A White Lie: Women’s Voices

By Nancy Janovicek

by Madeeha Hafez Albatta, edited by Barbara Bill and Ghada Ageel University of Alberta Press 2020/$24.99/236 pp.

In A White Lie, Madeeha Hafez Albatta recounts her life as a teacher, mother and activist in Gaza. This is the first of seven volumes in the “Women’s Voices from Gaza” series published by the University of Alberta Press. Series editors Ghada Ageel and Barbara Bill interviewed refugee women from various socio-economic and religious backgrounds, centring the experiences of those whose contributions are marginalized in standard narratives of modern Palestinian history.

Albatta was active in Palestinian politics from a young age. The white lie that changed her life was to misrepresent a meeting with school officials in order to convince her father to send her away to school to become a teacher. Because of her family’s prominence in the community, she quickly rose to the position of headmistress. After the 1948 Nakba, she worked with the UN Relief and Works Agency to build schools for the thousands of refugees who fled to Gaza, and was a strong advocate for women’s and girls’ education. She did not teach after she married, but continued to be active organizing women’s institutes. Her marriage to a prominent public figure gave her access to resources and allowed her to travel to work for social justice. Woven through her narration of her public life are the intimate stories of family: the tragedies of the loss of her mother when she was a child and her brother’s death in the 1956 Khan Younis massacre; the celebrations of marriage, motherhood and grandchildren; and the challenges of maintaining bonds of kinship through war, displacement and diaspora. She died in 2011 at the age of 87.

Albatta’s voice is powerful. The editors of the series have used the life story methodology. They worked with the women to clarify events and details of family life but have not significantly altered their narratives, in order to preserve their authentic voices. The interrelation of family, community and politics shapes memory, and Albatta does not present her life in chronological order; rather she often reflects on how collective histories give significance to events in her own life. The introduction and chronology of events at the end of the book provide historical context for readers who are not experts in the history and politics of modern Palestine.

Memory work, the editors argue, is a crucial form of resistance to the erasure of Palestinian history. Women have passed these memories from generation to generation. Albatta’s narrative begins with a poem she wrote, appealing to the world to listen to the stories of Palestinian women: “Please come and see my tears, my situation, my life. It’s an awful life. I wish to be like you, but I can’t.” By preserving Albatta’s extraordinary life, this book makes a significant contribution to Palestinian history and politics.

Nancy Janovicek is an associate professor at the U of C.

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