By Nicola Jones
The Witness – South Africa
It’s not easy pinning down veteran U.S.-Arab journalist and author Ramzy Baroud. In South Africa to launch his new book, My Father was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story, he comes across as a little uneasy at being on the other side of the camera and is extremely reluctant to talk about himself. Ask about his book, however, and Baroud’s passion, not just for Palestine, but for all oppressed people, pours out eloquently.
The front line in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Gaza is constantly reported in the media as a place of violence and terror. Baroud’s memoir explores the daily lives of ordinary people there — revolutionaries, mothers and fathers, lovers and comedians — who make Gaza so much more than just a disputed territory. And the heart of the tale is the story of his father who, driven out of his village to a refugee camp, took up arms to fight the occupation while trying to raise a family.
“I felt I had to tell a people’s history of Palestine … I felt that the way the history of that conflict is narrated, is based on negation. The Israelis say, this is what happened. The Palestinians say, no, no!
“I wanted a relaxed version of history … that doesn’t look at same actions and same documents and same events … that doesn’t matter to the vast majority of Palestinians; they know nothing about that. Many people there are still dealing with conflicts in simplistic terminology — my land, my rights, my freedoms.”
Baroud draws for me a picture of someone’s land being appropriated, and then ancient olive trees in the West Bank being bulldozed. People resist; the only way they can think of doing this is to push against the bulldozers in a vain attempt to stop them. But if the media dare to show us these images, he says, it is not in the context of how these people have been dislocated and from now on will have nothing, but rather a narrative of how Israel wants to build a wall to prevent suicide bombers from entering the area.
“The Palestinian farmer doesn’t have anybody defending his narrative. Even Palestinian officials don’t do this — they tend to get technical and accuse the Israelis of violating some or other agreement,” he said.
“I decided to challenge both of these narratives.
“I just said — you were in this village. What happened?
“And suddenly, I have an entirely different view of people. They are not just there to be classified as passive victims. They are active participants in their own resistance; they are not just on the fringes. They are the actual story.”
It’s a great philosophy for a journalist, and one that Baroud uses in his current capacity as editor-in-chief of The Brunei Times in the Sultanate of Brunei. He is also busy with a PhD on collective identity and globalisation, using Palestine as a case study, at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. An American citizen, he regularly visits Seattle where his immediate family is currently based.
So what’s it like, being a Palestinian in the United States?
By the sound of it, things haven’t changed too much under the Obama administration. Baroud said many Islamists are still incarcerated. He has had his passport confiscated — once by the U.S. Embassy in Brunei, when he wanted to go to Dubai and take part in an American/Arab friendship conference. But as he candidly points out, as he doesn’t fit the Islamist stereotype of robes and a long, grey beard and hat, he doesn’t get hassled too much.
“I never saw Obama as a ray of light. John Pilger described Obama as a winning brand, and that’s what it is all about, branding.”
Baroud believes the U.S. needed to rebrand itself and looked in its next leader for the exact opposite of Bush. He grins and sets out those opposites — blathering idiot versus articulate intellectual, black versus white, Democrat versus Republican, with a bit of Che Guevara thrown in style-wise, a bit of Malcolm X in terms of looks.
But with regard to Palestine, he feels little has changed, saying that when Obama took office, it was incumbent on him to cut ties with Palestinians. He relates an incident when Senator John McCain was asked if it were true that Obama is an Arab, to which McCain replied: “No — I assure you he is a decent man.”
Baroud believes that the U.S. is battling both internally and externally, and that people are feeling disenfranchised and want to believe change is possible. But there are inherent difficulties.
“When I’m in Libya or Egypt, say, most of the media is state owned. People are oppressed, denied freedom of expression, but they know what’s going on.
“In the U.S. it’s a lot harder — we live in a matrix where we’re under the impression that our votes are making a difference. The media is giving us the impression that it’s independent … but there is only one party in the U.S., and that’s a corporation.”
Baroud believes that even if Obama is well intentioned and wants to bring about viable and long-lasting change, he will not be able to challenge these corporate forces. “He’s going to be a great ex-president — better than Jimmy Carter — because he is going to feel so guilty.”
And South Africa, I ask? Baroud grins wryly.
“I have mixed feelings about South Africa (I know I’m not supposed to say that).” He points to numerous similarities between the apartheid regime and the Palestinian situation — passes, wars, physical and psychological demarcation. But at the same time, he still sees enormous discrepancies in this country; he “can’t understand blacks exploiting blacks”, for example.
He relates an anecdote about arriving at Cape Town for the first time and expecting to see Africans once he got out of the airport. “I was too embarrassed to ask, where are the black people?”
And for him, Jacob Zuma has been reduced to someone with “all sorts of personal problems”. He wasn’t too impressed with his State of the Nation address either, saying Zuma delivered it without passion. “But I guess he’s passionate about other things, right?”
Passionate is what Baroud has always been. A student activist, he was deported from the West Bank to Gaza and didn’t finish his degree. At that time he was engaged to an American student; they were both volunteers at an orphanage in the West Bank. He had few prospects in Gaza and wanted to finish his education, so he left with her for the U.S. in 1994. He has never been allowed back.
Baroud has been to over 30 countries but “seen so little of the world. I’m always on a very tight schedule.”
“I survive on dark chocolate and Cuban cigars. The world can be such a terrible place; you really have to have some good things.”
His book describes both. Baroud was born and raised in a Gaza refugee camp, and the tale follows the lives of ordinary Palestinians, in particular that of his father, Mohammed Baroud. Beit Daras, Mohammed Baroud’s beloved village, in which he was born, was eradicated. He was born during the 1938 turmoil that culminated a decade later in a war that destroyed Beit Daras, 530 other villages, 11 urban neighbourhoods in cities such as Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, and killed or displaced about 800 000 Palestinians.
Mohammed and his family survived and were exiled to the Gaza Nuseirat refugee camp. As a young man, he joined the Palestinian unit of the Egyptian army and later fought for the Palestine Liberation Army in the Six Day War.
But this book is not a political manifesto. Beautifully written, it is a narrative echoing the voices of the ordinary people of Gaza; people who long for the security that comes with a patch of land and being able to plant a tree on that land knowing, in the fullness of time, that they will be able to sit in its shade.
Just for that, it should ring true for all who read it.
(Originally published in the Witness newspaper, South Africa. Visit: www.witness.co.za)