Return: A Palestinian Memoir, Ghada Karmi (Verso, 2015)
Everyone wants to get home: at the end of the day, a place of comfort and security, repose. It’s not the magnitude of the space – a bedsit can be remembered with affection – but the space itself, somewhere you fit in.
For Ghada Karmi home is Palestine, the place she left as an infant in 1948, and she returns there in 2005 to Ramallah in the West Bank, the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA), after half a century spent living in Britain. She secures a job as a consultant for the Media & Communications ministry of the PA, which at that time also administers Gaza although a Hamas government is about to emerge there and challenge Fateh’s long-standing claim to represent Palestinian aspirations to statehood. Hamas is prepared to launch rocket attacks on Israel; Fateh is accused of subservience to the occupying power and its ongoing building of a high concrete wall to divide up the West Bank and screen off Jewish settlements from the Arab areas around them.
Fateh’s energies are caught up in the myriad NGOs that emerged in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, when Palestinian statehood seemed only a matter of time. Israel plays with time, waiting for the generation who fled their homes in 1948 to die out and bury with themselves the right to one day return to their land. After a massacre in the village of Deir Yassin, when Jewish militias killed some 120 inhabitants, Ghada Karmi’s family departed, thinking to return when the situation calmed down. That was fifty-seven years earlier. In Ramalleh in 2005, political priorities have changed and Karmi sees the formation by the PA of an 8,000-strong ‘counter terrorism force’ which brings murderous attacks on Hamas members and the gratitude of Israel.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2015, turning it into a permanent ghetto by controlling points of entry and airspace while concentrating its efforts on colonizing the West Bank. Muslims in other parts of the world dismay Karmi by their turning to religion: ‘For God’s sake’, she exclaims to her father who has left Britain for retirement in Jordan, ‘Israel is on the doorstep. How’s covering your hair and growing a beard going to help?’ His response is a counter question: ‘Islam is all they have left. Would you take that away too?’ The daughter returns to the root of the problem, the expulsion of Palestinians from their land in 1948, and she visits an elderly woman who recalls the Nakba: forced out of her home and village at gunpoint by Jewish fighters, she struggles for survival alongside her neighbours and together they make it to Gaza where there was no fighting. The woman recalls the events but she ‘did not look unhappy telling this story, and I doubted that it connected with her emotions any longer, the blind panic and terror she must have felt at the time. Whatever spontaneity there had once been in the telling of it had long since gone and robbed that terrible experience of its power’. Karmi recollects her own family’s plight in Jerusalem, the urgent taxi ride to the bus station, the trip to Damascus, leaving their home in the full expectation of return. Her father was 43 and her mother 36
Years pass by, Karmi’s family settle in Britain, and muteness takes hold of the past. What cannot be endured must be passed over in silence, memories fade, and her parents never return to Palestine. Ghada grows up and has a child in the 1980s, a time when Israel puts Lebanon under siege and facilitates the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The first Intifada breaks out in Gaza in 1987 and then spreads to the West Bank. The following year, the defeated PLO has to recognise Israel’s existence on four-fifths of Palestinian land.
In 1991, however, Ghada first undertakes the journey to the forbidden land for herself and there are a number of trips thereafter. She cannot disremember the past and a chasm separates her from a liberal Jew in London who advises her to accept that Israel is there to stay. The basic Zionist claim – ‘It’s our homeland too’ – is politely stated but fails to acknowledge that Israel has no intention of sharing anything. Mahmoud Abbas is elected president of the PA in 2005 and to this day continues to engage with the notion of a negotiated, peaceful settlement. Meanwhile, Israel goes about its business and — to speak the unspeakable — behaves in ways that are frank reminders of Nazism.
Repetition and return — expulsion, occupation, and apartheid – leads Karmi to question the value of the Palestinian Authority. It provides cover for Israel by pretending to be a government in its own right but it also functions as an employer for a million people and, however imperfectly, represents some sense of national identity. When elections are held in 2006 for a Palestinian Legislative Council, another legacy of the Oslo Accords back in the 1990s, Hamas does better than Fateh and consequently faces sanctions and a blockade by the US, the EU and Israel.
Return must have been a difficult book for Ghada Karmi to write because she is under no illusions about the prospects of a negotiated solution and her time spent working for the Media & Communications ministry of the PA is marred by local jealousies that leave her with little faith in the present administration. Soberly, she knows that at present there is little alternative:
What my time in Palestine had really shown me was that the two fundamentals I had always lived by were transformed and out of all recognition. There was no national cause any more, and no unified struggle for return. What future we all had lay with those who lived here, in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem under Israeli occupation, at the mercy of their success or failure to rebuild our cause. And if ever we went back, it would be through them and no one else.
It’s a grim conclusion, a mixture of hope and despair, written by someone who has suffered the consequences of Israel’s creation. Her account is thoughtful and insightful and bears dignified testimony to a life lived in the expectation of a return that seems more unlikely now than it did in 1948. But the book’s title does not carry a question mark, the right to return remains an Event waiting to happen: not a literal return for all those who left their homes but return as a metaphor, an idea that will reinvent itself in the face of the antagonism that prevents return. Homecoming is a name for the problem, the impasse, and Ghada Karmi has lived it; Return is an important book.