- My Father was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story
Ramzy Baroud's engaging book is as personal as it is political and may be welcomed on both counts. By way of conveying the story from Gaza, Baroud sets the life of his father, Mohammed, against the broader sweep of Palestinian history. Tracing family roots back to the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the narrative extends through familiar despair and hope to the torments of life in the "hostile entity" decreed by Israel in 2007. Mohammed's eventful life finally peters out as the septuagenarian wanders Gaza in vain "looking for a pharmacy, a clinic, any place that provided some respite for his asthma" (p. 187). The terrible isolation that has become Gaza finally does for Mohammed as the Israeli blockade leaves better-placed relatives outside of the Strip unable to intervene. The powerless son now based in the United States reasonably concludes: "I have often thought it to be a great mercy that Palestinians must only endure Israel's occupation for one lifetime" (p. 188).
Typical of most modern day Gazans, Mohammed was not born to the Strip but rather driven there by Zionist militia in 1948. Prior to that, the Barouds hailed from Beit Daras, a not quite idyllic village some 50 kilometers from Gaza, variously neglected or hard pressed by Ottoman authorities and possessed of a deeply hierarchical social structure in which the family was placed far from the top. It is in Mandate-era Beit Daras that the book's defining trope quickly emerges in the person of the grandfather, also Mohammed, a dignified and determined individual remembered for "his refusal to be dishonored no matter what the price, and his incessant rejection of being classified as a member of a lesser caste ..." (p. 9). For all of his effort at self-improvement, tragedy awaits Mohammed and Beit Daras; located at a strategic point on the route south, the village attracts a well-armed Zionist colony at Tabiyya plus a hostile British police post. It is duly erased from the map. Uprooted and dispossessed, Baroud family life takes new form in Nuseirat refugee camp on the Mediterranean coast. The once proud grandfather is now a broken man, not least because "Camp life provided nothing from which to harvest a sense of self-respect" (p. 2).
The younger Mohammed's life now unfolds through a series of adventures reaching across and away from Gaza. Beginning his own family, Mohammed marries Zarefah from the adjacent camp at Bureij. Partly to earn a living but equally keen to participate in the struggle against Israel, Mohammed first enlists in the [End Page 145] gyptian army and later in the Ayn Jalut Brigade of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) conventional armed force, the Palestine Liberation Army. He sees action in the late 1950s and again in 1967. Mohammed is a truly three-dimensional figure: obsessed with formal education because he lacked it, fond of "Kent King Size cigarettes, because they lasted longer" (p. 110), and proud recipient of a personal letter from President Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser. Mohammed is not a saint; Ramzy takes us back to the question of self-esteem when acknowledging that bitter disappointment could sometimes spill over into domestic violence. The stalwart Zarefah endures much worse from the Israeli army.
The personal and political search for agency and self-esteem extends to a third generation as Ramzy engages in the first intifada:
I ran into the inferno with my schoolbag in one hand, and a stone in the other ... I felt liberated; I was no longer a negligible refugee standing in a long line before an UNRWA feeding center, waiting for a dry falafel sandwich ... I could finally articulate who I was, and for the first time on my own terms. My name was Ramzy, and I was the son of Mohammed, a freedom fighter from Nuseirat, who was driven out of his village of Beit Daras, and the grandson of a peasant who died with...