Reviewed by William Dobson
On August 29th,1969, Leila Khaled brought the world’s attention to the Palestinian struggle by hijacking a TWA flight, bound for Athens, in Rome. Just over a year later and post appearance altering plastic surgery, on September 6th, 1970, she was less successful in an attempt to hijack a plane flying from Amsterdam to New York; her assailant left dead and her captured. At the time, the Western press were intrigued by the ‘girl hijacker,’ her appeal exacerbated by her obvious beauty. Writing in The Guardian, Katherine Vinner described her as ‘the symbol of Palestinian resistance and female power: the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye.’
However, as Sarah Irving states in the introduction to her recent biography, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation, ‘oddly little has been written about [her]‘ since. There was an autobiography published back in 1973, ghost written by a member of the publicity department for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is now years out of print; a ‘tabloidese paperback,’ which focused more on the British hijack victims; and a chapter in Shoot the Women First, a book on ‘women terrorists.’
Post-9/11, the idea of hijacking has taken on a frightening and bloody light, with death and destruction of the masses the assumed directive. Of course, Khaled’s main infamy is still wrought from her two major ‘terrorists’ acts. Hers though was a different era. It was the time of ‘Che Guevara, killed in Bolivia just two years earlier, and of liberation struggles in South East Asia.’ In the Middle East, The Six Day War had just ended, with Israeli troops humiliating the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It was also when Second Wave Feminism was starting to come to prominence, weaving another complicated layer to Khaled’s story. The hijackings were aimed at promoting the plight of the Palestinians, removed from their homeland 20 years previously into refugee camps, scattered across the Levant. In that sense, they were meant to be bloodless tools of propaganda.
So it seems about time that someone has tackled such an interesting, mysterious and, yet, still clearly topical and pertinent individual, especially considering the recent events which have dominated the news emanating from the region. Moreover, Irving has done so intelligently and, perhaps most importantly, subjectively. She paints a vivid picture of a woman who is willing both to kill and be killed for her beliefs, who sees taking up arms against the perceived occupation as the highest calling. Yet, of course, her story is more complex than that. She’s also a daughter, a wife, a mother, a politician, an activist, a heroine to many, a terrorist to others and, perhaps most significantly, a woman in a male-dominated society.
She’s also a human being and hers is a story full of sadness and poignancy. Early on Irving describes how memories of her uncle’s orange grove from her time growing up in Palestine, means she hasn’t been able to eat oranges since. ‘It brings such a feeling of sadness to me…to think that our orange trees are still there in Haifa, but now they belong to somebody else.’ Later on, Irving covers her divorce, the murder of her sister and brother-in-law, the death of two further siblings and her continued struggle for a return to her homeland, something which she doesn’t believe will happen in her lifetime. If she ever does, she ‘will sleep under an orange tree for three days.’
In addition, it gives a well-rounded background to the Palestinian struggle as a whole, including the decline of the secular left and the rise of militant Islamism (although the constant use of abbreviations can further confuse an already incredibly confusing topic – one page has references to PNC, PFLP, PLO, GUPW and PWC). Perhaps more interestingly, it also analyses the idea of gender roles, highlighted by Khaled’s position in such a patriarchal society, and the interesting and complex dichotomy between being a feminist and a nationalist. As she says, ‘I was meant to get married, have kids, be a good wife and support my husband.’ It’s a position which has attracted the wrath of certain feminists who see the Palestinian struggle as one which is counter to their aims, a point dealt with ably by Irving.
Short, succinct and to the point, despite the occasional issue of chronology, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation highlights a character who may have been out of the spotlight for the last 40 years, but has continued to be very much active behind the scenes. Based on both past writings by and about Khaled, and more recent interviews with her, this is a wonderful and intimate vignette of a passionate, complicated and often misunderstood woman.