A look back at A Woman of Nazareth
I wrote A Woman of Nazareth in 1985 and self-published it in 1986. At that time, no one in the United States wanted anything to do with the Palestinians. However, I was adamant that it had to be “out there.”
The massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps in 1982 had left about 3000 people dead. I knew that camp very well. I had been part of a Lebanese women’s organization (the Lebanese women were all from the elite and very chi-chi class!) that had gone into the camp in 1967/1968, and just after the emergence of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) had opened up the camps which no Palestinian, or Lebanese for that matter, had been allowed into prior to 1967. We had gone in to establish a children’s kindergarten and a workshop for Palestinian women to sew their cross-stitch pillows, each with the particular design of her town or village, and then be able to sell those and make some very needed money. It was a fantastic experience and a very rewarding one as we, the Palestinian women, connected with our sisters and, for the first time, heard the stories of how badly they had been treated prior to the PLO’s existence; that is: prior to anyone having their back, protecting them, demanding a minimum of human rights for their dismal existence; and their heartbreaking stories of uprooting us a result of the establishment of Israel.
In one of my first presentations at the Palestinian Women’s Conference which took place in the US in 1987, I spoke of how close I had become to one of the families at that camp. I related how one morning as I sat with Imm Mohammad and her three daughters sipping our coffee and chatting, Abu Mohammad joined us. It was the first time he had done so, and I knew then that I had become part of that family. Anyway, as soon as he came in, Imm Mohammad stole herself out of the room and came back with a big white towel that she unfolded and laid over my knees, covering my legs very gently. All the while, the chatting continued as if nothing was happening. You see, that morning I had put on my trendy mini skirt and there I was sitting in the presence of a man with my long legs and half my thighs in full view! Not quite decent! Of course, I never wore a mini skirt to the camp after that experience! It is a heart-warming story for the finesse with which it was handled, and one that I still cherish after all these years!
There were many stories like that one; many exchanges and visits and, of course, the occasional air raids when the Israeli jets would fly over sometimes ejecting their projectiles, others just to intimidate and terrorize. The Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and I was flying in to Beirut when things were calm and flying out to London when the fighting intensified. I never went back to the camp until 1996 when I learned that Imm Mohammad and her husband had perished in 1982. I never learnt what happened to the girls.
That family, as well as all the other people I had met at the camp, was on my mind as I began writing what would become the Epilogue of my novel, the “Dear Leah” letter. I felt that I had to explain what was going on to a world that had ignored and marginalized us; to a world that only heard of the Jewish people’s historical anguish and their need for a homeland while ignoring my people’s agony and our need to remain in our homeland.
After getting a few rejections from publishers and realizing that my perspective would never be acknowledged, I hired dear Belva to type my handwritten text on her computer (very few of us had computers at that time, and fewer still knew how to use them) and then went to a small printing establishment to have it produced for me. Belva and I had given the proprietor a perfectly spell-checked and edited document. We don’t know what happened that once the book was produced it had typos on every page! Later on I would learn that the fellow had been a drug user. What happened? Did he mess it up while being high on something? I have no idea! However, I consoled myself with the fact that D H Lawrence, who wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1920, was refused publication for his book because it was deemed to be too sexually provocative and he had to go to Florence where he had it published there in 1928. There were typos on every page of his first publication also! Now I am certainly not equating myself with Lawrence, however, it was a very consoling story for me! It speaks to my belief, as it did Lawrence’s I am sure, that this deserves to be read! In any case, the book was later picked up by a New York publisher and republished in 1989 by the Olive Branch Press, an imprint of the Interlink Publishing group, Inc., in their Fiction category. It was again republished in 1992 by Interlink Books in their category: Emerging Voices. In 2000, with the rights of publication reverting back to me, I republished it again with iUniverse.com, Inc. where it is still being printed and sold today directly through that internet company, or through Amazon and other on-line book sellers. It is also available as an e-book. Quite an incredible journey!
Some people loved the book, others did not. I heard many suggestions of how I should have written this, that or the other; how I should have had an editor. But I also heard the many voices that told me how daring I was, how courageous, how inspiring, how I had written about a woman who was breaking taboos and going against societal norms and how this is the change that they are aspiring for!
No, I was not the first, or one of the first, Arab women to write a novel. May Ziadeh, Nawal Saadawi, Huda Shaarawi and many others have preceded me by far. They had dared to go where no Arab woman ever had and their books have been an inspiration to thousands upon thousands of Arab women. Some of their books made their way into foreign translations, English being one. But we needed more, much more in order to be heard; in order for our story: the woman’s perspective, and our suffering as Palestinians to be out there in the public domain.
Now, twenty-eight years later, I look back on my work with so much pride and love! I had, indeed, inspired so many young Arab women to aim for their tomorrows; to dare think and do and be; to break away from the suffocating traditions and the patriarchal mores. I had also told the Palestinian story to so many Americans. And as I look at the beautiful array of books and novels written by the younger Arab female generations, I feel even prouder and happier that they can now write and get easily published; that they can pen novels as well as political dissertations; that they can address serious subjects as well as sexuality and still be accepted within their own societies. These young women are out there now despite all the odds and their numerous battles to get respect and equal opportunity. Nevertheless, they are forging ahead and I am cheering them on.
I said about my book that it is a mission for me. It was when I wrote it and it still is. And not until the Palestinian people are a free people, not until we have our full rights and our place at the table with all the other countries of the world, will my mission have been fulfilled.