Saturday October 19, 2002, The Guardian
A country of the mind
Outside our old house in Jerusalem, I confronted the lost world of my Palestinian childhood
We were virtually the last family remaining in our street. All the others had left weeks before, terrorised by the snipers hidden in the buildings, the random attacks and the eruptions of fighting. For months, our area of west Jerusalem had been the target for attack by advancing Jewish forces from the settlements to the west of us.
These Jews were predominantly Europeans and alien to us. Everyone said they had come to take over our country, and the British, who ruled us, would let them. People told my parents they were either brave or foolhardy to stay on. My mother said: "No one's going to drive me from my home!"
But by April even we could hold out no longer amid the danger and growing devastation. That morning, as we packed hurriedly, a dilapidated taxi with a nervous driver who needed the money was all we could find to brave our bullet-riddled street. We took only one suitcase for the five of us. "No point in taking more, we won't be away for long. Things are bound to settle down," my parents said.
Amid the panic I lingered outside the gate, staring at our house, all strangely closed up and shuttered. Rex, our dog, who was being left in the care of a local woman, started jumping up and pushing against the locked gate, thinking I was coming in. My mother pushed me into the back seat of the taxi.
As we started to move off, I twisted round and looked out of the back window. There, to my horror, was Rex standing in the middle of the road. We can't have closed the gate properly and he had managed to get out. This was not normally allowed, for fear he would be run over. He stood still, his head up, his tail stiff, staring after our receding car.
"Look!" I cried out frantically, "Rex has got out. Stop, please, he'll get killed." "Shh," they said, and pushed me down into the seat. "He won't come to any harm. Now stop worrying." But I stared and stared at him until we had rounded the corner of the road and he and the house disappeared from view.
The others sat silently, their eyes fixed on the road ahead. No one seemed aware of my terrible anguish or how, in that moment, child though I was, I suddenly knew with overwhelming certainty that something had irrevocably ended for us there which, like Rex's innocent affection, would never return.
The memory of this scene still comes back to haunt me, though many years have passed since that April morning in 1948 and I now live far away. We lost everything that day, our home, our belongings, our whole society, and the right to a normal life and a future in our own land.
The flight of 1948 was terrible. Somehow we got to Damascus, to join a huge exodus of fleeing Palestinians, much worse off than ourselves. The people of Safad in northern Palestine, driven from their homes, had walked to Syria through rain, mud and cold, old and weak abandoned where they fell, the children separated from their parents. We saw them arrive, wild-eyed and dazed. There were few tents to house them and they stayed in homes, mosques, the streets, anywhere they could. Many ended up in the refugee camps we know today.
I could have been there with them, but I was among a small "lucky" few who made it to an affluent country. Growing up in Britain, I enjoyed a middle-class life, a good education and modest material comforts.
My father - a former schoolteacher and civil servant who now worked for the BBC Arabic service - wanted us to be "normal", to forget politics and the past. For he realised the newly established Israel would never willingly re-admit us. He blamed the British entirely for this. During the mandate period, the British had supported Zionism and enabled mass Jewish immigration into Palestine so that, by 1948, foreign Jews comprised a third of the country's population.
But we were not normal, neither refugees nor immigrants. True, we had been forced to flee our homeland but, unlike refugees, we would have returned there had Israel allowed it. And, unlike immigrants, we did not choose to leave our country to seek a better life.
Eventually, my parents settled for a mini-Palestine they recreated in London of similarly displaced Arabs, their reference point always the past. They could hide there and feel they belonged.
But I could not join them. My Palestinian past had been too short and, unlike them, I could not reclaim it. After 1948, Israel set about systematically destroying Palestinian history, culture and identity. Over 400 Palestinian villages were demolished and replaced by Jewish settlements. Hebrew place names were substituted for the Arab ones. The link with the past, which was all that the displaced Palestinians had, was deliberately severed.
Much later, visiting Qatamon, the area of west Jerusalem where our house had been, I saw the old Palestinian stone villas that had belonged to friends and neighbours now boasting Hebrew name plaques on their doors.
"Joseph Schneidermann, architect", I read atop an oriental wrought iron gate. And on the outside wall of our own house, "Ben Porath" was written; in Jerusalem's Old City, a classic Muslim monument was now called "David's Tower"; in Jaffa, the traditional Arab merchants' houses on the quay were now described as a Jewish artists' colony. And everywhere the road signs in Hebrew and English, the Arabic in small, insignificant script coming a poor third - although Arabic is officially Israel's second language.
For someone like me, displaced in mind and body, this vandalism was unutterably traumatic. I had come to Jerusalem to find myself in the remaining fragments of the past. A life spent in England had not helped me belong there. I would always be alien.
"Very emotional, the Arabs," people said, meaning "irrational - not people like us". I went to the Arab world trying to belong there, but was rejected for being too western. "Loose morals, loose living" was the Arab view of westernised women. There was no category for someone like me, straddling two cultures and unable to belong in either.
Standing before our old house in Jerusalem, I felt defeated. This house, now occupied by Canadian Jewish strangers and bearing an Israeli plaque, was not home. The home I longed for was a country of the mind, a place of memory preserved as I last saw it in childhood. And to that place there can be no return.
The human costs of Israel's establishment to Palestine's people have never been properly computed or recorded. The issue is usually dehumanised in abstract terminology and dry statistics. Palestinians become objects that can be "transferred", to use Israel's favourite euphemism for naked expulsion. Their right of return is discussed in much the same mechanistic way, as if they were parcels waiting to be posted. It is a method that disguises the manifold tragedies of this complex story.
I did not suffer the trauma of living in a refugee camp, but I suffered none the less the subtler effects of exile and dislocation, effects that will not end with my generation. The home I knew will never come back, but the country I had remains, and for me and countless others, it is the source and symbol of our origins, our past and present identity - and our future, if one day we are allowed to return.
· Dr Ghada Karmi's memoir, In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian Story, is published next week by Verso. She is former president of the Palestinian Community Association in Britain