In Search of Identity

Other memoirs attempt to tie up loose ends, to make sense of a life lived up until that point. Cautionary tales of sorts, these books claim we can gain the author’s wisdom and insight without having to endure the suffering he/she went through. But such memoirs invariably fail; retrospection is, unfortunately, not a substitute for reality.

As a memoir, In Search of Fatima stands on its own. It begins and ends in Palestine, but the author does not concern herself with trying to bring the past and future full circle. We are instead shown the fragments of displacement, a childhood lost and a mature self never fully realised: ‘The tortured love affair that waited inescapably for me, as for all Palestinians, was the one with Palestine. And, for good or ill, it would last a lifetime.’

Ghada Karmi and her family left Jerusalem for London in the violent contest of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that saw the establishment of the state of Israel. They eventually settled in Golders Green, a predominantly Jewish section of London, and there lived out the decades’ major events: the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War, and the rise in prominence of the PLO. As a child, Ghada is torn between familial duty and the life she has fashioned for herself in England: ‘[My parents] expected me to behave indistinguishably from any other Arab daughter, as if I had arrived but yesterday from the Arab world. The corollary of that view was of course that they had no sympathy with a position of dissent. Had I been able to reveal my true feelings about England, I would have been judged disloyal to my heritage, misguided, or even mentally unstable.’

As a young adult, Ghada comes to think of herself as a ‘dark-skinned English girl.’ She attends a British university and marries an Englishman, but finds she does not fall within the strict confines of English society. She attempts to fashion an Arab identity for herself by establishing Palestine Action in the 1970s and moving to the Middle East to practice medicine, but in the end is forced to acknowledge that ‘I was truly displaced, dislocated in both mind and body, straddling two cultures and unable to belong in either.’ She likens her existence to one lived in exile, ‘and from where I was, there would be no return.’

Ghada is a wholly convincing narrator. She successfully marries the political and personal aspects of a life lived between two cultures and writes in a clear, easy manner – by the end of the book, you feel as though you know her. Her childhood reminiscences are related with heartbreaking clarity, and her mature observations reveal exceptional insight and understanding.

The only time the book falters is toward the end. The last chapters do not have the vivid descriptions of the earlier ones – they seem somehow rushed. Ghada’s work with Palestine Action is more or less summarised, and her medical practice with refugees in the Arab world is barely touched upon. Nonetheless, In Search of Fatima is an exceptional memoir, rich in detail and human experience.

In his Reflections on War, Evil, and the End of History, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy addresses the conflict ‘between the developed, historic world and the peripheral lands we have condemned to slowly edge their way out of the present day.’ Ghada Karmi manages to span the divide between these two worlds, to salvage the remnants of a history that was, until very recently, largely forgotten. In Search of Fatima succeeds because it rescues Palestine from the periphery and returns it to human consciousness.

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