By Roger Sheety
‘Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.’ —Cicero
‘The Nakba is not a narrative. It is not a political attitude. It’s a historical fact.’ —Haneen Zoabi
(A Review of Ramzy Baroud’s My Father Was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. London: Pluto Press. 2010)
Chronicling and documenting one’s own history is never a passive act or an exercise in mere nostalgia. This is especially true when writing on Palestinian history which even today remains one of the least known and most misunderstood in mainstream Western consciousness. In his third book, My Father Was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story, author and journalist Ramzy Baroud works on at least three different levels simultaneously: his is writing his own early history as a refugee in Gaza, that of his parents and grandparents, who originally hailed from the village of Beit Daras, and Palestinian history all within what is commonly referred to as the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Insightful, remarkably even-handed in tone and tautly written (hardly a word is wasted), Baroud covers some eighty years of Palestinian and Arab history from the period of the British occupation of Palestine in the early 1920s, through to the Zionist colonization, conquest and eventual destruction of the country—al Nakba—in 1948 and finally to the beginnings of the siege on the Gaza Strip in 2006, all within 200 pages.
As with any true people’s history, Baroud brings his book to life with vivid details which, in this case, are often found in the lived, authentic struggles against colonial oppression and dispossession. However, these personal struggles are placed fully within their historical context as the author, in a technique consciously used throughout the book, contrasts the external, public decisions made by careless, ignorant and outright brutal imperial powers directly with the private responses and reactions of the indigenous Palestinian civilian population.
One of the starkest examples of this opposition comes early in the book with enactment of Plan Dalet, the Zionist master plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine led by Polish native David Ben-Gurion (born David Green). Zionist colonists, who had been arriving illegally in Palestine from Europe and Russia for decades with British backing, had already by this point amassed the most powerful and sophisticated armed militias in the region and, soon after, began systematic attacks on the Palestinian civilian population a full six months before any outside Arab armed forces had stepped into Palestine. As Baroud writes, “The ethnic cleansing of Palestine began immediately after the Partition Plan was adopted by the UN. In December 1947, supposedly reacting to Palestinian riots protesting the partition of the country, determined Zionist attacks on Palestinian areas resulted in the exodus of 75,000 people” (31). Rejected by Palestinians who where still both the overwhelming majority population and legal land owners of the country in 1948, the imposed UN Partition Plan would have disastrous consequences and, in essence, sanctify the Zionist conquest and its ensuing violence.
These strategically pre-meditated attacks quickly spread throughout the country and eventually reached Beit Daras in March 1948 which had long been in the sights of the Zionist militias. Baroud quotes several surviving eyewitnesses of the attacks on Beit Daras including this telling account from Um Mohammed al-Yazuri: “The shells fell on the houses. They killed children, cattle, and also men. We didn’t have shelter in which to hide. We hid in the houses, but the bombs fell on the houses. They would go through the wall and fall on the houses, because the houses then were made of mud. [But] we stayed” (32). Eventually, however, the villagers were forced to leave for, as Baroud explains, whenever and wherever Zionist forces encountered resistance, British forces would inevitably intervene to give them the decisive upper hand. Thus the entire Baroud family was expelled southwards into refugee camps in the now much smaller Gaza Strip and, in a matter of days, found themselves deprived of everything they had once had and known: their homes, their land and all of their national and civil rights.
This catastrophic event would have profound and lasting effects on the Baroud family which are explored throughout the book in detail. Particularly moving are the author’s accounts of the personal struggles of his mother and father, Zarefah and Mohammed as they attempt to rebuild their shattered lives in the refugee camps of Buraij and Nuseirat. Zarefah, for instance, despite her natural intelligence, would never be able to pursue any sort of formal education. This was a typical consequence of the Nakba for thousands of first generation refugees who were forced to expend most of their efforts in the early years of dispossession in mere survival. As Baroud writes, “Zarefah grew up to be a beautiful and confident young woman. Her beauty was natural, but her self-assurance was earned from the hard life that offered the refugees only one option, struggle or perish” (60). Nevertheless Zarefah would go on to sacrifice everything for her family: “My mother was Zarefah, a refugee who couldn’t spell her name, whose illiteracy was compensated for by a heart overflowing with love for her children and her people, a woman who had the patience of a prophet” (Baroud, 132-133).
Just as poignant are Mohammed’s struggles and travails as he attempts to build a future for a growing family while battling the everyday poverty that comes with dispossession and occupation. Unable to find proper, dignified employment in the now besieged Gaza Strip, Mohammed was often forced to leave his family behind. “He tried many professions, including construction worker in various towns in Lebanon, a gardener in Damascus and a day laborer in Cairo,” writes Baroud. “Mohammed understood that by returning to Gaza empty-handed, he would have no viable options for making a living and raising a family; joining Gaza’s cheap labor force would eventually become the least undignified alternative” (92).
One particularly comic (in retrospect) adventure, humorously and ironically subtitled “The Falafel Terrorists,” finds Mohammed with his relative and travelling companion Rafiq in Saudi Arabia trying to set up a small falafel business near Jeddah. “Things seemed to be moving in the right direction,” writes Baroud. “Mohammed’s expectations were falling into place, as the simple sign, promising a cheap price for an ‘exquisite meal’ generated much interest, including, regrettably, that of the local police, alarmed at the presence of many immigrants standing in one long line, for falafel was an unknown delicacy in parts of Saudi Arabia” (92). Alas, despite these promising beginnings, the opening day of Mohammed’s falafel stand would also be its last. Rafiq, in his apparent enthusiasm, decided to add a special ingredient to their falafel recipe, “adding excessive quantities of Sodium Bicarbonate, insisting that it would give their falafel a unique and ‘electrifying’ taste” (Baroud, 93). The falafels would indeed become electrified—but (fortunately) before anyone would be able to taste a bite. For “Overwhelming amounts of the ‘electrifying secret ingredient’ caused the falafel to take off and erupt like mini, bite-sized grenades,” writes Baroud. “Hot oil splattered everywhere, morsels exploded in mid-air and a confused crowd ran in fright, as did the police” (93). It is in these myriad details of personal struggle that the book truly comes to life.
Unsentimental yet deeply personal and passionate, Baroud’s book is not for the faint-of-heart and is at times emotionally overwhelming because of the unfolding tragedies upon tragedies resulting from decades of colonial oppression. Mohammed and Zarefah barely have enough time to recover from the latest Israeli massacre or home invasion, the latest humiliation, when they are faced with yet another crisis, another food shortage, another day of unbearable poverty. And yet, despite all this, they manage to overcome their fate with their dignity and humanity intact. Thus by the book’s end we arrive at the true meaning of freedom fighter within the Palestinian context as someone who has not merely used armed resistance at one point but, more fully, as one who refuses to allow a colonizing and occupying power to define him or her in any deep, lasting sense. As Baroud himself explained in an interview with Jad Salfiti, “When I argue that my father was a freedom fighter, I do not argue that…he was a freedom fighter in the sense that he carried a weapon—and in fact he did carry a weapon—but that’s not what I was trying to chronicle, not his memoir as a fighter carrying weapons and fighting Israeli soldiers, but rather as a Palestinian father who continued to fight for their [his children’s] freedom, for their dignity, for their everyday existence on a daily basis…that’s what my father did and that’s what qualified him as a freedom fighter.”
As the state of Israel in its continuing colonial project remains unrelenting in erasing Palestinian history, demolishing Palestinian homes while simultaneously and brazenly stealing both its land and culture, it becomes especially incumbent on all Palestinians to learn, document and understand their own history. For though Beit Daras has long since been wiped off the map (like hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages), it continues to live on in the memories of its surviving residents and their daughters and sons. And although it might be difficult for anyone who has not been dispossessed or lived under decades of military occupation to fully grasp the life of struggle and resistance of the Baroud family, we can nevertheless empathize with the universal quest for freedom, equality and return to one’s homeland as seen in this deeply rich and powerful first-hand account. Indeed, what shines brightly throughout the book is the steadfast humanity of Mohammed and Zarefah which prevails against all odds, a humanity that recalls a lyric from a song by the great Palestinian singer Rim Banna: “One day they killed me, O beloved ones. But I kept my forehead high towards the west.”
-Roger Sheety contributed this review to PalestineChronicle.com.