In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian story by Ghada Karmi

From Palestine to Golders Green

Karen Armstrong
Saturday 14 December 2002 01:00
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There can be no solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis until the pain of both sides is fully recognised. We are all sadly familiar with the shameful saga of genocide, persecution and atrocity that led to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, but Palestinians have their own tragic history. In Search of Fatima is, I believe, the first account in English of the suffering endured by an ordinary Palestinian family, but Ghada Karmi's compelling and beautifully written narrative is more than a personal memoir. It enables the reader to understand and to empathise with the psychological dislocation of exile that continues to fuel the Palestinian cause.

Karmi left Jerusalem in April 1948 when she was nine, a month before the creation of the Jewish state. Her father was not an activist but an educationalist, and had no intention of leaving until the violence, culminating in the massacre of some 250 Arabs in the village of Deir Yasin, obliged the family to take refuge in London – never dreaming they would not be allowed to return. From a child's perspective, Karmi vividly describes such terrifying incidents as the bombing of the hotel near her home, the bewilderment of the exodus itself, and the heartbreaking separation from Fatima, her nurse, and her beloved dog Rex.

Inevitably, Karmi's account challenges the official Israeli version; but, ironically, her story echoes the Jewish experience of exile, and the problems of identity and assimilation. Her parents never truly recovered from the loss of their homeland, which they experienced not only as trauma, but also as shame. Her mother became "a Palestinian Miss Havisham", for whom the clock stopped in 1948. She transformed her north London semi into a traditional Arab home, tearing up carpets, substituting tiles, banning central heating, and refusing for 30 years to decorate, because she was convinced that they would soon be returning to Palestine.

Karmi herself spent years denying her origins, and cultivated a militantly British identity. When she married an Englishman, her mother's distress was as acute as that of any Jewish mother whose child has "married out". It was not until the Arab defeat of 1967 that Karmi was forced to reclaim her roots and become an activist – a decision which led to the collapse of her marriage. Her siblings have also led splintered lives, oscillating uneasily between Europe and the Middle East, unable to settle anywhere.

Despite its real pathos, the story never becomes maudlin. There is humour and robust self-criticism. The book is also remarkable in its lack of rancour. Karmi is naturally highly critical of Israeli policy, but there is no hint of anti-semitism, which, she shows clearly, was entirely alien to Arab culture. Her parents blamed the British for their plight rather than the Zionists and were bewildered by the engrained anti-semitism of British society. Because – bizarrely – the family settled in Golders Green, Karmi's closest childhood friends really were Jewish, and she pays tribute to the support she has received throughout from Jewish sympathisers.

Karmi's great achievement is to humanise the Palestinian predicament. Violent uprooting and exile have permanent psychological effects, which, as the Jewish people discovered, are not necessarily assuaged by the passage of time. We need counter-narratives like this, because we have recently learnt that it is not only parochial but also dangerous to ignore the pain and rights of others.

Karen Armstrong's biography 'Muhammad' is published by Phoenix

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