By Ron Jacobs
Ramzy Baroud left Gaza when he was a young man. He departed with mixed emotions, knowing full well he might never see his father or Gaza again. Once he left, his activities and the nature of the Israeli control of that piece of land made those fears come true. Since he left, he has become a chronicler of the struggle for a free Palestine and an advocate for a genuine and just solution to the ongoing conflict in his native land.
His most recent addition to the aforementioned chronicle is a beautifully wrought memoir of his family. Titled My Father Was a Freedom Fighter, the book takes the reader into the life of a man who was driven from his birth village during the ethnic cleansing of parts of Palestine by Israeli Zionist forces. That man was Ramzy Baroud’s father, Mohammed Baroud. Along with his family and much of the rest of his village, the teenage Mohammed eventually found himself in the refugee camp called Nuseirat. Despite several journeys out of that camp to fight and to trade, he would die there some fifty years later. Not only would Baroud’s father never see the village of his childhood–Beit Daras–again, but the fate of Palestine was more uncertain than it had been ever since the creation of Israel.
I have to be honest. Whenever I read a description of the travails of the Palestinian people since 1947, my human emotions kick in. Anger and sorrow are the most common. The description can be a personal memoir or a reasonably objective piece of journalism. It could be written by a sympathetic soul, an observer or a member of a group supporting the continued expansion of Israel. It doesn’t matter. The decades of suffering mirrored by a similar number of years opposing Israeli occupation; the uncaring response of a world seemingly numb to the actualities of Tel Aviv’s Orwellian newspeak describing the situation; and the seeming inevitability of more death and daily suffering always results in the aforementioned emotional responses.
Ramzy Baroud’s text operates on several different levels. Of course, it is an unsparing look at the political Zionist program to carve a homeland out of Palestinian lands for likeminded Jewish people. It is also a critical history of the relationship between the Palestinians and established Arab nations. He recalls the brief period of secular Arab nationalism after World War Two led by Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser. While describing this bit of history, Baroud also relates the story of his father’s enlistment into a unit of Nasser’s army that defended Gaza. This moment of his father’s pride he describes is one that is both personal and political, like so many moments of a people struggling daily for their independence and against oppression.
The author’s ability to depict these types of moments is what makes this book such a worthwhile read. Under Baroud’s pen, history truly does become the story of a people. Each individual whose story appears in My Father Was a Freedom Fighter embodies the story of the Palestinians. The story stretches from the daily battle to feed one’s family when there are no fields to harvest because the occupiers have destroyed those fields to meetings with leaders of the Intifada. Ramzy Baroud tells a very personal tale in these pages underlined by an impeccably researched historical knowledge.
In addition to depicting the relationship between Arab nations and the Palestinian movement, this text explores the nature of the Palestinian liberation movement itself. Combining his father’s political understanding and historical memory with his own knowledge, Baroud explores the reasons for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s fall into seeming irrelevance in Gaza and its replacement by Hamas. It is a story about organizing at the grassroots and corruption at the top. It is also a story of one man’s hopes in the organization he believed in being dashed. Finally, it is also the all too familiar tale of a society striving yet failing to overcome the scourge of class, especially when those at the top are offered rewards for leaving their lesser-off brothers and sisters behind.
Perhaps the most emotionally difficult storyline that runs through Baroud’s memoir is the story of his parents’ love for each other. Difficult, because it is a story like so many other love stories without hope for a happy ending. When Ramzy’s mother died of cancer at the age of 42, she was given a martyr’s funeral. This wasn’t because she was a battlefield fighter or a guerrilla, but because she was a child, mother and sister of Palestine. She died so young in part because Tel Aviv’s brutal occupation refused her the treatment she needed. Indeed, the incident that may well have exacerbated her illness was one where Israeli soldiers beat her while she pleaded with them not to break her sons’ arms. This practice was a common Israeli Defense Force tactic during the First Intifada.
My Father Was a Freedom Fighter is a perfectly nuanced combination of memoir and history. Once again, Baroud has put the nature of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in human terms that describe not only the humiliation of the Palestinians as individuals and as a people, but also the struggle against that humiliation and the often brutal repression that accompanies it.
– Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook. He can be reached at: email@example.com. (This article was first published in CounterPunch.org)