Ramonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979).
This book is the autobiography of a woman in revolt, but whose revolt is accidental. Although its title suggests a high degree of political awareness, the author conveys very little of the depth and impact of the struggle of the Palestinian people under Zionist occupation. The sole virtue of the book is to expose the self-centered elitist political perspective of the author. This is worth something, considering how the occupation authorities and the Western media have, each in their own way, conveyed the impression that she is a militant champion of the Palestinian struggle.
The first part of the book reflects the author’s views as an Arab women confronting the modes of behavior of Arab society. Not surprisingly, her portrait of Arab society is largely negative. Her disdain for many habits and customs of the society is apparent; and, in many instances, her criticism and indignation are well taken.
But her criticism is weakened by the obvious fact that she is an Arab woman who is quite wealthy and has thoroughly assimilated Western culture. Her mother had been born in the United States and educated in European schools. The author herself was educated in religious schools in Nazareth and Haifa. She was thoroughly immersed in Western culture, and acquired there a great disdain for the ways of the Arabs. It is clear throughout this book that she understands things quite differently from the masses of the people.
She displays remarkably little understanding of the circumstances which led her to revolt. Her husband’s wealth enabled her to hire servants and maids to care for her chores and her children. She had ample leisure time in order to become active in other spheres. Her confusion on such important points is well reflected in her contradictory comments on her own marriage. She complains several times that she was forced to marry, while indicating elsewhere that she married because her husband was someone who could provide her with everything.
Given her background, it is not surprising that Tawil’s approach to the liberation of Palestinian women takes the form of importing Western culture and artifacts into the villages and towns of the West Bank. She recounts at length, for instance, the struggle and travail with which she finally was able to bring to Nablus a jazz band from Indiana, as if this represented a blow for the rights of Palestinian women. She does, of course, acknowledge that the Palestinian resistance movement is a more important ingredient for the emancipation of Arab women than the jazz band from Indiana. But this incident, and many others in the book, display her striking lack of understanding for the dynamics of struggle in her society.
The second part of the book, an effort to convey a concrete sense of the practices and behavior of the Israeli occupiers, is even more disappointing. She conveys none of the essence of the Palestinian people’s thinking, or their aspirations. We learn not what this people wants, but only what Tawil wants for herself.
There is also little analysis of the differences within Israeli society. We know from the book that she despises the Zionism of Menachem Begin, and appreciates, at least in contrast, that of the MAPAM Party. But she does not help us understand any difference between them. She does not mention the Israeli occupation without simultaneously raising instances of bad treatment accorded to the Palestinians in Arab countries. Of course, the Arab countries deserve strong criticism in this and other areas. The manner in which she does this, though, has the effect of supporting Israeli propaganda about how “benign” its occupation is. The author’s contempt for the Jordanian authorities’ refusal to allow her to smuggle in the writings of the Israeli poet Bialik are not matched by any criticism of Israel’s refusal to allow Arab national poetry inside Israel, at least for as long as they could control the situation.
In another instance, she bitterly recounts Jordanian questioning of her concerning her personal contact with Israeli officers and troops. Relationships with Israeli citizens, writers and the like may be understandable. Military governors and occupation authorities are another matter altogether. Tawil’s Western upbringing apparently did not include references to what happened to French citizens who had such contact with the Nazi authorities during their occupation.
The book is, in conclusion, a revealing portrait, though not one that recommends the author either as a struggler for her people or as a perceptive and sympathetic witness to their ordeal. “It is cold in Ramallah’s military courtroom,” she writes at one point:
Entering the building I see the women squatting in the line outside; they are wearing long black Palestinian dresses, their faces are wrinkled, their hands toil-worn. They sit there patiently, as they have been taught, ready to defer to anyone in authority. How astounding! Many of these women are the mothers of fedayeen — the bold fearless young men and women who have restored our pride and self-respect. But, they — the mothers — remain humble, submissive, resigned. I do not resemble those women. I am wearing my chic blonde wig; I am dressed in European clothing. I talk to foreigners; I can even address the Israelis in their own language.