My favorite book by a Palestinian writer happens to be one of my favorite memoirs: IN SEARCH OF FATIMA by Ghada Karmi.
I first heard Karmi in a BBC radio interview, part of the series “Living in an Alien culture.” In her interview, she relates her lifelong quest for cultural identity–first as an Arab schoolgirl in London trying to assimilate, later as the wife of an Englishman, and finally as a Arab-English woman who returns to the Arab World as a physician and activist. I was riveted to Karmi’s story and to her beautifully written book.
Her memoir spans fifty years of Karmi’s life, from the 1940s through the 1990s. The story begins in Jerusalem where her family is driven from their home soon after the nakba (catastrophe) in 1948. Karmi, her two older siblings and her parents end up in London, where Karmi’s father takes a job with the BBC Arabic Service and where her mother lives as a tragically displaced refugee. Much of the book takes place in London, where the family longs for home and each family member copes in a different way.
Karmi copes by taking on an English identity, so much that she marries an Englishman whom she meets in medical school. However, soon the Six Day War of 1967 shocks the Arab World and creates great turmoil in Karmi’s life. Feeling alienated by the pro-Israel sentiment around her, she suffers an identity crisis which results in the end of her marriage.
Karmi’s story culminates in her return to Jerusalem in 1998, when at last she seeks to find her childhood home that she was forced to leave in 1948. This was the part of the book where I found myself glued to the page, staying up late in the night to see what would happen.
Those familiar with Palestinian history know that this is a common narrative: Palestinians driven into exile, attempts to resist, and a return to see (and mourn over) the family home. What’s different here is that the story is told by a woman, one from a well-to-do educated family. Also, Karmi uses exquisite detail to describe their unique privileged life in Jerusalem and their exile to London.
By weaving together Palestinian history with her personal family story, Karmi presents a Palestinian perspective that rarely reaches the mainstream. This memoir was published in 2002, but is as relevant as ever. I recommend it to anyone interested in memoir, cultural identity or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Ghada Karmi is also the author of the book MARRIED TO ANOTHER MAN.