solidarity. A very effective weapon to stop the fascism of Israel against the Palestinians.
"All tools are important: art, film. We're now in the era of the picture with the internet. You can see everything. You can read everything. This is very important. There was an exhibition in Sweden with a photo of Mohammad Al Durra [a little boy who was famously shot dead in Gaza in 2001], and the Israeli ambassador broke the case where the picture was, which means that even the picture they don't want seen." She believes Israel is in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy and sees continued resistance across multiple platforms as the only way to keep the international community engaged in the Palestinian cause. She believes it's up to the next generation to keep the resistance alive.
We begin to discuss the One State versus Two State Solution. Khaled is in favour of the former. "We're looking forward to having a democratic state in Palestine where everyone can live together. A democratic solution, a human solution."
But is this realistic considering the current situation? "It wasn't realistic in 1897 when the Zionist movement held their conference in Gaza. It wasn't realistic to have an Israeli state in Palestine, but it happened after 50 years. Why isn't it realistic for us to go back to our homeland? I think those people who came were deceived by the Zionist propaganda, that this was the Promised Land from God. I never heard that God was a real estate agent."
I ask if she thinks she'll go back to Haifa in her lifetime and she says no, but her children will and if not, then their children. She lives just outside of Amman with her husband and her two grown sons who she claims are "political in another way", although she doesn't elaborate on this. She insists that she committed her life to the cause, but also lived a normal life and found balance.
She wants her sons to get married and have children. She especially wants a granddaughter. She tells me a story about asking her eldest son to move things along and get married so he can bring her a granddaughter. He told her he's happy to have a daughter for her, but without the marriage. How, she asked him. It's pretty easy, he tells her. She laughs as she recounts this story, but still hopes for a grandchild in her lifetime. "Mothers are like this. I'd like to have them married, make them food, make them sweets." But ultimately she says she knows it's up to them to choose their paths.
Our interview almost over, we descend the staircase of the Rainbow Street restaurant and she tells me how she conducts all of her meetings here. It is in this moment as she holds onto the railing that I notice, for the first time, her laboured movements.
She asks me if I know the history of this building, Beit Shocair. I don't. Not only is it a restaurant and an arts and cultural centre, she tells me, but it was once an old family home that was occupied for many years and recently reclaimed by the descendants of the original owners who were finally able to return. I nod, not sure what occupation she's referring to, but aware of the story's symbolism. With this, she climbs into her vehicle and heads off towards her next meeting. It must be something being Leila Khaled.
Jennifer Jajeh is a writer, performer and independent filmmaker from San Francisco. She is currently in her fifth year of touring her one-woman show, I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You. For moreinformation go to www.jenniferjajeh.com.