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Fleeing Palestine: My right to return

To the sound of gunfire, Ghada Karmi was forced to flee her home in Palestine 57 years ago. Now back in Ramallah, she has chronicled every detail of her harrowing flight. By Donald Macintyre

Wednesday 19 October 2005 00:00 BST

"You see, there's the lemon tree that was there when that was my parents' bedroom," she says, pointing across the verandah from just outside the old iron gate through which she and her family had made their hurried and final departure to the sound of automatic gunfire and mortar explosions that fateful April morning 57 years ago.

As she poses for pictures by sitting on the stone steps in the way she must have done so often as a little girl, the years suddenly roll away and for a fleeting moment you can see again the pensive, pretty eight-year-old from the only two family photographs that were not left behind for good in the Karmis' precipitate - and as they tried to tell themselves, temporary - flight from Palestine.

We are at what is now 18 Mishmar Ha'am in Qatamon, as prosperous and bourgeois a west Jerusalem Jewish neighbourhood today as it had been an Arab one before the war that ended with the creation of the state of Israel. A street above here, between two 1950s apartment blocks, there is nothing left of the Semiramis Hotel, flattened by a Haganah bombing in January 1948 that killed 30 people, and was part of the rapid escalation of violence that eventually made it impossible for the family to stay. But apart from the added second storey, the stone-built villa from which the Karmis fled has hardly changed since it and the others in the street were built between the two world wars to accommodate the expanding population of the Old City.

In her memoir*, In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story, Dr Karmi has recorded, from memory and reconstruction, every significant detail of the days and hours before their escape as seen and heard by a child who was desperate not to leave, however bad the shooting got. How the day before their hasty departure for Damascus she heard the adults whispering agitatedly about something called "Deir Yassin" - the scene, as she only much later realised, of the notorious massacre by Irgun and Stern Gang forces of 245 Arabs, many women and children, in a village to the west of Jerusalem.

How Rex, the family's beloved mongrel, somehow squeezed through the very gate we are standing at now and stood in the middle of the road "staring after the retreating car, his tail stiff, his ears pointing forward".

But above all, the pain of parting from Fatima, the stoical peasant woman from the village of al-Maliha who worked for the Karmis and of whom in the absences of her own highly sociable mother, Dr Karmi writes: "From the start I adopted Fatima for my mother."

And how after sitting on her lap on the drive to a taxi depot outside the Old City she "clung desperately", when the moment for parting came, to Fatima's kaftan, and that Fatima, tears coursing down her cheeks "gently disengaged my fingers". She never saw Fatima again.

In her first extended visit since 1948, Dr Karmi has been living in Ramallah for three months. It has been a visit with many purposes, the most formal of which was her work for the Palestinian Authority as a UN-funded information consultant.

A second, more "hidden" one, as she puts it, was to try to find out what happened to Fatima. And a third was to complete the research for the final chapter of the deeply controversial book she is writing in favour of the "one-state solution" to the Israel-Palestine conflict. For Dr Karmi this isn't merely some tactical position. Indeed she gently ridicules the position of those Palestinians who merely warn periodically that the separation barrier, the growth of West Bank settlements and the preconditions set by Israel for a return to the road map risk missing the opportunity for a two-state solution, and that therefore the single state, in which Palestinians will sooner or later form a majority, might prove to be the only alternative, however long and bloody the path to it is.

"This is meant as some kind of threat to the Israelis," she says. "If you don't give us our state, then you'll have to live with a load of wogs. You don't want that so get on and give us our state."

Instead an opponent from the start, like her friend the late Edward Said, of the Oslo accords, she has long advocated a democratic secular unified state rather than two states.

Undaunted by the opposition of the entire international community, the vast majority of Israelis, and - at least in public - most of the Palestinian political establishment, to any solution which envisages the end of a specifically Jewish state, she surprisingly draws on Zionism, the very doctrine her view seeks to confront and negate, to demonstrate how a once-seemingly remote idea can be realised if there is a strategy and a will.

Yet it's impossible to ignore how far Dr Karmi's dream - which she holds while clinging to the idea, also anathema to Israeli opinion, of a right to return for the families of all Palestinian refugees - of Jews and what would undoubtedly be an Arab majority living harmoniously as equal citizens in a modern single state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean reflects her own personal history before and after she left what was then a still unified Palestine.

While the family initially went to Damascus, she finally, and despite the reluctance of her mother, followed her father to London. Hasan Karmi, an accomplished linguist who had worked for the British Mandate government - and is, remarkably, still alive at the age of 100 and living in Jordan - had by now secured a job at the BBC, and improbably, on the face of it, a terraced house in Golders Green, one of the areas in London to which so many Jewish refugees from Hitler had congregated. In her book, which among much else is a compelling portrait of growing up in the austere climate of late Forties and Fifties Britain, she recounts how almost all of her closest school friends were Jewish as was the family GP; indeed the family saw nothing odd about that, they had been patients in Jerusalem of a German Jewish doctor.

She, her father and her brother, in an area where the only foreign food was at a Jewish delicatessen, acquired a taste for kosher salami. Indeed Dr Karmi makes the point that despite their profound and irrevocable sense of grievance about 1948, the "gut anti-Semitism" they encountered among some of their English neighbours was "alien to us". But the book is also a poignant account of the heartbreaks involved in her own assimilation into English culture at school - she went first to a convent and then to Henrietta Barnett in Hampstead Garden Suburb - Bristol University and her marriage to an English farmer's son and Army medic.

The marriage was fiercely opposed by her family and was already under severe strain by the Six Day War of 1967. Having studiously ignored developments in the Middle East - and in many ways even her own background as an Arab - she became, while working as a senior house officer at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, transfixed like most of the rest of the world by the television spectacle of triumphant Israeli forces overrunning Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and above all East Jerusalem and the Old City, where she had played hopscotch in front of the Dome of the Rock 20 years earlier.

"As the memories came back," she wrote, "I felt a dull ache, as if an open wound, which was thought to be long healed, had just been reopened."

But worse, when she found that her husband shared out loud the widespread admiration for Israel's victory prevalent among the rest of her colleagues she was crushed by the thought that her life as an Englishwoman had been "nothing but a sham ... Their opposition to my stand on the conflict between Israel and the Arabs meant I could never be one of them. But then, who was I one of?"

Her marriage ended a year later; and so began a journey into Palestinian nationalist activism, albeit one which left that searching question about her own identity at least partially unresolved. Going from one cultural pole to the other she was briefly married to a Tunisian in the 1980s - the one unalloyed benefit of which was the birth of her now 24-year-old daughter Lalla Salma.

She did locate within herself a "burning sense of injustice" about the events of her childhood. "More and more I understood what a despicable trick had been played on the Palestinians and it was played by the Europeans, and the Europeans had done the damage to the Jews ...

"The Jewish problem is a world problem; not our problem. We were not responsible for Hitler, World War II, the pogroms. We had done nothing of this kind. But the Western powers, the European powers and later the United States joined in and decided that we would foot the bill. How on earth can anyone be expected to accept that?"

Her months in Ramallah working for the Palestinian Authority have sharpened her perception, she says, of "a belated sense of guilt on the part of these Europeans who were the culprits who created the initial problem which takes the form, as far as I can see, of handouts" - with, she believes, paradoxically disastrous results for the Palestinians.

"With the exception of those agencies and donors who are funding really important life projects like agriculture, like health, water purification, the rest have been in my view utterly pernicious. It has created a culture ... of dependency because they are impoverished, and therefore if you deprive a people of their normal means of livelihood and make them depend on handouts then people change and they start to look to their handouts and distort their performance and political messages."

An example of the donor mentality she suggests is the current tendency of the international community to prefer channelling aid to Gaza rather than pressing Israel to take the steps - for example on border crossings - which would allow Gaza to revive its economy by itself.

There is an irony here, as Dr Karmi admits. For she herself is seeking funding for a media-related project in the West Bank supported by the United Nations Development Programme. One effect, if she gets it, is that she will probably, in her sixties, spend more time in her native land than at any time since her childhood. And that may help, if not to resolve the problem of her identity at least to live with it. She says her father still discusses his decision to bring them to London from Damascus and ensure his son and two daughters got an education - suggesting jokingly she would now be married to a "Bedouin" if he hadn't. "He often says 'I did the right thing'."

But Dr Karmi isn't so sure that her education and emancipation make up for the separation of a once close-knit family from each other and from their cultural roots - "not together as an Arab family should be but everyone fending for themselves". Her older sister, Siham, returned to England after the break-up of her own marriage; her brother lives in Denmark with his Danish wife; her widowed father in Amman. But she says of her own internal conflict, the cultivated Englishwoman and the Palestinian intellectual: "I have not resolved it and when I wrote [In Search of Fatima] I couldn't accept I hadn't. Am I this or am I that? Now I see that it's not possible to resolve this question and it may not matter. I am and perhaps always will be someone with dual identity."

What of the "hidden" agenda of her trip - the search for Fatima? "I wanted desperately to link up with her again. I knew she would have died, but I wanted to know how and when. And now I know." She won't say much about this because she will write about it in a sequel to her memoir, but she makes clear that she tracked down at least one of Fatima's grandsons in the West Bank.

"Also, what was very important for me ... her relatives had a photograph of her. In my memory she had nearly faded ... I can't tell you what that experience was like, to catch up with people who could actually tell me in detail about her, her grandson who she brought up and who loved her dearly as I did. But the most agonising part of this was that she died not that long ago. She died when I was in my forties. Had I only known I could have travelled to see her."

Fatima remained - and remains - a presence in her life at once vivid and ghostly, "like Rebecca in [Daphne] Du Maurier's novel". It was, she says, "so very symbolic of the Palestine that is there and not there".

In Search Of Fatima: A Palestinian Story, Verso Books

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