In Search of Fatima: A book review


In Search of Fatima is a beautiful memoir written by Ghada Karmi, the eminent doctor, author and academic of Palestinian origin. The book details the birth of her two wholly separate identities as an Arab and an English woman, the journey that she undertakes to first adjust to the new society and its culture and then following her becoming aware of the contradictions and conflicts of her two different identities, her embarking on a new journey in order to attempt a reconciliation between her different identities, in what may be considered a new process of assimilation that she must undergo to readjust to a changing British society.

The book begins with a prologue, written in a third-person perspective, that relates the emotions of a little girl as she is forced to leave everything that was familiar and deeply loved; her house, Fatima, Rex (her dog), neighbourhood, country and land – as the fighting in her neighbourhood stopped briefly. This child is Ghada Karmi herself, her innocent younger self. The narrative subsequently switches back to the past where Karmi describes her family background, her birth and of course, the political climate in Palestine and the rest of the world as the Second World War was raging with full force when she was born. Soon, the narrative moves onto the escalation of hostilities between Jews, Arabs and the British under the British-controlled Mandatory Palestine, which overshadow the lives of the author, her family and their friends. Within the first ten years of her life, the conflict had soured to a point where their Qatamon neighbourhood in Jerusalem had begun to empty as the residents fled the ever-increasing conflict. Major incidents like the King David Hotel and Semiramis Hotel bombings, as well as the Deir Yassin massacre brought the conflict to one of its most extreme points. It was after the latter that Ghada and her family fled to Damascus to her maternal grandparents. Later, her father went to England where he landed a job in BBC’s Arabic service after being rendered unable to return to Jerusalem to his old job or find a new one in Jordan’s Amman. Subsequently, Ghada, her mother, sister and brother joined him after about a year. Thus begins a new life for them; a search for a place, a niche into the fabric of English society where they could at least feel they had a home, even if they did not have a country anymore, or so they thought.

Immigration to England shook the very roots of the Karmi family. The nakbah was a loss that the family was never able to come to terms with, even though they all did what they could to heal the wounds they had all sustained. Her mother tried to reclaim her lost home by attempting to recreate their family life as it had been in Jerusalem. She soon gathered many Arabs around her, which helped her to recreate some of her past life in the cold England. Similarly, her father – who had spent a large chunk of his life in England and knew the most about English people and culture out of the entire family – devoted himself to the Arabic language and its literature, presumably to keep himself connected with his roots in this way. Ghada’s elder sister, Siham, – just like her father – did not immerse herself into the English culture like Ghada did but continue to keep her Arab identity alive and thriving, despite a generally indifferent and sometimes hostile environment (it eventually became more of the latter). On the other hand, Ghada and her brother Ziyad became more immersed into the English culture than the rest of the family, even more so the author as she imbibes their prejudices, especially those regarding foreigners like her, as well as the more positive aspects like literature, music and food. But the trauma of their past had destroyed the very fabric of their family life. Although they sometimes entertained guests (mostly Arabs) at their home and helped to serve food and drink to them and also went on return visits as a family, they, however, became completely detached from each other, with each member of their family leading distinctly separate lives. What made this more difficult were their parents’ expectations that the children would remain in the mold of being Arab and Muslim, despite growing up and being educated in England, without much guidance from their parents.

Karmi’s memoirs illustrate how the political can become the personal. The political events in the backdrop of her life decided the course her life would take, seeing as the Suez crisis of 1956 and the war of 1967 were responsible for demolishing her “personal edifice” (Karmi 2002, p. 293). The former began this process, while the latter constitutes the peak point of this process. Each event forced her to question and reevaluate to what extent she had thought she had assimilated into the British society, who had rejected her for her Arab origins during these events. Each event also constituted a personal u-turn in her life. For instance, the discrimination and hostility she faced at the hands of her schoolmates during the Suez crisis leading her to eventually switch schools, while the 1967 war became a climax point in her already crumbling marriage to John Thornley, after which they divorced a year later. In both events, she felt insulted by the apathy and the refusal of other British people to consider her perspective as an Arab and a Palestinian. Both events also marked her political awakening, which subsequently lead to her taking more interest in Middle Eastern politics than ever before.

The book ends with the following paragraph,

“I closed my eyes in awe and relief. The story had not ended, after all – not for them, at least, the people who still lived there, though they were now herded into reservations a fraction of what had been Palestine. They would remain and multiply and one day return and maybe overtake. Their exile was material and temporary. But mine was a different exile, undefined by space or time, and from where I was, there would be no return.”

(Karmi 2002, p. 451)

But the tone of this concluding paragraph is inconclusive yet positive, especially if you take into consideration Karmi’s lifelong work regarding migrants’ public health and Middle Eastern politics – particularly the Arab-Israel conflict. It is as if the sound of the azaan had helped to rejuvenate and rekindle her spirits, kind of an encouragement to continue with her work and learn where she truly belonged. The last lines indicate that she has decided to form a new identity where she is both Arab and British. They also imply that she has now come to an understanding that she must carry on with her life as a British citizen of Arab origins, continue to be proud of her roots but also her identity as a British national.

Therefore, Karmi’s memoirs chronicle the journey of an entity, as well as other similar entities that travel constantly from one place to another as they search for a place that could give them a sense of belonging somewhere, a place that could replace their lost nation in one way or the other. Everyone who has ever felt out of place or has been discriminated against for being a foreigner, whether implicitly or explicitly, will therefore be able to relate to Karmi’s autobiography. Her memoir is immensely detailed and its depth of human experience makes for an immensely moving and an unforgettable reading experience. This is why anyone who reads In Search of Fatima is unlikely to ever forget it.

Originally published here.


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