After a lifetime of activism, the Palestinian writer is handing over the torch to the new generation and writing a novel set in medieval Baghdad
Academic, activist, author and doctor, Ghada Karmi is a lifelong campaigner and key figure in bringing to the fore the human dimension of the Palestinian cause. Beyond her countless articles and lectures as an expert in the field, it is her two memoirs In Search of Fatima and Return: A Palestinian Memoir that have reached more people in the West with her very personal and honest account of the Palestinian struggle.
Born in Jerusalem in 1939, she was forced to flee her homeland with her family at age nine, just a few months before the creation of the state of Israel. Educated in the UK, she became a medical doctor and embraced the "English way of life" until the events of 1967 triggered a dedicated political activism in her that has remained resolute until now.
Karmi admits that she is “weary” from the “endless conflict,” but she has not given up; nor is she saying goodbye yet. On the contrary, she is starting a new chapter in her life. She is writing her first novel and also for the first time, moving away from the subject she is most closely associated with – Palestine.
The revelations about her future plans come at the end of the interview. Sitting on the suede sofa of her living room, surrounded by paintings of her homeland and overlooked by two beautiful Arabic coffee pots perched on the mantelpiece, the Palestinian author answers the questions at length in a faultless English accent and with the same frankness she uses in her books.
She lives in Golders Green, North London, the same neighbourhood Karmi came to with her family after the Nakba, or catastrophe, and a brief stay with her maternal grandparents in Damascus. The borough remains, as it was in the 1940s, a predominantly Jewish area. Despite the irony, it was not an issue for the family, who saw the Jewish refugee neighbours simply as refugees who had come to Britain to escape from a Nazi-ravaged Europe, with no connection to the people who had expelled them from their home country.
The problems started later. “It’s from 1967 onwards that I date the antagonism on their part, the sort of arrogance, the self-confidence, the refusal to understand what had happened.”
It is not due to a romantic attachment that she finds herself in Golders Green. In fact, she has lived elsewhere in London and in the Middle East. But when she became a single mother after separating from her second husband, she wanted her daughter Salma to be close to her grandparents. In the end, this is where she grew up and it was home as much as anywhere else could have been.
The subtle effects of dislocation
Karmi made her literary debut in 2002 after realising that just like the Holocaust had become very familiar to many people from personal stories, “our story should be told in similar terms”. In Search of Fatima (Verso) is a journey of 450 pages in pursuit of her own identity that goes from a happy childhood in Qatamon, West Jerusalem, to a tough upbringing in the outlandish post-war London and the aftermath of the dislocation that left her “suspended between two places” for most of her adult life.
Her parents, a housewife and a former education inspector working for the BBC Arabic service, were traumatised by the displacement and refused to integrate into English society. They appreciated Ghada and her two older siblings acquiring a good education, but only to return to an Arab country and live according to Arab traditions.
“I feel terrible to say this but I never forgave them for their inability to understand how difficult it is for children to try to adapt to a new environment and also be pulled back,” she says. “It is not that they did this deliberately, poor things; they were both trying to salvage their past from the present. It is not that I don’t understand. But they failed to evolve enough to see that children had problems.”
Obediently, she studied medicine and became a doctor, but in her desperate need to belong she married a non-Muslim Englishman, a fellow student from university. A step too far for her mother, who cut her out of her life. And it wasn’t until the end of the short-lived marriage, due to her husband’s pro-Israeli sentiment in the 1967 Six Day War, that her mother resumed “normal relations”.
That was the defining event in Palestinian history that shook the fragile identity she had worked so hard to build and awakened her political activism. “I realised and finally understood who I was. And the cause felt natural to me. I couldn’t just have this realisation and feel bad, or regret, or tell my friends. It had to be much more public. I stumbled on the idea of an organisation that lobbied for and informed people about Palestine.”
She refers to Palestine Action, the organisation she created in 1972 to counteract the negative perception of Palestinians that the British public had at the time, before the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had any representatives in Britain and before Yasser Arafat’s historical appearance at the UN General Assembly in 1974.
As the organisation grew, it attracted some Jewish and Israeli sympathisers. Amongst them, the man who would become her political mentor, the radical and anti-Zionist, Akiva Orr. “Not only was he a man with a terrific sense of humour, but he was also very knowledgeable… He had a very cool detached view of events and gave me the best political education I’ve ever had.” He propelled her political career that took her to refugee camps, guerrilla training grounds, and several meetings with Arafat, the first one occurring in 1976.
The charismatic leader fascinated the young and inexperienced advocate and the impression he made on her stood the test of time. “He made mistakes, the biggest one was the Oslo Agreements, but I was always prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think to his mind he was doing what was best at the time. He was a tactician and also inclined to bring people together, that was his greatest quality. I believe had Arafat lived this split that we have today between Fatah and Hamas wouldn’t have happened. Early on he would have sorted out the differences. I was devastated by the humiliating way he was treated at the end.”
Her voice resonates anger as she remembers. “Even brought down as he was, he was still an icon for millions of people, and that is something Israel cannot allow the Palestinians - having heroes, icons, leaders. They must all be cattle. So they had to kill him. How on earth could you imagine this man had an illness all of a sudden? It’s quite absurd,” she states.
Her views on President Abbas and the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are no secret. In her latest book, Return, A Palestinian Memoir (Verso, 2015), she exposed the problems she encountered as a UN consultant to the PA’s Ministry of Media and Communications in Ramallah in 2005: the submission of the PA to the occupiers, the lack of interest in changing strategies, the monumental bureaucracy of an apparatus that would not exist without international aid. “A painfully honest” account, wrote the MEE reviewer, prompted by the serious deterioration of the situation on the ground.
Accepting a dual identity
On a personal level, after having combined her non-clinical position in the NHS with a number of research appointments at SOAS, Durham and Leeds universities and having become an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, her need to reconnect with the cause and the desire to be part of the community started to haunt her again.
Immersing herself in a job at the heart of the PA was the only option to settle matters one way or another. In the end, she came to accept the dichotomy of her identity. “I have to live with myself and that is what myself is. But it is enriching in many ways.” She lives and thinks as a Palestinian as well as an anglicised woman. “So it’s an interesting place to be and it has been forced on me.”
For being someone used to concealing her feelings behind a tough appearance, Karmi pours very intimate details of her life into her books. She deliberately exposed herself more in her second memoir in order to allow the reader to get to know who she is and where all her problems stem from.
“When you displace people, when you forbid them to return to their societies, they develop all kinds of difficulties… In my case these were all very traumatic because the initial trauma did not go away." Perhaps, she concedes, she “could have toned it down a bit”. But “the poignancy of what had happened would have been lost”.
What became clear from her time in Palestine was that Israel had succeeded in fragmenting the Palestinians in their home country and in exile. And whatever future Palestinians may have, would have to come from the people living under the occupation.
The challenge ahead
In her opinion, the pretend government of the PA should be completely replaced by a suitable body whose only job is to distribute the aid amongst the people in the occupied territories, leaving Israel responsible for the security of the entire territory. “They would be terrified – as they see Palestinians as terrorists - and the immediate financial consequences of having its army deployed in the occupied territories would be quite high.”
Besides, “the government couldn’t guarantee the protection of their citizens because there wouldn’t be a Palestinian police force. But she doubts the PA would have the “intelligence and the patriotism” to tackle the heart of the problem: “Israel’s impunity.” She admits having reduced the issue to this “simple matter” just very recently.
“The only parallels I can think of are the Native Americans or the Aboriginals. This is a very nasty settler colonialist movement. And the difference between it and the others is that it is happening today and it is apparently approved of by the West. How can that be?”
Karmi wrote extensively about the reasons why the solution to the conflict has remained elusive in her book Married to Another Man. Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (Pluto Books, 2007). More recently, she has started to argue that the answer involves a change in strategy, what she calls in her articles Plan B.
Given the fact that Israel controls over 60 percent of the West Bank and applies a relentless policy of land appropriation, making the right to return of more than 6.5 million refugees living in camps very difficult to achieve, Palestinians should recognise that they already live in one unified state.
But it is a state that discriminates against them in every way, “an apartheid state,” and therefore they have to demand equal rights to Israeli citizens. She acknowledges that this process takes time, “but is a better way to spend time than the way they are now”. She anticipates Israel will refuse, but this would expose their rejection to a reasonable demand and open up the debate.
More worrying for her is the lack of political vision on the Palestinian side to educate the population. “Unfortunately, a lot of Palestinians have been sold this two-state nonsense. They hate the Israelis for obvious reasons and they don’t want to live with them.” So the challenge, she concludes, is to convince the population that they have nothing to lose.
As for her, she confides she is stepping aside to give way to young people. “Even a warrior like me in grows tired in the end. You fight and fight and the results are small. Having said that, there is one very hopeful change, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS). That is the way forward.” Her advice to the new generation of activists is “to put their whole energies” into supporting and spreading this campaign.
Shifting her focus away from the Palestinian cause she is now writing a novel set in medieval Baghdad. “Western people need to understand that the history of Islamic civilisation does not mean terrorism and violence, but many centuries of fascinating creative rule which extended from the borders of China to Spain.”
So she is still promoting the Arab cause, only this time from a broader context.