By Sally Bland
My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. Ramzy Baroud. London-New York: Pluto Press, 2010. Pp. 210.
In this book, widely respected journalist Ramzy Baroud successfully combines the intimate tone of memoir with the broad dimensions of history. Even those with extensive knowledge of Palestine’s modern history will be fascinated by Baroud’s account of his father’s life as he interweaves the personal with the tumultuous events which swept the country in the 20th century, and right up to today.
Through a cast of real characters, mainly members of the Baroud family, events are reenacted as vividly as in any novel – life in pre-48 Palestine, the 1948 exodus, the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars and their aftermath, life in Gaza’s refugee camps, the first and second intifadas, the Oslo period, the Fateh-Hamas conflict and the deadly siege on Gaza (which hastened Mohammed Baroud’s death). Particularly interesting is how the author traces the spread of various trends and their impact on Gaza’s population, from the early days of the Islamist movement to Nasserism’s rise and fall, the role of the Palestinian communists, resistance organisations, and the Palestinian National Front.
The author seems to have no particular political or ideological axe to grind, except for commitment to his people’s cause and consistent opposition to the Zionist occupation and those who aid and abet it. He tells Palestine’s story from the viewpoint of the average Palestinian, which is not to say that his account is simplistic. After all, average Palestinians are rather politically savvy by virtue of how politics was thrust into their lives, and Baroud’s father was a prime example of this. To everyday life experience, and the oral history interviews he conducted with Gaza camp dwellers, the author adds in-depth historical research and insight into current events.
Besides his own expertise and engaging writing style, what helped Baroud in his endeavour was his father’s character, for Mohammed Baroud was both an “average Palestinian” and an exceptional person – energetic, resourceful, quirky and full of integrity. The less favoured son in his family, he received virtually no formal education, but learned to read on his own and went on to become a self-taught intellectual, an independent leftist, community organiser and freedom fighter. In addition, the pressing need to provide for his family tested his ingenuity, and he tried his hand in various jobs in Gaza, Israel and a number of Arab countries, each time augmenting his life experience.
It all started in Beit Daras, a small village near Isdud in what was then Gaza Province. Beit Daras people fought in the 1936 rebellion and again in 1948, but their village was ultimately subjected to ethnic cleansing and destruction, with the survivors forced to take refuge in Hebron or, like the Baroud family, the camps in what became the Gaza Strip. The Zionists’ strategy, as outlined in Plan Dalet, “pushed Beit Daras into the heart of the hostilities,” because it was situated at the juncture between the two main areas charted by the UN Partition Plan, to become a Palestinian state. (p. 31)
Gamal Abdel Nasser, then an Egyptian army commander, fought to defend Beit Daras and later narrated its fall. This was one motivating factor in Mohammed Baroud’s decision over a decade later to join the Egyptian army, in order to fight for return, but instead he was forced to retreat back to Nuseirat Camp in the 1967 defeat, only later to join the Palestine Liberation Army. Beit Daras remains a presence throughout the book, as Mohammed always aimed to return home. In addition, Beit Daras was the origin of the four labourers killed in the Gaza Strip in December 1987 – an event that unleashed the first Intifada.
The most compelling part of the book is Mohammed’s courtship of Zarefeh and his struggle to accumulate enough money to convince her mother to consent to their marriage. Theirs was a great love story but also one of hardship as they struggled to raise and educate six children, the author being one of them. Interestingly, the author was originally named George because Mohammed Baroud admired PFLP founder George Habash, and also wanted to show that Palestinians could not be divided by religion.
As the author says: “It is rather strange that, despite the rapid changes that were shaping the present and the future of the Middle East region around Gaza, as well as Gaza itself, the lives of Mohammed, Zarefah and so many like them, remained unchanged: they were and remained, at all times, politically marginalised and economically devastated. Even stranger, they subsisted, fought back and, somehow, dared to hope… But again, resistance was a culture, and Gaza fought back simply because that’s what the Gaza culture historically dictated.” (p. 88)
“My Father Was a Freedom Fighter” will soon be available at Al Bustan Bookstore, in Jordan.
(This review was originally published in the Jordan Times on March 1, 2010)