There is Rex the dog, the beautiful Jerusalemite home, Fatima the maid disappearing from the pages of narrative. We get much more than this in Ghada Karmi's In Search of Fatima, a beautifully crafted book, it is the story of a once blessed existence, uprooting of a community, exile and displacement.
The memoir tells the story of a young family living in Jerusalem in the inter-war years and how their community disintegrated with their eventual dispossession from their home never able to return but stuck in permanent exile, the complexities of alienation.
As the months and days to the establishment of the state of Israel was being made, many Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in fear of their lives at the sound of arms and fire. The Karmi family joined the thousands of others fleeing to Damascus, Lebanon and Jordan. They eventually settled to a new life in London.
The book is a poignant and sad account, told in compelling narrative that keeps the reader coldly sticking to the text of moving lives, not dynamic, but more like in state of anxiety and anguish as if something fearful is about to happen beyond the imagination of anyone.
Although written by the author when she become an established academic in Britain, she relied on her father, mother, sister and brother to reconstruct and weave together personal narratives of an inter-war Palestinian society in the thralls of seismic change dictated by the British who had no longer any stomach to continue their mandate and Zionists terrorist gangs and groups who wanted them to enforce the creation of their new state which they did in 1948.
Besides the politics and the rising tensions, the author portrays a vibrant Palestinian society and community in the 1930s and 1940s. She was part of a middle class family with her father a teacher working in the government, her mother a socialite, visiting friends over coffee, and Ghada, a young girl, playing with her dog in the garden and leading as a normal life as any six-year-old would. She was attached to Fatima who eventually dissapeared with Ghada thinking she went back to her village. But Fatima herself become the symbol of dispossession.
It’s a meticulous description, important for any researcher, academic, sociologist and anthropologist involved in the recitation of a civil society that was not in the making but in the living with rich description of different areas of the city being drawn out, the markets and vegetable stores, the fruit sellers and the different Arab families that were living there.
Overnight, there was an uprooting of all this. Many years later she came back to Jerusalem, now a British citizen. She managed to find her house through the vague trappings of a yesteryear but now occupied by a Jewish family like the rest of the other Arab houses.
After they settled in London, the Karmi family, like many immigrants had to face the new process of reintegration. With the father now working in the BBC and the children at British schools, the mother was left on her own to hark back on a lost Palestinian world.
Through befriending families of like-minded fate, she tried to some extent recreate a Palestinian community in her new surroundings. In her previous life she was a gregarious, out-going woman who had built strong social networks. In London there was none of that.
Instead there was alienation, loneliness, frustration, but the distance attempt at adaptation. The mother never really accepted her new surroundings, but
the children went into different forms of integration which the brother and the author herself wholly aligned themselves to their new status, to London and the glittering lights, to its districts and the new rock n' roll culture and peer groups.
It was two cultures and two existences, a fascinating read of changing values, acquired values, characters, character assassinations and rebellion against a former Arab identity and the longing to be accepted into another.
This was the social process which the author went through in her British school days and university studying medicine, and where for a brief period she married an Englishmen to the abhorrence of her mother and reticence of her father.
It was later on that the author turned to politics, fighting for the Palestinian cause, trying to make people understand her story of dispossession and exile. She slowly came back to discover her roots. It is frankly and candidly told.