Another Palestinian Life

Book review of Ramzy Baroud, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter, Gaza’s Untold Story, London & New York: Pluto Press, 2010

My deeply imprinted spatial awareness of Palestine has always included rural Galilee, centered on my home village, Arrabeh, with such added urban images as the marketplace of Nazareth, Acre or Jerusalem. Beit Daras and Nuseirat refugee camp are now part of my Palestine, thanks to Ramzy Baroud’s account of the life, mostly in exile, of one of Beit Daras’s sons, Mohammad Baroud. Mohammad is just another human being with his share of joyful and sad moments. But he is also a Palestinian refugee with the run-of-the-mill Palestinian refugee’s experience of struggle, hope, sacrifice, loss, misery, disappointment and unfulfilled dreams of return. Except that the image Ramzy draws of his autodidact intellectual and inventive but contrary father is so intimate and so realistically human, with all that the term implies of excesses, shortcomings, and humor, that it is almost touchable on the pages of the book. By the time I finished reading his life story, the typical Palestinian saga, shaped and constantly impinged by violence initiated, maintained and reinforced at every turn of the road by events beyond his control, he is close enough to me for tears to stream down my face and for me to return to the portrait on the first page of the book to plant a kiss on his forehead.

“From afar, Gaza’s reality, like that of all of Palestine, is often presented without cohesion, without proper context; accounts of real life in Gaza are marred with tired assumptions and misrepresentations that deprive the depicted humans of their names, identities and very dignity. But it is not only humans who are casually reduced and misrepresented, but events as well,” Ramzy states in protest on p172 of his book My Father Was a Freedom Fighter. Readers of this book, and those already exposed to the “Palestine Chronicle,” the alternative media organ founded and edited by Ramzy, are privy to his solid, persistent and singular attempt to counter this reality. As Salman Abu Sitta says in his foreword, no one who has been exposed in this manner “has the luxury, or the excuse, to hide behind the saying ‘I did not know.’”

Mohammed was nine years old when he, his four siblings and his parents were expelled from Beit Daras under enemy fire. He served as a ‘professional’ child beggar then as a salesman of knickknacks carried on a tray hanging with a string from his neck, (an image previously reserved in my mind for another legendary Palestinian, the poet Taha Muhammad Ali of Saffuriyya, as a child refugee in Lebanon), as a run-away Qur’an teacher with Bedouin tribe in the Sinai, as an enlisted fighter, as a ‘snake oil’ salesman in Mecca, as a failed falafel-stand entrepreneur, as a special-deal hunter and itinerant trader running goods, often of doubtful quality, between Israel and Gaza, as a door-to-door rug-salesman in Ramallah, and last and possibly most suitable, as a stair-top intellectual, observer and commentator on the life and fate of fellow refugees in the Gaza Strip. To sum that all under the rubric of “freedom fighter,” as Ramzy does, is to understate the man’s real worth; the man was a self-taught and original political activist and an inspiring original thinker.

The account covers three generations of a refugee family: The self-made and adventuresome grandfather, the somewhat eccentric father who, with his beloved wife, Zarefah, is at the center of the story, and Ramzy, the one ‘escaped prisoner’ in the family writing from memory in a foreign land of the tortured life of his family. His four brothers and one sister hover in the background shadow-like, each, I am sure, leading another heroic and struggle-fraught life worthy of its own narration. The book, in relating the story of Mohammed’s trials and tribulations as a refugee and a ‘freedom fighter’ and that of the loving wife and dedicated mother, Zarefah, delves as well into their modest family roots in Beit Daras. At the other end we gain a glimpse of the life of the third generation in the continuum of struggle and sacrifice through the brief mention Ramzy makes of his own independent nuclear family and of his siblings. He recounts many intimate family moments and touches on many embarrassing private incidents with grace and near ascetic detachment. In addition to an acute sense of humor that, somehow, doesn’t detract from his always present sense of filial piety, Ramzy regularly spices his narrative with casual comments that set the context for the humanitarian calamity that was and continues to be the daily life experience of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip. To wit:

“Zarefah was a vibrant and lovely girl on the threshold of womanhood. But in Gaza at the time, such age classifications were of little relevance. Children didn’t enjoy a “childhood” with all its leisure and bliss, nor did teenagers take pleasure in the period of pleasure and interaction that accompanies coming of age. A parent’s mission in life was to protect their children from the imminent indignities and humiliations of life in the refugee camps, and a child’s mission in life was to grow up as quickly as possible.” (p 60)
“Gaza’s, and Mohammed’s isolation was complete: Mohammad’s sons could no longer send him money, as the boycott extended to reach all financial institutions as well. Desperate, he sold his house, the last tangible connection he had to his beloved Zarefah. That beautiful and battered place that had stood the test of time and bullets was sold for scarce medicine, smuggled through Gaza’s tunnels, on which Mohammad depended to breath. Mohammad couldn’t have imagined the day that he would have to bring Zarefah’s photo from its rusty nail on the living-room wall. … As the Hamas government battled to maintain control and order, the US insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself; as the Arabs stayed silent, as the world watched, as Gazans fell in droves, Mohammad filled few boxes with his remaining possessions and left.” (p187)

Surprisingly, Ramzy is able to deal sanguinely with such painful and intimate topics as his father’s many demeaning and painful moments, whether as a child beggar, as a helpless old asthmatic lacking oxygen and medications, or as a debilitated lonely old man dying away from his children. And he manages to interpret and impart a convincing sense of the simple and distant life of peasants living blissfully on their land before the 1948 Nakba, occasionally reverting to creative imagination as in guessing at how his grandfather must have felt at specific moments.

This three-generational genealogy could stand on its own as a shocking tale of woe and wonder to any Gazan, Palestinian or Arab reader, perhaps even to some Israelis. But to the average Western reader, unfamiliar with and disinterested in the historical account of recent events in Palestine beyond the glossy Zionist spin of Israeli heroism, a blow-by-blow retelling of such history as witnessed and lived by Gazans, and especially by Mohammad and his family, is a must. Ramzy provides the needed “untold story” of Gaza with abundant documentation, ample referencing and frequent quotations. The magic account wrought by Ramzy interweaves the intimate details of the touching family saga with the general historical and political developments of which the saga is an integral part.

His ability to merge seamlessly the personal family narrative with the political historiography of Gaza seems to fall short only once: In November 1977 we leave our antagonist in the lap of abject poverty, “loosing every fiber of patience that allowed him to survive through the most difficult of years” (p. 117), and so angry and frustrated with Anwar Sadat’s politics and the Camp David Agreement that he turns abusive of his own wife who leaves him and returns to her mother. Some eight years later (p. 125) we meet him again having accumulated some wealth and with his six children all studious students, the oldest studying medicine in Aleppo. The gap is immediately smoothed over in the subsequent text. Still, the first impression of incredulity was hard to erase from this reader’s mind. And, if shortcomings are to be listed, as a member of the once-maligned community of Palestinian citizens of Israel, with particular sensitivity to being forgotten, I find the writer occasionally slipping into the recently accepted international paradigm of post-Oslo discourse that equates Palestinians with residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Page 158 contains such a slip.

My abundant tears of sadness at the end did not blunt a certain celebratory sense of accomplishment and even victory, not only because Ramzy has written such a wondrous account of his father’s life but also because Mohammad and Zarefah had begotten and inspired such a capable narrator of ‘Gaza’s untold story’ together with five other siblings, each a living testimony to our viability despite all the injustices of the world.

Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh completed his medical and public health degrees at Harvard in 1969. He then returned to Galilee where, in 1973, he became the Public Health Doctor of the sub-district of Acre. He is the founder of two non-governmental organizations, the Galilee Society (The Arab National Society for Health Research and Services) and Ittijah (The Union of Arab Community-based Organizations).