Imagine you are a seven-year-old girl, who’s known years of escalating conflict—skirmishes, sniper shootings and bombings—that left your parents distracted and your only real companions the maid and the family dog. Then, suddenly, with no more than a few minutes’ notice, you are wrenched away from your home—leaving behind the maid and the dog, which stands in the street looking after you as though he understands you won’t be back. You’re then dumped in your grandparents’ overcrowded house in a religiously rigid city—where to your bemusement your plaits—an eight-year-old’s plaits—attract abuse in the market for your lack of a veil. Then you’re suddenly transported to early 1950s England, an entirely foreign culture, climate, and people, who can’t even pronounce your name.
That was the fate of Ghada Karmi, author of In Search of Fatima, a personal memoir that tells her story, and that of her Palestinian relatives and friends, indeed of the Palestinian people. After many vissitudes, Karmi went on to lead an organisation pushing the Palestinian cause, so this is a political book, but much more, it is the beautifully written, honestly told, story of that seven-year-old girl, who found shocking the things that any child might find shocking—that floors were suddenly made of materials she’d never encountered before, “immense halls with polished floors, vinyl and wood… in Palestine, floors were tiled or made of stone”. And “the people here looked different… They were taller and bigger and had pale skins. The men didn’t have moustaches and I wondered why none of the women seemed to be pregnant; I could see no swollen bellies anywhere. Not like Palestine.”
There’s awareness now that children transplanted, particularly in such turbulent circumstances, need special attention, but in post-War Britain, and in the Palestinian culture in which Karmi was still absorbed at home, it seems there was not even the inkling of such concerns. And she was handicapped by a seriously self-obsessed mother, who seems sometimes to have suffered depression, but even when she was not ill was utterly wrapped up in her own concerns.
Karmi makes excuses, understandably enough, yet is also aware of the limitations imposed by her mother’s cultural background – the lack of education, or any expectation that her mother be able to cope on her own, as fate forced her to do. And she remembers her own anger at being treated as a second-class citizen:
“People thought he was special and better than me because he was a boy. They said that as he was the only son, just like his uncle, he must be treated especially well. My mother would now make me lay the table and also clear up, whereas the arrangement in Jerusalem had been that one person would lay the table and the other clear up. When I complained that it was unfair and he ought to do half, she told me that he was a boy and sisters must serve their brothers…. When Ziyad was born, the family in Tulkarm had slaughtered a sheep to celebrate… But when I was born, she said, no one killed any sheep for me and it used to make me cry.”
Karmi’s family arrived before the great post-War influx of immigrants to London, and the memoir provides an interesting account of the city of the period and particularly its early encounters with foreign cultures, often showing ignorance of difference, if equally often a kindness of spirit:
There were different types of coupon for different items, including one for sweets. Neither Ziyad or I understood much about this, but I recall that soon after our arrival in London we took our two ration books and went down the road to the newsagent’s shop. There, we offered them to the woman behind the counter with the one important word we knew in English, “chocolate”. She looked through the books and shook her head. Evidently, we did not have the appropriate coupons. But we must have looked so crestfallen that she smiled and gave us a toffee each.
Her father insisted—from an understandable desire that his children obtain an easily transportable vocational skill—that she study medicine, despite her strong inclination towards the arts, so Karmi ended up as one of a handful of women among many men in her class at the University of Bristol. By this time she had decided her only salvation lay in being wholly English, and that led her to a relationship, then marriage, with a fellow student from a traditional farming family in the area. Her mother never accepted this; her father only with extreme reluctance. Your heart can only ache for this transplanted, neglected, overwhelmed child trying to find a place to call home. It’s hardly giving anything away to say the marriage ended badly.
Yet her sister, a few years older, who clung to her Palestinian identity and returned to the Arab world as soon as possible, also ended up divorced. This is a tale, too, of being female in the Fifties and Sixties, with all of the substantial disadvantage that entailed, even for women with excellent educations.
The book ends with Karmi returning to Jerusalem and finding her old home. If there is one disappointment it is in the title. I kept expecting Karmi to go looking for Fatima, the maid who seems to provide the title of the book. Perhaps she did, but could not write about it. But I would have liked to have known more of her story—the peasant woman left behind, or at least of that of women like her. Karmi acknowledges the snobbery of the society from which she originated, but perhaps is still unavoidably infected with it.
Those of a strongly pro-Israel bent might find aspects of this book challenging, yet it is an honest, if one-sided, account of the conflict that produced the Jewish state—and from the side less often heard in the west. But more, it is a human account of the second half of the twentieth century, its challenges and changes.
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