Representations: Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Biographies: Writing in Another Language: Palestinians Writing in English

in Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures Online
Jean Said Makdisi
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The central issue of contemporary Arab history is undoubtedly the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948. The Western world's singular absence of sympathy for the Palestinians, its continuous denial of Arab historical claims to the cities, villages, and the lands of Palestine, and especially of Jerusalem as central to the very soul of Arab – and Muslim – culture, not only angers and wounds Palestinians: it is in itself crucial to the understanding of the Palestine question and its complex ramifications in our world today. It is also crucial to the understanding of everything written by Palestinians since the nakba.

Since well before 1948, politicians, diplomats, historians, and polemicists seem to have been in control of defining the Palestine question, and speaking in its name. Autobiographies and memoirs, however, place individuals in their rightful place at the heart of the Palestinian experience. For many of the women who wrote such texts, explaining, defending, or otherwise describing the Palestine experience is a major – and sometimes sole – reason for writing. These women clearly felt, though they may not all have recognized this consciously, the need to say something, at any rate, that the national narrative and debate, endlessly rehearsed but dominated entirely by men, had left unsaid. The memories obsessively preserved in these books and papers have an urgent importance as part of the public record that historians and politicians, somehow missing the point of history and politics, had fatally ignored. Left out of the public account of the story, these women have imposed themselves on it by writing what they know best: their own lives and experiences.

There is something almost messianic in some of this writing, a deep faith that somehow these custodians of the national memory, collecting its apparently unimportant components, are saving the whole from oblivion. In my own Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir, I wrote of my last visit to Jerusalem with my father before the June 1967 war, and only a few years before he died. He had not been to Jerusalem since its division in 1948, and standing on the roof of a tall building, he pointed out to me the places of his childhood. I thought this experience cathartic for him, but in passing his memories on to me, he passed also the burden of memory, central to the Palestinian experience (1999, 102).

A significant number of Palestinian autobiographies and memoirs, whether by men or women, were written in English, the language of the British who initiated and first presided over the Palestinian catastrophe, and of the Americans, who have since been the principle supporters of Israel, and of course the lingua franca of our time. These Palestinians write English principally for the West, but also for the wider world, imposing the Arab/Palestinian version of their story on the global stage, with full awareness of its audience's hostility or ignorance. Some of these memoirs are written with a sophisticated literary consciousness, while the language of others is merely functional; both express, sometimes implicitly, a severe censure of the English-speaking world, which in their view has betrayed its own values in its dealings with Palestine. By the very nature of the Palestinian experience these works were all written in the bitterness either of exile or occupation. Writing in English, then, is not merely a function of the empire writing back, but of a serious accusation that the world is not paying attention to what it should, and by this very failure is fuelling an apparently never-ending conflict.

Those who know English well learned it in the foreign imperial or mission schools that taught in English, often to the disadvantage of Arabic. This is a principal subject of my triple biography/memoir Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women (2006), in which among other things I trace the educational history of the women in my family, their knowledge of and attachment to English and Arabic respectively, and the various and contested associations of each of these languages with modernity, power, science, and even fashion and manners.

The degree of political acumen in these books varies from individual to individual, and from generation to generation. Serene Husseini Shahid, Hala Sakakini, and Augustine Jouzy were born in the early decades of the twentieth century, and their political discourse is simpler and far less theorized than later books. The least overtly political of all, My Life (1992), by Augustine Jouzy, a thoroughly domesticated grandmother, was privately printed and addressed to the author's family. Yet her dedication can only be read as a defiantly direct political statement: “This book has been written to my grandchildren by their grandmother, showing them the country of Palestine, as they lived away from Palestine to give them a clear picture of that dear country called the Holy Land [sic]” (Jouzy 1992, 5). And then she adds: “So all the children who were born outside in another country would enjoy to learn about a nation who lived in this country with joy had to be uprooted as a nation.” But, reluctant to lay unfeminine claim to objective knowledge, she adds a modest disclaimer, attributing all true historical knowledge – “the facts” – to male historians, whose work she lists, and to whom she concedes the official, public memory.

Although this homely little book of memoirs is decidedly unliterary in its English expression, it may not be as naïve as it pretends. At the end of the book, Jouzy provides short, superficially researched historical sketches of the cities of Palestine, or the Holy Land, as recognized by Christians around the world, including Jerusalem, “my beloved city.” Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, Christmas, and Epiphany celebrations in Palestine are listed and described one by one: Augustine Jouzy is placing on record, both as a Palestinian and as a pious Christian, her claim to the Holy Land and its memory.

My mother, Hilda Musa Said, who was born in 1914, wrote an unpublished memoir at my request that formed the basis for the sections of Teta, Mother and Me that deal with her early years and her mother's adult life. The first words in her memoir are: “This is the first time I write about myself, and quite late too – I am almost 66 years old, and will probably miss a lot, and write too much on some things … I should really write in Arabic, I think in Arabic, and it is my first language.” Instead, she continues, because many of her children and grandchildren were then living abroad, she decided to write in English. Most of her memories are apolitical, and concentrate on domestic details involving her father, a Baptist minister, and her mother, the minister's devoted wife. Loving memories of joining her father in the exploration of the Galillean countryside, with its echoes of the life, times, and words of Jesus, naturally play a large role in her memoir. Her political awareness comes later. As she writes about her childhood and schooling first in Nazareth, later in Beirut, and then her courtship, engagement, and marriage to my father, whose family was firmly Jerusalemite, she alternates between the claim that she, and others of her class and generation among Palestinian Arabs, were both aware and unaware of the Zionist plans for Palestine. On the one hand, she ponders with guilty hindsight how some members of the middle class, including herself, patronized the fashionable European Jewish shops in Haifa, not recognizing the part they were playing in the demise of their own country. Yet on the other she proudly notes that, even as a schoolgirl, she was politically aware. In my book I tried to find an explanation for this ambivalent view of her political awareness in the growing Arab urban consumer class, who simultaneously formed the intelligentsia.

While my mother's English was impeccable, Augustine Jouzy chose to write in rather poor English when she could as well – or better – have written in Arabic. When Serene Husseini Shahid, then in her late seventies, approached me with the little anecdotes of her childhood that became Jerusalem Memories (1999), and that she wished from the beginning to see published, I asked her why she had chosen to write in English rather than Arabic. She said “I want them to know about us” – them being the hostile outside world, and us being those who have been dispossessed of land and property, of their place in history and culture, and whose public memory has consistently been denied. For Serene Husseini Shahid, writing in English was almost the whole point of writing at all: she had a searing need to put it on record that when she was born in 1920 there existed in Jerusalem a vibrant Arab society with an ancient and rich history and culture that have since not only been expunged but also denied as a historical reality.

Shahid's book is a collection of small, intimate memories of people, places, and incidents mostly from her childhood in pre-nakba Palestine. They record the impressions and experiences, so left out of standard histories, of a young Muslim girl. When she writes of the first time she saw a red gelatin dessert and was morbidly fascinated by its tremor, or when she writes about how as a child she used to eat mouthfuls of earth (this puzzling habit was later diagnosed as a lack of calcium) and when caught doing so was roundly scolded and forbidden to repeat the offence so that she took to hiding her illicit supply under her hat, these are not merely charming memories of a long ago childhood: they are of a very specifically Husseini childhood in a very specifically Arab Jerusalem.

In her book Jerusalem and I (1990), Hala Sakakini is clearly fulfilling a similar mission: to lay claim to her place in Arab Palestine, so that English-speaking people can understand it. The first words in her book are:

Jerusalem is my hometown. Both my parents were born in that great city, so were my grandparents on both sides, and so were seven of my great grandparents. … Although I myself spent only the first twenty-four years of my life as a resident of Jerusalem, I rightly feel bound to that great city by centuries of family history. Wherever I may live I will always remain a Jerusalemite.

She introduces each of her parents: “My father, Khalil Sakakini, was born on January 23, 1878, of Arab parents. My mother, Sultanah Abdo, was born on December 19, 1888, also of Arab parents,” but interestingly does not mention their Christian identity, which she clearly sees as firmly enclosed within, and entirely consistent with, the Arab parentage.

In providing concrete details of Jerusalem life, it is as though she is almost desperately scrutinizing her memory to recreate a picture she is straining to remember. “[Father's] hair, she writes, for example, “was always cut short and the back of his neck, like his face, was clean-shaven” (1992, 12). The only function of such details of Jerusalem life lovingly reconstructed is to contest Israeli claims of proprietorship not only of the present but also of the past of Palestine. Recording these memories, therefore, is a political act of resistance for Hala Sakakini, as it is for the other Palestinian women writers under discussion. Recording and writing in English makes it doubly so.

Salma Khadra Jayyusi belongs to the same generation, but quite unlike them is a well-known intellectual, prolific writer, and collector and editor of major anthologies of Arabic writing translated into English. In her short memoir, “On the Elusive Chords of Memory: Remembering ʿAkka” (2002), published in a collection of Arab writing on childhood, she chooses to recount moments clearly meant to create a political as well as a personal narrative. In representing herself as a stubborn, fearless, almost heroic, child, she seems self-consciously to present these memories as symbolic of the Palestinian struggle, with its long history of fearless confrontation and stubborn resistance.

Ghada Karmi, born in 1940, opens her autobiography, In Search of Fatima (2002), with the moment of departure from Jerusalem into exile. After describing life in pre-nakba Jerusalem, her story shifts to the United Kingdom to which her family moved. Her account of her late childhood and early adult years centers on her place as a female in exile, and demonstrates how the world feminist movement, intervening between the generations, changed the perceptions of Palestinian women autobiographers. Though the Palestine question looms over the entire book, the experience of a young woman growing up in a conservative Muslim Arab diaspora household is viewed by Ghada Karmi not as a series of fond nostalgic memories embracing parents and siblings, but from a clearly feminist perspective. As her book progresses, we are drawn into the heart and mind of a rebellious young woman.

By her own account Ghada Karmi is transformed in exile from a thoroughly Palestinian little girl to a Bristol University medical student whose cultural identity is now almost entirely English. She impatiently rejects her parents' world of refugeehood, embracing instead the more open world of assimilation and integration. The catastrophic June 1967 war, however, shocks Ghada into reclaiming her Palestinian identity, especially as she confronts the general ignorance of and hostility toward Palestine in British society. She gradually discovers that political action is absolutely required as much for personal redemption as for national. Eventually, she travels to Beirut, where she meets Yasser Arafat and links up with the Palestinian resistance.

In 1991, she returns to visit her family home in Jerusalem, and describes the inevitably chilly exchange with the present Jewish inhabitants. Later, she feels a deep despair. “My limbs were leaden, my mind a blank. Inside me was a numbing emptiness” (2002, 445). But then she hears the sound of the athān from the ḥaram al-sharīf, and feels a certain relief: “I closed my eyes in awe and relief. The story had not ended, after all … They [the Palestinians] would remain and multiply and one day return and maybe overtake. Their exile was material and temporary.” “But mine,” she concludes, “was a different exile, undefined by space or time, and from where I was, there would be no return” (2002, 445).

If 1948 is the theme of early Palestinian autobiography, more recent Israeli actions create their own writing. As the title immediately suggests, Suad Amiry's book, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries (2005), about the Israeli reinvasion of the West Bank in 2001/2, contains a large degree of black humor. This is not meant to lessen the horrors of the invasion, but rather to control their deeply pessimistic nature and make them bearable.

Her account of helping her 91-year-old mother-in-law prepare to leave her home in Ramallah is representative of her style. Um Salim lives in a dangerous area; Israeli tanks are closing in, and the curfew is about to end:

“Shall I bring my purple dress?” she enquired. “Fine, yes, purple is nice. But where is it?” … “Do you think yellow goes with purple?” “Yes, yellow is very nice with purple; all colours are nice with purple.” “But I cannot find my yellow blouse.” “Never mind, get any colour of blouse,” I said losing my patience. … “Shall I take winter or summer clothes? You know I put all away all my summer clothes.” “OK, then get winter clothes.” “But it may get warm soon, it is already mid-April.” … “Get your money and jewellery out.” “Right … where did I put it? Yes, there.” She opened the other cupboard. “Here I think.” She looked through piles of things and through many pockets. “Never mind, just leave it. We'll come back soon and get it.” “That's what we said in 1948 when we left our house in Jaffa. It was May then.” Oh God. … her words left me speechless. I stood still and cried. … “ … Shall I take some of my oil paintings with me?” “No,” I replied firmly even though I love her paintings. “Shall we take the lemons?” “No.” “Shall we take the Nido (milk powder)?” “No.” “Shall we water the plants?” “No” (Amiry 2005, 136–38).

However humorous, this passage is a direct account of the archetypal Palestinian experience: being forced to leave one's home under Israeli threat. When she reminds her impatient daughter-in-law of the moment's similarity to her departure from Jaffa in 1948, Um Salim – and through her Suad – is quite consciously drawing our attention to the gravity of the crime, and its repetition.

Few of the stories in this book – including the autobiographical sketches that form its first part – tell us much about Suad the woman, or her clearly feminist outlook: it is Suad the Palestinian that is represented at all times. All personal details – even her early choices of career, her courtship, engagement, and marriage – are presented in terms of the Palestinian experience with papers, permits, barricades, and the various forms of confrontations with the military authorities that regularly ravage the lives of Palestinians under occupation.

Though there is the odd humorous moment in Islah Jad's far lengthier “Letters from Ramallah, 2002,” an edited, shortened version of which appeared in the Beiruti Bahithat, her account of the same events reflects more directly the emotions and personality of the writer. Because of the nature of the epistolary form, the writing is more frantic, more directly expressive of the harrowing experiences, but also more chronologically ordered. The letters recount details of events that occurred in the hours preceding the writing, so the freshness of the memory provides a dramatic immediacy.

Almost without exception, the women's war memoirs center on the quotidian, and often on domestic life. When I was writing Beirut Fragments, I felt a conscious need to describe the travails of daily life along with the more obvious horrors to offset any possibility of romanticizing war: this, I wanted to say, is what war is about, not the abstract and intellectual analysis, nor the glory of male heroism. In this way, the writers at hand are not just recording the event: they are asking the reader to imagine and share it, implicating him or her in the dreadful experience, and thus humanizing and universalizing it.

All of these memoirs stand in sharp contrast to the aggressively doctrinaire tone of Leila Khaled's ghostwritten, or edited, My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary (1973). Leila Khaled of course became famous for her role in the hijacking of TWA flight 840 from Rome to Damascus in August 1969, and then the hijacking of an El Al flight from Amsterdam, which ended in failure and her arrest in London. Unlike all the other writers under discussion she is not troubled by ladylike modesty or decorum. She writes, for instance, of her “personal battle to free the Palestine people,” (1973, 158) and describes various confrontations to demonstrate her single-minded resistance to authority. She is deliberately provocative, describing, for example, the revered American University of Beirut as “a provincial school that only excelled in producing CIA spies and ministers” (1973, 59).

How much this kind of writing is directly attributable to Leila Khaled and how much to her editor, George Hajjar (who owns the copyright to the book), is not at all clear. The book tells us very little about the inner Leila Khaled, and much of it is devoted to the lengthy narration and radical interpretation of Arab and third-world politics: the names of Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Gamal Abdel Nasser and others are often invoked, making it a document of a revolutionary era, and strangely nostalgic for contemporary readers. A personal, authentic feminist theme, however, is often proposed, and is rather welcome within its heavily theoretical context. She writes several times about “the problem of being a woman,” and at one point insists that “every Arab woman [is] going to be my kind of woman in the near future” (1972, 76).

Her awareness of herself as differentiated equally from the male activists and soldiers with whom she tries to achieve equality as from the more conventionally inclined females of her acquaintance – for whom she has little respect – is often revealed in the text. There is little nostalgia in this book for lost homes, families, and little sentimentality about her own family or domestic life. Her resolve is to fight a man's fight, a soldier's fight, and to declare without the slightest self-doubt her own role in the Palestine struggle. In this, her autobiography is more like a man's than a woman's.

Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi's autobiography, This Side of Peace: A Personal Account (1995), is so totally different in tone and substance from Leila Khaled's that one can almost trace the history of post-nakba Palestinian politics – and official policy – in the contrast. While Leila Khaled proudly flaunts, almost as an exoticism, her militancy, Ashrawi employs a subtler, more accommodating tone, suitable for the chief spokesman for the Palestinian team that negotiated the 1993 deals with the Israelis.

Ashrawi's language – she holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and taught literature at Bir Zeit University, eventually becoming Dean – is sophisticated and her rhetoric gracefully subtle; her elegant style, reflecting her study of literature, is a far cry from the strident tone of Leila Khaled's. We read, for instance, a deeply moving and sad account of the death of her father: having lapsed into dementia, he leaves his house one night as a terrible storm rages outside, and his body is found several days later, “on a heath,” one is tempted to write. The drama must have made her think, as it certainly does the reader, of King Lear, though she does not mention him. And surely there is a touch of John Donne in this passage on deportations: “When my brother-in-law, the president of my university, the bishop of my church, my friends and faculty colleagues, and even total strangers were deported, I took upon myself their absence, and every Palestinian felt the diminution of his or her own inheritance” (Ashrawi 1995, 225).

In these passages, emotion is repressed into literary formulaic expression. At other times, when she repeatedly expresses her love, respect, and affection for her husband, parents, and daughters, for instance, her style is less subtly formulaic. Ashrawi is a woman who is playing a man's role in politics but, unlike Khaled, still wishes to appear conventionally female, a loving wife, daughter, mother. In the end, however, there is a great similarity between the two books. Ashrawi's is about the peace negotiations, just as Khaled's is about the hijackings. Every detail of style and substance recounted in each of the two books is really a stepping-stone toward making the strategic argument in which each believes. In that sense, both books are surprisingly masculine in nature.

Perhaps because she was dying as she remembered, Salwa Salem's voice strikes an intermediate tone between Khaled and Ashrawi: her political perceptions are based in her experience as a member of the Arab Socialist Ba‘th Party, but are subordinated to the personal and private travails of exile. Though The Wind in My Hair (2007) was dictated by Salwa Salem on her deathbed to Laura Maritano in Italian, it was published in English translation only.

All the Palestinian writers of the younger generation are clearly feminist in outlook, but their feminism is subordinated to their need to participate in the national struggle. Indeed, the most transparently feminist are those who most deliberately subordinate the feminist to the nationalist. The urgent question is whether they can eventually accommodate both.


  • S. Amiry, Sharon and my mother-in-law. Ramallah diaries, London 2005.
  • H. Ashrawi, This side of peace. A personal account, New York 1995.
  • I. Jad, Letters from Ramallah, 2002, in Bahithat (Journal of the Lebanese Association of Women Researchers) 11 (2005–06), Hafriyat wa-tahariyat. Hayawat nisaʾa ʿArabiyat, Out of the shadows. Investigating the lives of Arab women.
  • S. K. Jayussi, On the elusive chords of memory. Remembering ʿAkka, in E. W. Fernea (ed.), Remembering childhood in the Middle East. Memoirs from a century of change, Austin, Tex. 2002.
  • A. Jouzy, My life, Beirut 1992.
  • G. Karmi, In search of Fatima. A Palestinian story, London 2002.
  • L. Khaled, My people shall live. The autobiography of a revoltuionary, ed. G. Hajjar, London 1973.
  • J. S. Makdisi, Beirut fragments. A war memoir, New York 1990, rev. ed. 1999, 102.
  • ———, Teta, mother and me. An Arab woman's memoir, London 2005; published as Teta, mother and me. Three generations of Arab women, New York 2006.
  • H. Sakakini, Jerusalem and I. A personal record, Amman 1990, 1.
  • S. Salem, The wind in my hair, Northhampton, Mass. 2007.
  • S. H. Shahid, Jerusalem memories, Beirut 1999.
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