A Country of Words

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(331)

Abdel Bari Atwan, Saqi, £20

This autobiography by the editor of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper begins with his childhood in a refugee camp in Gaza. It is interspersed with details of Israeli military aggression, from the massacres of the 1947-48 Nakba and Kafr Kasim in 1956 to the present settler terror-forces that have shaped his life as they do the lives of all Palestinians.

Some anecdotes from Atwan's childhood are startling, like being pushed into the shark-ridden sea to dive for fish to supplement his family's meagre diet, at a time when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) was spending $4 a year on each refugee. Leaving Gaza in 1967 the 18-year old Atwan had to sign an agreement that he would never return. His family's hope was that he would escape Israeli violence and refugee poverty through higher education. It was not an easy path and his early experiences of factory life, living on rooftops or sharing a bed on a three-shift rota, each man getting precisely seven hours and 57 minutes - are brilliantly evocative of the hand to mouth existence that is still the fate of so many.

Atwan was working for a Middle East-funded newspaper when, after a day of the first intifada on which many Palestinians had been killed, the paper ran a football story as front-page news instead of pictures of Israeli atrocities. This pushed him to set up the newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi which has made him a household name in the Arab-speaking world.

He says he could not go along with an "Arab media [that was] conservative, state-controlled and complacent". Al-Quds has been a brave, much-needed, critical voice and despite its criticisms of them Atwan has been able to obtain interviews with many Arab figures - among them King Abdullah, President Saleh of Yemen, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussain, Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora in 1996, and of course Yasser Arafat.

Atwan proclaims, "I am Palestinian, anti-Zionist and socialist" and that "my own belief in the principles of justice and fair distribution of wealth, while definitely left-wing, are pragmatic". For him, journalism is a weapon of resistance. Some of his comment is reserved for the Western media's pro-Israeli bias. He points out: "When an atrocity was committed against the black people of South Africa we did not witness a rush to provide 'balance' in the form of an Afrikaner carefully explaining his agenda."

This personal story has a wider significance - you cannot read it without acquiring a deeper knowledge of the way the Zionist project has affected a people.