Return: A Palestinian Memoir by Ghada Karmi - book review: An enduring account of Palestinian loss and struggle

Return has acompelling narrative structure, rich in precisely observed vignettes

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The Independent Culture

Though she has lived since childhood in Britain, the doctor, academic and writer Ghada Karmi has long been active in the Palestinian cause – a "full-time Palestinian" as she ironically puts it. Forced to flee aged eight with her family in the 1948 war, during Israel's military conquest of West Jerusalem, she has formatively vivid recollections of the life she left behind and the trauma of abandoning it.

But she also bore the exile's dual identity: though "fairly integrated and at ease in my adopted country… I was of that generation of Palestinians who still retained a memory of the homeland… and… knew it as their real country".

Her 2005 UN assignment as a consultant to the Palestinian National Authority, combined with – bravely personal – reflections on her own often difficult life, her 100-year-old father's final months in Amman, and her travels throughout the West Bank and Gaza, gives Return its compelling narrative structure. Her description of life inside the PA, its petty jealousies, feuding and the suspicion she encountered from some (though not quite all) of her temporary colleagues, is merciless, if not, finally, devoid of sympathy.

But Return is rich in precisely observed vignettes; pressing her palms against the "cold and smooth" concrete of the Israeli military's separation wall, she is joined by a Palestinian woman whom the wall has separated from her husband; in an awkward encounter, she is invited by The New York Times' bureau chief to the apartment the paper keeps for its correspondents – over the very house she had fled in 1948. She is appalled by – among much else – the bleak "dead, ghost" Al-Shuhada Street in the Israeli controlled sector of Hebron, where the remaining Palestinians are routinely harassed by some of the West Bank's most aggressive Jewish settlers.

While Karmi still insists on the refugees' "right of return", this is a sadder book than her earlier In Search of Fatima. The Palestine Karmi found was a "new-old place whose people had moved on from where I had them fixed in my memory". But it was on them that the national cause would now depend, not on "those that like me, who no longer belonged here... lost out in 1948 and were scattered all over the world, never to return".

She had come to the occupied territories to "re-establish my connection with the people who lived there". That task proved easier to describe than to fulfil. But it has generated a hauntingly written, remorselessly honest, and surely long lasting account of Palestinian loss and struggle.