Author Jean Said Makdisi speaks to MEMO's Amelia Smith about her books and her memories of Palestine
"Being Palestinian isn't simply about nationalism; it can't be. If it is, then it becomes distorted. That's what led to the war in Lebanon. You have to have a sense of justice for everybody."
Jean Said Makdisi was working on her book, Teta, Mother and Me, when she discovered that her great grandmother in late nineteenth century Palestine had been a distinguished horsewoman; This was so far away from the image of "the Arab woman" that dominates that it stunned her.
"That changed my whole picture of my background, you know, the whole notion of this demure Arab woman who sits at home and lives the domestic life. I mean where did we get these pictures from?" She answers her own question: "We got a lot of them from western travellers and the whole business of the harem."
Makdisi is wearing a deep red scarf wrapped tightly around her shoulders, matching lipstick and glasses that are slightly pointed at the corners. From behind the tortoiseshell frame she is telling me more about the actual book, a portrait of Arab life told through the stories of her mother and grandmother.
Sensing there was something mysterious about her maternal grandmother, Makdisi had always wanted to write about her. " She was obsessively, compulsively neat. Her Bible, for instance, was held together by a thick rubber band. At night, as she settled into bed to read her devotions, the rubber band would come off and then the Bible would be opened. When she finished, she would close the Bible and then she would carefully replace the rubber band around it; then the Bible would be placed in its very precise position on the bedside table, and then on top of it would be the prayer book with its own rubber band."
"So when we were children we used to tease her all the time," she says, laughing, "causing disorderin the orderly world she had obsessively created to protect her from the chaos of the world around her."
During the war in Lebanon Makdisi's mother recorded memories of her childhood, in case Makdisi had the opportunity to write about her. She was born in Nazareth, and recorded what it was like growing up a girl in British mandate Palestine, what she wore, the schools she went to, her memories of her father, who was a pastor and had taught her to love the Gallilean countryside which for him connected directly to Jesus.
Like the image of the horsewoman, her stories are not reminiscent of typical reporting on the region. Coverage of the Arab Spring, for example, would have you think this was the first time women in the Middle East became interested in politics.
"Arab women have always been involved politically, especially in independence movements and uprisings," Makdisi points out. "Women have always been there; it's never been otherwise. It was true in Egypt in 1919 during the revolution against the British. It was true in Algeria against the French; it was true in Palestine in 1948."
"Women have always had a role; it's never been true that they were all just sitting at home minding their own business. So the whole domestic scene has not been truthfully portrayed at all. But I still think that we still have a lot of work to do to uncover our past, and what is so carelessly referred to as "tradition."
"It drives me mad when people refer to modernity as a structure defined by superficial signs. When someone says, for instance, I'm more modern than you are, because you're wearing a covering of some sort and I'm not. That makes me modern and that makes you traditional. What on earth does that mean? I think we don't know what we're talking about; we're talking about traditions and we don't know what these are. We've invented traditions, or we've assumed things about the past that we don't really know are true. We have to do a lot more studying of Arab women's history in all its complexity of class, culture, and social attitudes, to understand our past and to even begin to talk about our ‘traditions.'"
At the end of the Lebanese civil war – through which Makdisi lived - her first book, Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir, was published. "I was just trying to get a hold of the Lebanese experience because it was a shattering experience. I'd known violence a lot before" she explains. "It is part of growing up in the Middle East.
Despite the fact that family and friends abroad encouraged her and her husband to leave Beirut, and all their neighbours in the building she lived in with her husband and young children had left, she explains they felt they had a mission. "We just felt that if we left we would be betraying our students and our other friends, because we knew how much it hurt when somebody would say: "We're leaving.".Your heart would sink."
"It's always referred to as a kind of courage" she continues, "that we stayed and in some ways maybe it wasn't; maybe people who left were in some ways more courageous."
The situation in Lebanon now, she says "is very, very precarious, politically and otherwise," largely to do with the crisis in Syria, the various local sides involved in the conflict, and the threat of it expanding further.
"If there's going to be a clash between them, in Lebanon, it's going to be a very nasty affair. We felt deeply stressed when the Americans were threatening an attack. When President Obama said he was going to attack Syria, we were really frightened because we had no doubt at all that this was going to light up the whole region in flames so I'm really quite glad that he didn't do it."
Earlier this year, Makdisi wrote a chapter for Seeking Palestine as one of 15 authors reflecting on memories of home and exile.
"I've always felt that the "real" Palestinians are the people in the refugee camps, or the people actually on the ground in occupied Palestine," she says when I ask her about the book. "I feel almost that it's a privilege to be called Palestinian, but it has to be someone who's struggling and who's suffering because of being Palestinian. I haven't suffered enough for my Palestinian identity; I've had papers all my life and never had to struggle financially. My mother and grandmother had to struggle for official papers, that's in my chapter."
Makdisi talks fondly of her time in the United States, where she spent her student days and early married life. Earlier in the conversation she had associated the country with the ideology of liberal enlightenment, freedom and opportunity. . Still,, she also talks of the humiliation she felt subjected to there, especially following the 1967 war, by "people who didn't have a clue about the Palestine question. They knew nothing about the history of Palestine. The ignorance and viciousness of the American media at the time in America was unbearable to me" she says.
She explains that 1967 in particular was a watershed year for Edward – her brother, the Palestinian academic Edward Said. "That's what turned him, that's what turned him towards activism and getting involved because it was such an awful time for an Arab in America."
Some Palestinians have turned their backs on Palestine, says Makdisi. But for the vast majority you can't escape it. "For most Palestinians their history is part of the air that they breathe. They can't get over it; it's such a blatant injustice. The thing that webs it in all the time is the media coverage; you go to the cinema,, you read the paper, you do a crossword puzzle, and you get a slap in the face. You're never allowed to forget the injustice and the ignorance, even if you want to."
Part of the dilemma Makdisi feels as a writer is that she had been living in Beirut for the past 40 years, not in Palestine. "If I want to write about Palestine, how do I do it?" she asks. "The smells, the sounds, I mean I have memories but they're childish memories. Memories that belong in childhood, the kind of memories a child has, not adult memories."
Makdisi explains that she's "turning towards" fiction these days, but it's a difficult task as the work will be drawn from imagination rather than experience. "When I think of Jerusalem for instance, I think of how I knew it. And when I see pictures now of these dreadful buildings, these settlements, I can see them and I know they're there and how they blocked the landscape that I have maintained in my head. But on the other hand, isn't it after all part of the duty of a Palestinian to hang on to these memories?"
Edward was adamant about not just fighting for Palestine, not just handling it as a nationalist cause, believes Makdisi, because what makes the Palestinian situation also made, for example, South Africa, something he also worked hard on. In her book she writes: "To embrace Palestine means to embrace all other places suffering injustice and to proclaim one's faith in the eventual restitution of right."
"It isn't just a question of nationalism" she explains to me, "this is mine and I want it back. No, that isn't it. It is justice and a kind of historical morality. It isn't pure nationalism, it can't be. If it is, then it becomes distorted. That's what led to the war in Lebanon. You have to have a sense of justice for everybody."
The only solution in the last analysis, believes Makdisi, is the one the PLO began with. They started out with the aim of achieving "a secular, democratic state for all its citizens" in which Christians, Jews and Muslims can live together as equals. "We have a lot to learn from them and they have a lot to learn from us." The idea of an exclusively Jewish state is unacceptable to Makdisi, as would be an exclusively Christian, or Muslim, or black or white, state. The oppression of the Palestinian people must end. Only if these conditions are met can there be peace in the area. "
Published in Middle East Monitor