In Return: A Palestinian Memoir, Ghada Karmi frames her reflections on being a Palestinian in exile with an account of her “return” during a 2005 UN assignment as a consultant to the Palestinian National Authority, during which she travelled to “places she hasn’t seen since her childhood; places that now have to live with the grim reality of occupation.” As she retraces the places of her childhood, she reflects on her life as someone “fairly integrated and at ease in my adopted country” but also “of that generation of Palestinians who still retained a memory of the homeland” for home Palestine was “their real country”. As she comes to realise, the future will be shaped by others, not on “those that like me, who no longer belonged here… lost out in 1948 and were scattered all over the world, never to return”.
Return then is an account of one return, in 2005. This was not the first time Karmi had been back. The first return was in 1991, a journey which she describes as having filled her “with bitterness and grief. I remember looking down on a night-time Tel Aviv from the windows of the plane taking me back to London and thinking hopelessly, ‘Flotsam and jetsam, that’s what we’ve become, scattered and divided. There’s no room for us or our memories here. And it won’t ever be reversed.’”
This realisation that you can never really return, that history cannot be reversed, is what flows through the narrative, which is by turns nostalgic and caustic: when Karmi reflects on her own life she is reflective and pensive, when she excoriates the Palestinian Authority for their failures she is bitter and weary, and when she encounters the structures of the entrenched occupation such as the security wall, the writing seethes with rage: “This country was Israel’s and Israel’s alone, to settle, loot, divide, carve up, refashion, rename, and do with whatever it pleased.”
Ultimately, the sadness of this book comes from Karmi’s realisation that country she returns to is a “new-old place whose people had moved on from where I had them fixed in my memory, had made of their lives what they could, and found ways to deal with the enemy who ruled them”.
Here Karmi speaks about her book at Edinburgh International Book Festival.