Return: A Palestinian Memoir

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Author and Palestinian activist Ghada Karmi had vowed never to go back to the Palestine her family were forced to flee in 1948 when she was just six years old. But go back she did, for the first time in 1991, and then in 2005 she took a job in the West Bank as media consultant attached to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

In this touchingly honest memoir Ghada looks back on her life, questioning the role she has played as a Palestinian who feels at home neither in England nor Palestine. She touches on the sometimes fraught relationship with her parents. Their move to London turned the family from the large, warm, close-knit collection of people in Jerusalem into an isolated Western-style nuclear family. The lack of love and security at home affected relationships with siblings and future partners: “The ripples of the disaster of 1948 which hit my parents first was our parents’ unhappy legacy to us.”

When she takes up her job in Palestine, she finds that fitting in there also has its problems. Rivalries see her ostracised by a set of staff in one ministry while in another she becomes reluctantly immersed in organising a media conference, which she sees as grandiose and pointless. She views her workplace as “a pretend place like the rest of the PA’s ‘ministries’, indeed like the Palestinian state they were supposed to be part of.” She is invited to visit her childhood home in Jerusalem, now occupied by the New York Times bureau chief. She thinks he may want to do an article on her exile. He quickly assures her that was not his intention and she feels like a tourist in what was once her home.

This beautifully written book is packed with historical details — her meetings with Arafat and PLO officials — along with personal reflections and anecdotes about everyday life in present day Palestine. Ghada ends up questioning whether return for exiles like her is truly possible. And surprisingly the last line of her book looks to those under Israeli occupation for the answer: “If ever we went back, it would be through them, and no one else.” Which is confusing — the fragmented and brutalised Palestine that Ghada has described so vividly and movingly must have the least prospect of bringing about liberation on its own.

But in the ten years since Ghada worked in Palestine we have seen the Arab Spring strike a massive blow to imperialism in the region and for a while open up the possibility of the blockade falling apart. This process has stalled but not ended. It would be interesting to know where Ghada now places the importance of a working class uprising across the Middle East in winning freedom for Palestine.