Saturday, 8 December 2012

Review: Leila Khaled

Submitted for publication to Green Left Weekly

Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation
Sarah Irving
Pluto Press, 2012

As one of the first of the Revolutionary Lives series of critical biographies published by Pluto Press, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation couldn't have chosen a better focus. The book opens with the image of Khaled preparing to board and hijack flight TWA 840 on August 29, 1969; however, far more time is spent on the full span of her life, from fleeing her home as a four year old during the Nakba of 1948 to her years of work on the Palestinian National Council and in the General Union of Palestinian Women after her involvement in two hijackings.

In many ways, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation is as much the story of the history of the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the role the left – particularly the role the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – played in it, as it is the story of Khaled's dedicated and tireless career.

Sarah Irving's work is a must-read for anyone wishing to study Khaled's life; the primary source for many of the sections, particularly those beyond the notorious hijackings of 1969 and 1970, are a week of interviews that Irving conducted with Khaled in her Amman home in 2008 and subsequent communications. These interviews shed light on a variety of topics which have been poorly documented elsewhere, such as the role played by the organised women's movement amongst the Palestinian refugees in the neighbouring countries of Jordan and Lebanon; Irving compares them with the occasionally differing records of events held by others on the Palestinian left or in other published accounts to tease out the different narratives of the resistance's history.

Khaled's comments on the jailing or resignation of cadres of the Popular Front in the 1990s and the rise of Hamas as the alternative to the dominant Fatah leadership, as well as her positive assessment of the role the Arab Spring revolutions and the consequent March 15 movement in Palestine, also show her as a Marxist thinker still firmly grounded in the Palestinian struggle of today. She raises the key demand of the Palestinian left today – reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah, writing that the national split has "weakened the Palestinians (vis-a-vis) Israel, and also weakened Palestinian human rights on the international level."

The biography also draws together a range of perspectives on Khaled and fellow "women revolutionary fighters", and the barriers of perception they had to break through as "good Arab women." While still affirming Khaled's perspective that "[women] are under occupation, and in that we are equal in oppression with men... [but] at the same time there is social oppression, so women participate... in the national struggle and also in the social struggle," Irving considers feminist critiques of women's role within national liberation movements and references the different perspectives advanced by Palestinian women on the subject.

Khaled finishes on the future – despite the many setbacks for the movement she has lived through Khaled insists the conflict will "work itself out". Despite her status as a symbol of resistance to injustice, her humour and optimism makes Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation an inspiring read – and one well worth picking up for any supporter of the Palestinian cause.

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