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Ghada Karmi, 'In search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story'

Verso, 2002. ISBN 1 85984 694 7; 451pp

During the 1948 war that resulted in the establishment of the state of Israel, some 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes and became refugees. Following the 1967 war in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip many more Palestinians were displaced. There are now somewhere between four and six million - two thirds of the Palestinian people - living outside the borders of historic Palestine.

In many ways I think of my friend Hassan as a typical Palestinian refugee. His family is from what is now northern Israel. He was born in Lebanon, and fled from there when his life was threatened, after his work as a journalist had upset powerful figures in the corrupt world of Lebanese-Palestinian politics. Now he works night shifts as a security guard to support his family. He is someone who has suffered much in life and needs to summon up great reserves of courage and fortitude in order to maintain a degree of hope for the future.

I would never have thought of Ghada Karmi as a refugee. I have heard her a number of times in the media, I was even part of a round table discussion that she once convened at a London-based think-tank. To my prejudiced eye she appeared as a stereotypical member of the London intellectual left - highly assured, very articulate with an incredibly posh voice, well-connected. Now she has written her story, an account of her life since her family was forced to flee their home in Jerusalem during the 1948 war.

It is a very honest narrative in which she describes the relatively privileged life the family led in Palestine before fleeing to Damascus and eventually to London. There her father found work with the BBC, whilst her mother attempted to recreate an Arab family environment in their north London home. Ghada adapted easily to life in London, and her account of what it was like to be a young teenager in Britain in the 1950s - nothing could ever be so boring as a British Sunday in the 1950s - would resonate with anyone of her generation. She worked hard at school, went to university to study medicine, got married, and then divorced in 1968. It would seem that it was this personal crisis, which in part she attributes to the anguish caused by the 1967 war, that brought to a head the tension between the two identities that she had attempted to reconcile - being an Arab and being English. One way she sought to deal with her loss of direction was by political action - she set up an organisation to lobby and campaign on behalf of the Palestinian cause. In the late 1970s she tried living in Jordan, but felt as out of place there as she did in London. The volume ends with an account of a trip made to Israel in the early 1990s, including a visit to the old family home.

The Fatima of the title was a Palestinian peasant woman who had been the family maid in Jerusalem. As a peasant from a village, Fatima's life was alien to the young middle class girl. In similar vein, the material desperation of so many Palestinian refugees is far removed from the life the author has led in England. Her exile has not been defined so much by material circumstances - but it has still been one of deep and lasting loss.