Culture

A revolutionary icon in flesh and blood

BEIRUT: If you weren’t yet born, or politically aware, in 1969, you may only know Leila Khaled from an incongruous (oft-reproduced) image of a kefiyyeh-clad young woman gazing downward, demure, gripping an AK-47.

If you were around in 1969, you might recall this icon of Palestinian resistance as the pretty woman in a sun hat who boarded flight TWA 840 in Rome, hijacked it and diverted it to Damascus. There, once all those aboard disembarked, her accomplice blew up its nose.

You may also recall that the same woman, her face altered by six rounds of plastic surgery, returned to action the following year, this time boarding an El Al flight in Amsterdam. This hijack didn’t go according to plan, and Khaled spent several weeks in a London police station, surrounded by the media.

These two operations – carried out in her mid-20s – mark the highlights of Khaled’s notoriety. Both she and the cause to which she’s committed have aged over 40 years since then.

In “Leila Khaled, Icon of Palestinian Liberation,” biographer Sarah Irving sits down with the revolutionary and those who know her to both re-examine the militant’s famous operations and explore the trajectory of her struggle over the course of her life.

Starting with her childhood departure from Haifa in 1948 and ending with the mother-of-two’s life in Amman today, Irving provides an intimate portrait of Khaled. Her book also offers a surprisingly complex account of the tensions within the Palestinian resistance movement – both in terms of its mode of resistance (political vs. militant) and the role of women.

The biographer manages all this in a slim 138 pages.

Published as part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series, Irving’s biography joins a relatively short list of extant English-language books on Khaled, and her self-penned 1973 work “My People Shall Live: the autobiography of a revolutionary.”

Doubtless, Khaled could stand to have tomes written about her life – she may yet write some more of her stories herself, she tells Irving – but this short, well-told chronology reveals the woman behind the icon.

Although occasionally critical of her subject, Irving spares her readership any amateur psychoanalysis of Khaled’s motivations or mentality.

Irving generally narrates Khaled’s path to militancy in a factual way, for instance, allowing Khaled to express her sense of duty to the Palestinian cause in her own words.

“Every Palestinian who lived though the Nakba [the ‘catastrophe’ of the creation of Israel],” Khaled said, “felt they had to do something.”

She followed her elder siblings into the Arab Nationalist Movement, first finding herself in battle at the age of 14.

“I was amazed at the speed of the bullets as they buzzed past,” she recalled, “and was somehow surprised to see a real battle scene raging, particularly with me in its midst.”

With typical obstinacy, she overcame her family’s disapproval and the “male chauvinism” she experienced within the movement to convince the ANM to include her in their first round military training for student activists.

By the end of 1967 the ANM merged with two other Palestinian organizations to form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Following the humiliating defeat of Arab armies that year, she was determined to become a fighter.

“I did not notice the hardships,” Irving quotes Khaled as saying. “I was so happy that at last my dream to become a fighter had come true. I was so happy that for the first three days and nights I couldn’t sleep.”

While clearly an admirer of Khaled’s tenacity, Irving questions her about the morality of her actions. The writer invokes the trauma endured by her subject’s hijack victims and the horrific incident on Christmas Day, 1976, when Khaled returned to her apartment to find her sister and future brother-in-law murdered by a gunman targeting her.

To her credit, Irving manages to weave both political explanation and critique into her account, spending considerable time examining how Khaled’s determination to become a fighter and her role within the PFLP contributed to the evolution of women’s rights, and role, in the Palestinian resistance.

At other times, the author delves into the political splintering, reform and realignment that characterized the Palestinian political struggle. Without becoming bogged down in its intricacies, she conveys a sense of the debate among these groups about their aims and how best to achieve them.

For anyone familiar with Lina Makboul’s 2006 documentary “Leila Khaled – Hijacker,” in which the filmmaker unsuccessfully prods her subject to discuss the restrictions a Palestinian militant can face living in the Hashemite kingdom, readers will find precious little discussion of that matter here.

Ultimately, the biographer’s major accomplishment is to remake a decades-old revolutionary icon into a living, breathing woman.

Yes, Khaled is an activist and a political voice on contemporary Palestinian affairs and her commitment to her cause has endured. Her wit and bloody-mindedness in the face of occupation have not lessened an iota.

In Irving’s portrayal, Khaled is a wife and mother faced with the challenges of raising a family, but one with the additional concerns of a Palestinian refugee and former militant.

That Irving has found space in this light volume for extensive exploration of the evolution of women’s rights within the Palestinian resistance is testament to the author’s economy with words.

“Leila Khaled – Icon of Palestinian Liberation” is an ideal read for those seeking a brief introductory account that neither glorifies or vilifies its subject nor dumbs down the complexity of the context in which she lived and worked.

“Leila Khaled Icon of Palestinian Liberation” by Sarah Irving is published by Pluto Press.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 14, 2012, on page 16.

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