A Palestinian journey

9780863566219.jpgAnyone familiar with the Middle East knows that Ashdod is Israel’s biggest port, nearly a quarter of a million people some 40 miles north of the Gaza Strip. What he or she will be less likely to know—and it is no accident—is that until October 1948, when the combined forces of the Israeli army and accompanying Zionist terrorists arrived, this place was a Palestinian town called Isdud. Its 5,000 Palestinian Arabs were duly driven out (apart from those murdered on the spot), and made their way south to Gaza, where to this day they and their myriad descendants remain in poverty and apparent hopelessness as registered refugees, victims and prisoners of the Israeli military occupation and Western bias and ignorance.

Abdel Bari Atwan, author of A Country of Words: a Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page is the famous son of one of these dirt-poor Isdud families, born two years after the nakba, or catastrophe, that overtook his people when Israel was created. When he revisited his family’s original home a few years ago, his North African Jewish driver had no idea there had ever been a place called Isdud. When Bari (as he insists his non-Arab friends call him), treading through the stinking ruins of a former Palestinian site, Café Gaben,  bumped into a Jewish settler, the man said to him, pointing at the ancient detritus: “…that is the past.” “No,” Bari said, “it is also the future.”

It is this kind of fierce determination and will to survive that characterises Gaza and the Gazans. It is also why I described Gazan hopelessness, in my first paragraph, as “apparent”. Anyone who has been to what is now a virtual concentration camp will know that Gazans do not buckle under. The Abdel Bari Atwan story is an epic version of the Gazan refugees’ refusal to accept the overwhelming, demeaning, life-threatening odds that Israel and the West have imposed upon them, the Arab states also doing their bit in this saga of criminal international politics.

Bari fought and harried his way – with his family’s typically Palestinian, almost sacrificial help – from the penury and oppression of Deir al Balah and later Rafah camps through a series of joe-jobs and secondary education in Jordan then Egypt, university in Cairo and progression up the rickety journalistic ladder in Libya, Saudi Arabia and London’s vibrant Arabic media to become editor, in 1989, of Al-Quds al-Arabi (Arab Jerusalem). This is his own newspaper, his own radical mouthpiece and unique, outspoken reflection of the inequities, crimes and joys of the Middle East. He is probably, following the deaths of Yasser Arafat, Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, the best-known living Palestinian. His newspaper is so popular that it is banned in as many Arab countries as he himself is – Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Jordan among them.

Al-Quds al-Arabi is no one’s mouthpiece. Bari lists his many differences with Yasser Arafat and most other Arab politicians, and his inside knowledge of Islamic leaders whom our media and politicians demonise is a useful reality check. One of his Islamist interlocutors spells out how Tony Blair made the British an international target for terrorists (cf, the recent Mumbai outrage).

For all his valid criticisms of the British, for what they did to his Palestine, and of the Americans and the Israelis, Abdel Bari makes clear that for the honest Arab journalist his own governments, secret services and often inane fellow citizens pose his greatest threats. He also gives salutary space to the BBC’s record of pusillanimity in the face of Blairite and Israeli pressures on the Palestinian issue.

If this is a cheering, proud and opinionated tale of human determination, humour and iconoclasm, it also portrays the unique sadness of the Palestinians. While most emigrants cherish the knowledge of an original home available for revisit or return, the Palestinian Arab has no such grounding. “I feel,” writes Bari, “that my cultural identity has become blurred with time and that to some extent I have lost my roots…I wonder if history has condemned us [Palestinians] to a permanent state of psychological exile.” A Jew would know exactly what he means—or would have, once.

As our own British Government joins and intensifies the persecution and isolation of the Gazan people, partly because in democratic elections nearly three years ago they voted for a party Britain does not–or is told not to—approve, Abdel Bari’s book is the perfect  guidebook to what has happened, why, and how it goes on and on and on.

Reviewed by Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East Correspondent. A Country of Words: a Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page by Abdel Bari Atwan is published by Saqi Books £20