IN SEARCH OF BELONGING
It was a warm afternoon in early February and I had dressed carefully in a dark, silk suit, mindful of the important occasion before me. As I entered the grand and opulent ballroom of the five-star hotel, I found myself in the midst of an audience of over 500 people whom I had been invited to address. But for the few familiar faces of my hosts, everyone was a stranger to me. The air was filled with the hubbub of chatter and laughter and movement. It died down completely when I ascended the podium, and I looked done at a mass of hushed and expectant faces, all focused on me and all waiting for me to speak. The hotel was the Sheraton in the heart of Karachi and I had come from England to promote my book, In Search of Fatima, at Dawn’s special invitation. If the audience was thrilled at sharing in the occasion, they were no less so than I at being there and at being, at long last, that great and exciting thing, a writer.
I had always wanted to be a writer. As a child, I would make up stories and recount them with great relish to whichever unfortunate child or adult I could collar into listening to me. I would sometimes write down these stories, in a style usually copied from whatever novel I happened to be reading at the time. As a teenager I decided I would study literature or history at university to underpin my literary leanings. However, fate had decreed otherwise for me, and at the tender age of sixteen, I was streamed, much against my will, into the science stream at school, in preparation for a career in medicine. My father thought this would ensure me a steady income for life and freedom from dependence. True as that may have been, it certainly also ensured many years of frustration and boredom with my medical colleagues whom I found limiting and unimaginative. It took me years to have the courage to throw off the medical yoke and sit down to write.
At first I wrote only academic articles about dry subjects, a reflection I think of the professional training I had received. I did not dare try my hand at literature, which was the only genre I recognised as real writing. I believed you had to have had a formal education in literature and training in writing skills to qualify for being a writer. As I had had neither, I confined my efforts to ‘serious’ compositions about politics and history of medicine. I was able to publish several books of this kind, most of them edited rather than written by me. I was by then heavily involved in fighting for the Palestine cause in Britain and had become an activist and a specialist in the Arab-Israeli conflict, about which I wrote academic articles and political analyses. And then one day, I decided I would leave all that behind and write about what it meant to be a Palestinian, not in the conventional way as hitherto, but differently – in a personal, human, literary way. This was to be a memoir, a narrative account of my life and that of my family, how we left our native land and subsequently had to adjust to a new society and a new life as refugees in Britain.
The literary agent who was to work for me rejected the first draft out of hand. She told me no one wanted to be given ‘a lesson in history’. And when I looked at what I had written, I saw what she meant. Still under the influence of my previous training, I had produced yet again another dry and academic text, lacking the very humanity and emotion that makes narrative literature. I had indeed included large tracts of historical detail in a worthy but dull attempt to educate the reader. I tried again, and after much reflection and effort eventually produced In Search of Fatima, the book I had come to Pakistan to promote. I cannot now recall how I actually wrote some of its sections. Somehow, the prose seemed to flow, once I had got started. By the time I had finished, I felt I had done something really important, not just for myself but for all those who had ever suffered dispossession, exile and a disordered sense of belonging. Most of all, I felt I had conveyed to the English-speaking reader a sense of what the Palestinian tragedy was about and what it had really meant for its victims.
For the book was primarily written for a Western readership, reared on stories of Jewish suffering and persecution and usually exposed to only the Israeli version of events. It was situated in England and replete with references to English life in a way that would be familiar mostly to those who are English or who know England intimately. As such, I thought it would have little appeal for Arabs or Asians. But in the event, I could not have been more wrong. The enthusiastic response during my book tour of Abu Dhabi and Dubai was remarkable, but it was dwarfed by the subsequent overwhelming reception given me in Pakistan. Audiences in their hundreds gathered in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to welcome me and order the book. I puzzled over this phenomenon, for that’s what it was. And then I understood. My search as a Palestinian, a Muslim and an exile for identity and belonging in an inimical society, Western, Christian and alien to my origins had resonated with my Eastern audiences: those thousands of Arabs and Pakistanis who recognised, either through their own experience or that of their children that same cultural alienation and discord, that same searching for an accommodation between two disparate identities.
My own search has not been a happy one and I never managed to solve the problem of fitting the pieces of the cultural jigsaw together and arriving at a coherent pattern. It always eluded me and I had always felt isolated because of it. But seeing my predicament recognised with such ready, instinctive understanding by the people who received me in Pakistan’s public places and private homes was unexpected and marvellously comforting. With such perceptive identification and sympathy, no one can feel lonely any more.
Dawn May 2003