“I had a politically active life and enjoyed a large circle of friends who, like me, came from other parts of the Arab world to be in Beirut, the centre of revolutionary and progressive politics of the time. But love is blind, and I thought my life could become even better.
I dropped everything and followed him to Detroit. Five months later, I uttered the words ‘I do.'”
There are many faces of love and The Wandering Palestinian encompasses them all.
Having shifted between Beirut, Detroit, Washington DC, Cambridge and Jerusalem — breaking rules and expectations wherever she goes — author Anan Ameri’s love for her family, country, job and people is tested repeatedly as she attempts to settle in a country that is not her original home. Hard-hitting and elegant, her life reads like a storybook.
Beginning with her early days in Detroit, newly married at the age of 29 in 1974, she befriended the local Arab American community, a large number of recent Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi immigrants who shared a strong Arab identity and radical politics. She went on to establish the Palestine Aid Society of America (PAS) by 1978, which involved leading a US delegation to participate in Nazareth’s International Work Camp in Palestine in 1983. She remarried in 1998 and ventured into her second career with ACCESS in Dearborn, where she led the efforts to establish the Arab American National Museum.
Anan Ameri came from a high powered home; her Syrian mother was a business owner, while her father was a prominent intellectual and activist who served as Jordan’s foreign minister, as well as the country’s ambassador to Egypt.
Education is a significant theme in this powerful memoir. Palestinians in exile realised the vital importance of education, for girls as well as boys. As they became better educated, women started to participate in the embryonic resistance movement.
Born in Palestine before the Israeli occupation of 1948 and raised in Jordan in a politically and socially liberal household and educated in Egypt, Ameri was awarded a master’s degree in sociology from Cairo University.
She worked as a researcher at the Palestine Research Centre and had a side job as a freelance journalist in Beirut. “This was the centre of revolutionary and progressive politics of the time,” she writes.
However, that wasn’t anywhere near enough for her pushy parents, who wanted her to study further and be independent. She reminds her readers repeatedly that she came of age during the 1960s, the era of liberation movements, including Palestine’s, and a time when women rebelled against male-dominated societies. It is easy to understand Ameri’s commitment to justice at any cost.
“In the US, away from my parents’ pressure,” she tells us, “I decided to get my PhD in sociology from Wayne State University. Soon after I graduated in 1981, my mother came to visit. When I met her at the airport, she hugged me so tight, her eyes swelled with tears. ‘Mabrook, Doctora. You have no idea how happy and proud you make me.’
“Once we settled in at home she opened her purse and said, ‘I have a gift for you.’ From the box I could tell it was another piece of jewellery. To my utter surprise it was her necklace, the choker I always wanted.
“‘Oh, Mama, this is a real surprise. I expected you to give it to me when I got married, but when you didn’t, I thought I’d never get it.’
“She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Marriage is not an accomplishment. A PhD is.'”
Anan Ameri’s memoir is littered with such momentous “what ifs”. She details crucial moments at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, including an attack by the right-wing Lebanese Phalangists against Palestinian workers heading home to Tel Al-Zaatar refugee camp. She was in Beirut at the time.
There are many fascinating stops on Ameri’s life journey. My favourite is the fund-raising tour to help those who survived the horrific massacre in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in 1982. On the road she met diverse groups of Palestinian communities and families, as well as the dark side of the American Dream.
The trip began in Gallup, New Mexico, where the small Palestinian community controlled the wholesale marketing of Native American arts and crafts. It is also where she was confronted by the poverty-of Native Americans for which not even visits to Palestinian refugee camps had prepared her.
She notes that, like their Palestinians counterparts, the Native Americans are a proud people who will fight until the bitter end. After all, they too were driven from their homes by relentless waves of white settlers whose hunger for tribal lands was insatiable. Moreover, they will use whatever means they have at their disposal, with no champions other than themselves.
The trip included an unexpected stop in San Diego which forced her to experience fund-raising at midnight in a Palestinian night club, where “the music was too loud, and the dancing was too vulgar.” Nevertheless, $3,625 was raised for the victims of Sabra and Shatila.
Her writing is raw and frank, like herself. It has a seamless ability to adapt and move. So we hear about the wonderful Mediterranean weather and the vibrancy of the cities. And also about the refugee camps, war, longing, loss and death.
Throughout a troubled marriage, her toughness and sass are effectively counterbalanced with moments of vulnerability and grief. A major breaking point was her divorce from her first husband, Abdeen Jabara, an Arab American lawyer and civil rights activist. As a result of mounting pressure to save her marriage and exhaustion from overwork, she even fantasised about killing him:
“All I remember from that evening is that I got up after he asked for more coffee. I slowly walked to the dining room, picked up the empty pot, and smashed it on my husband’s head. I was so happy he was killed instantly. One strike, I didn’t want to hear the word ‘Aini’ one more time.
“My heart was pounding hard and my legs and arms were trembling. I walked into the kitchen and held the counter to steady myself. Fearful I was about to pass out, I reached for a chair and sat down.”
As she narrates this period of her life, we learn about a much more sensitive Ameri, which could be possible to relate to many activists and campaigners. She takes time to recover from exhaustion at the sheer length of the Israeli occupation, with no apparent end in sight; this is the cost of her passion for the powerless.
The self-reflection in this memoir comes from both the head and the heart. Ameri is skilful in allowing us a deeper insight into her emotional breakdown building up to her divorce, as well as her recovery afterwards. She is at first reluctant to seek help and follow treatment advice until she is introduced to Dr Payton and her unconventional therapy sessions, whom she eventually warms up to.
There is love in letting go and moving on, the author demonstrates gracefully. It opened doors to a new love and her dream job, a second career with the Arab Community Centre for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Michigan, where she led the efforts to establish the Arab American National Museum.
By telling her own story on her own terms, The Wandering Palestinian does more than entertain. Anan Ameri inspires and educates.