This is my review of Return: A Palestinian Memoir by Ghada Karmi.
Forced to leave Jerusalem as a child under the 1948 Nakba or Palestinian Exodus, Ghada Karmi felt the need to experience life in one of the semi-independent areas set up on Palestinian soil under the Oslo Accords of the 1990s. In 2005 she moved to Ramallah in the West Bank to worked as a consultant in media and communications for the Palestinian Authority.
As she might have foreseen, this proved to be a privileged sinecure in a closed bubble of complacent bureaucrats and politicians bent on furthering their status and material interests without rocking the boat, of expatriates caught up in romanticised demonstrations against an Israeli occupation which did not affect them personally, and poorly paid junior staff who kept their heads down for fear of losing their hard-to-obtain jobs.
Despite this, she managed to witness examples of ongoing injustice: camps like those in Gaza, “islands of memory in an erased landscape”, increasingly the sole places where isolation and hardship keep the fight for an independent state alive; Qalqilya, a town on the Green Line between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank, surrounded by a twenty-five foot wall with razor wire and watchtowers ironically reminiscent of a concentration camp, but justified by the need to keep suicide bombers out of Israel and to protect settlers from their Arab neighbours; one of the few farms in Hebron still Palestinian-owned, where the defiant owner agonised over his withered vines, deprived of water by the Israeli authorities which disconnected his piped water supply and blocked his well, as part of the process of connecting the surrounding Israeli settlers.
Ghada Karmi made me realise for the first time how many Palestinians live outside camps, assimilated over time into countries like Jordan and Israel, inevitably resigned to the situation even if it makes them second-class citizens. She portrays the West Bank as a land of self-delusion: there is no sense of solidarity with Gaza, and many bright young people are employed by NGOs, precariously dependent on grants of foreign aid, to produce detailed research reports which remain unused. Likewise, frequent references to the conferences and political initiatives are depressing since we know now they failed to achieve any progress. It all seems like a displacement activity to allow the Israelis to consolidate their displacement of Palestinians. I was also intrigued to learn that middle class West Bank families wish to get their children educated at American universities, undeterred by the irony that it was US support which protected and empowered Israel.
I was interested in the views of Ghada Karmi’s ageing father: when she expresses concern over the apparent increase in traditional Islam as a “retreat into the past” which will “play into the hands of the West”, he counters that it is the West which has armed Israel and left the Arabs “dependent and enslaved” – “Islam is all they have left”. Sadly, this is the closest we get to her sole major omission: an epilogue updating events on the rise of a democratically Hamas and the increase in fundamentalist terrorism in the Middle East.
Although the author comes across at times as a self-absorbed and possibly difficult person, her intellect rises above understandable emotion to provide a revealing and thought-provoking analysis of an ongoing injustice which left me, like her, with a sense of “gut-wrenching despair” which needs to be more widely understood.