By Raid Khoury
The plight of the Palestinian Arabs has been well documented and their cause kept alive by the indestructible spirit of this courageous and proud people. Those who were supposed to disappear from history refused to go away. They endured, struggled, and resisted all attempts to make permanent their dispossession and occupation. The story of Palestine and its people has been written, and narrated in many books, but Ramzy Baroud’s “My Father was a freedom fighter” is not just another book telling the story of Palestine as a sub-plot of 20th century political history, but a unique and necessary Palestinian-centered narrative. Most accounts of the Palestinian experience inevitably focus on the rise and fall of empires, international political intrigue, great power rivalry, and changing global political landscapes with the Palestinians appearing almost always as mere spectators at best, and sometimes a dispensable nuisance.
Ramzy Baroud’s books attempts and succeeds not only in telling the story of the Palestinians, but in presenting a new look at the history of the 20th century as it was experienced by the Palestinians themselves. Historical eras which we all have read about and studied are retold from a uniquely Palestinian perspective, a perspective of a people who were the primary victims of this history and who continue to suffer as a result of events which many would prefer to relegate to the history books, but which remain alive and relevant in the Palestinians’ current reality and continuing struggle for freedom and liberation.
Beginning with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, through the era of British occupation, Zionist colonialism, UN partition, ethnic cleansing, and endless Israeli onslaughts, Ramzy tells the story of Palestine and its people through the life of his courageous father, Mohammed. As is customary and appropriate for an Arab the age of his sons I will refer to Mohammed as my Uncle Abu-Anwar. The reader is taken on a detailed and painful odyssey which begins in the village of Beit Daras where a young boy and his father along with the rest of the villagers are forcibly expelled from their land, but not before putting up a tenacious defense succumbing to a force from beyond so overwhelming it’s a wonder such a defense was ever attempted. The people of Beit Daras end up in Gaza, a special strip of Palestine on the Mediterranean coast where the author was born. Through the life of Uncle Abu-Anwar, we learn the story of family, of a village, and a people.
The reader learns about Palestinian life under the rule of the Ottomans in its later stages. We follow the brutal British occupation, and the Zionist colonization of Palestine made possible by the protective umbrella of the most powerful empire at the time. As the sun set on the British Empire, the colonial occupation ended but not before leaving behind a land ethnically cleansed of its indigenous Arab population by forces it continued to collaborate with even as its mandate, the polite term for foreign occupation at the time, came to a close. The story of Uncle Abu-Anwar, a young boy named Mohammed in 1948, then takes us to Gaza where he grows up in a desolate camp, comes of age, and struggles to raise a family and lead a normal life or whatever life came to be defined as normal for the dispossessed Palestinians. Uncle Abu-Anwar had a partner in his struggle, which the reader comes to know as a no less courageous mother, Zarefah, (Um-Anwar) who represented the Palestinian woman as she always has been, a loving daughter, protective mother, and devoted wife struggling with and for her family and a freedom fighter in her own right playing a leading role in the Palestinian liberation movement.
The reader continues through the 50’s and 60’s with all the hopes, dreams, and setbacks of those decades recalled through the very real impact they had on Palestinian lives, and the influence of this experience on the development of the Palestinian liberation movement. Throughout this entire history it is the Palestinians that take center stage in a tragic sequence of events still with us today. We learn of the daily struggles of life in a refugee camp where meeting ones most basic needs, taken for granted in most of the rest of the world, becomes a form of resistance. Throughout the entire book and the history it narrates Gaza and its stubborn and proud people were steadfast, and that will to resist remains as strong as ever today as that special strip of Palestine has been turned into the largest open-air prison besieged by both Israel and an Arab regime in Cairo, a city on which the Palestinians ones pinned all their hopes for liberation and return. What Gaza is experiencing today is a punishment for an entire people, who like Uncle Abu-Anwar, refused to submit to the will of their tormentors and refused to go away.
Uncle Abu-Anwar never forgot his village. His dreams were passed on to his children, including Ramzy, who came of age as the first Intifada was launched offering new hope for a new generation. Later came Oslo and its own set of disappointments, but the Palestinians who by now had taken their fate into their own hands continued their resistance in one form or another. Gaza was never broken, and although Uncle Abu-Anwar never returned to his village of Beit Daras he also was never defeated. His life of resistance was the story of a man and a people who insisted on living with dignity and freedom on their own land. His love of Beit Daras and his dreams of returning were passed on to his children, and his spirit of resistance is alive and well in his son Ramzy and a new generation of Palestinians.
The last 100 years have been cruel to the Palestinians, their land selected for a colonial project unlike any other in its attempt to replace an entire population with a foreign colonial population, and ethnically cleansed from a land in which they were the original inhabitants. Haphazard help from Arab regimes later turned to betrayal and abandonment, and as Gaza is witnessing today, eventually developed into open collaboration with the usurping Zionist state. While the betrayal and abandonment of Palestine by Arab regimes has become official policy, the liberation of Palestine remains the demand of an entire Arab people who refuse to turn their backs on Palestine and the Palestinians. The Palestinians continue to live under occupation, but as is becoming more evident by the day, it is the colonial project and the collaborating Arab regimes, that are increasingly besieged by a Palestinian people who will not disappear from the map or from history as they were supposed to do. In many ways it is the Palestinians that are liberating the Arab world rather than the Arabs liberating Palestine, and it is the Palestinian quest for liberation that will eventually rescue the Western powers that maintain the last colonial regime in Palestine from their own moral bankruptcy.
Ramzy’s book is a story of a courageous man, a family, a village, and an entire people who by refusing to submit have demonstrated the Palestinians cannot be defeated and have made their eventual triumph inevitable. This book should be read by the experts on Palestinian history and the casual observer. It should be recommended reading for an introductory course on Palestine and also works as a necessary reminder for those who lately have immersed themselves in the deceitful language of the “peace process” and endless quests for a “solution”, instead of liberation. Throughout the entire book we are not only exposed to the resilience of the Palestinian people, but we are reminded of the humanity their enemies sought to deny them. Even under a brutal occupation of Gaza in squalid refugee camps Uncle Abu-Anwar and the Palestinians lived, laughed, cried, loved, and resisted. That spirit of resistance continues today. It is alive and well in the children of Uncle Abu-Anwar, and it is alive and well in the children and grandchildren of all Palestinians that were born into the Nakba. He may not have returned to Beit Daras, but his life as a freedom fighter made it inevitable that the people of Beit Daras will one day return to their village. Uncle Abu-Anwar, like the Palestinian people, was never defeated. He simply did not live long enough to witness the final chapter of his and his people’s victory, and those who have any doubt should read this book.
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– Raid Khoury lives in Los Angeles, California. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.