Writing in his late teens and early twenties, Sāmī ‘Amr gave his diary an apt subtitle: The Battle of Life, encapsulating both the political climate of Palestine in the waning years of the British Mandate as well as the contrasting joys and troubles of family life. Now translated from the Arabic, Sāmī's diary represents a rare artifact of turbulent change in the Middle East.
Written over four years, these ruminations of a young man from Hebron brim with revelations about daily life against a backdrop of tremendous transition. Describing the public and the private, the modern and the traditional, Sāmī muses on relationships, his station in life, and other universal experiences while sharing numerous details about a pivotal moment in Palestine's modern history. Making these never-before-published reflections available in translation, Kimberly Katz also provides illuminating context for Sāmī's words, laying out biographical details of Sāmī, who kept his diary private for close to sixty years. One of a limited number of Palestinian diaries available to English-language readers, the diary of Sāmī ‘Amr bridges significant chasms in our understanding of Middle Eastern, and particularly Palestinian, history.
Sāmī ʿAmr's mandate-era memoirs of his days working for the British in Palestine in the 1940s provides us with a rare intimate window into the world of thousands of Palestinian who flocked from their villages and provincial towns during the crucial years between the two great wars to seek employment opportunities and social advancement in the British mandate capital of Jerusalem. With village origins in Dūra, one of the most conservative and "tribal" strongholds of Jabal al-Khalil, Sāmī grew up in the city of Hebron but set out to make his way in life in the city of Jerusalem.
The central theme of this diary of self-discovery is the torturous search for a Palestinian modernity that is both Arab and Islamic. In this search the author seems to be fighting the ghosts of his own society—what he identifies as the repressive traditionalism of the village and the tribalism of Mt Hebron. In this he has internalized a Europeanized colonial image of Arab backwardness, along with a view of progress in a model of emancipation that is anchored in adopting a dress code, mannerisms, and a normative code of behavior derived from the European adversary. Yet ʿAmr's view of social emancipation via British rule is conflicted by the author's own experience of the Mandate as a repressive colonial apparatus, especially during the various upheavals that accompanied British rule, his brother's imprisonment by the authorities, and—not least—by his perpetual, but frustrated, search for the Perfect Woman.
In seeking employment within the ranks of the British institutions in Palestine and civil service (in Sāmī's case with NAAFI, in his brother's case with the military) ʿAmr was following in the footsteps of his countrymen from the Ottoman period, when thousands of city folks filled the ranks of the civil service, and hundreds of thousands volunteered or were conscripted to fight in the imperial armies of the sultan. Quite a few nationalist figures, like Muhammad Izzat Darwazeh, Sa'dun al Husari, and Haydar Rustum, wrote proudly of their civil and military service in the imperial bureaucracy. They often saw it as an essential schooling in acquiring necessary skills for the nationalist struggle. The same is true of the early employment in the British police, army, and civil service, when thousands of Palestinians, and other Arabs serving in the service of the British and French Mandates, saw this service as a legitimate source of employment, as well as fulfilling their national duty by preparing the ground for the period of postcolonial independence. In the case of employment in the British armed forces in Palestine, however, the situation began to differ in the thirties and forties in several facets. First the incorporation of the terms the Balfour Declaration into the terms of the British Mandate made it difficult for most Palestinians to believe that their future was similar to the situation in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or TransJordan—where local parliaments, representative government, and the rubric of statehoods were being implemented. Here the Palestinian Arabs were compelled to contest appointments in the public sector, to challenge budget allocations, and to vie for the land itself (as it was being colonized by the Zionist project). Second, the Rebellion of 1936-1939—witnessed by ʿAmr and his family a few years before ʿAmr began writing his diary—had a major impact on every feature of daily life and was a constant reminder to those who chose to serve in the ranks of the colonial state apparatus that theirs was not a neutral or innocent employment.
Kimberly Katz reminds us of the pitfalls of serving the British in this troubled period. In 1936 the British army created the Palestine Battalion of the Buffs to fight Arab rebellion. Its recruits were both Jews and Arabs, the latter mostly of peasant origin. In 1942 that battalion was expanded to prepare for native participation in the struggle against the Axis powers. At its peak, 27,000 Palestinians volunteered as official soldiers in the ranks of the British Army. Of those, one-third—about 9,000 soldiers—were Palestinian Arab; the rest were Jewish recruits. As the war operations extended to the Middle East, most notably in North Africa and the Palestinian coast, their numbers increased considerably. What is astounding about these figures is that the number of Palestinian fighters in the colonial forces, if one also includes Arab members of the colonial police force and Criminal Investigation Department (CID), equaled, if not exceeded, the combined forces of resistance groups, including the militias of al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (Husseini leadership), the QasSāmītes (followers of Sheikh Izz ad-Din al Qassam) and the Arab Salvation Army (Quwakji).
It was in this army that Sāmī's brother Sa'di joined in the early 1940s, to Sāmī's great embarrassment. It is not clear from the diary, however, whether this embarrassment was caused by his brother's very act of joining the colonial army, by his going AWOL when he was posted to the Egyptian front, or—possibly—by his escape from the increasing danger of having to fight against Rommel's forces the Libyan desert. The ambivalence in ʿAmr's diary on this issue is intentional. It extends itself not only to his brother's army career and his own service in the NAAFI, but also to his silence, or ambiguity, on the burning issues of the period—in particular the Arab Rebellion and the Zionist Question. While displaying a considerable amount of patriotism reflected in his love of the land, and showing concern that high levels of immigration were likely to undermine the possibility of independence for Arab Palestine, ʿAmr chose not to compromise his standing by joining any oppositional movement or by expressing these sentiments in any coherently anticolonial manner.
In my reading of these diaries, this ambivalence is not necessarily a mark of cowardice on the part of the writer. (He is certainly openly critical of his own community's traditionalism and "backwardness"—a position which would have required a considerable defiance of his own society.) Nor does it seem to emanate from fear of losing his job. At the heart of ʿAmr's hesitancy seems to lie a quest for a defiant, modernist Palestine which, in his view, required a struggle that transcended Zionism and Colonialism. Such a struggle required a radical encounter with the challenges of Western culture, in which the Mandate Authority was itself an instrument of this modernity. We notice such obsessions on ʿAmr's part by his references to colonial work discipline, dress codes, unveiling, industrial organizing, and modern farming techniques as the appropriate conditions for the uplifting of Palestine. In his fascination with colonial modernity, ʿAmr was not alone—he joins a notable series of writers from this period that include Khalidah Adib (Halide Edip), Khalil Totah, Khalil Sakakini, and Omar al Barghouti. His dilemma lies in his inability to combine an image of emancipated modernity with an anticolonial perspective.
ʿAmr's diary is an important addition to a new genre of biographic narratives of Palestinian and Arab figures that have appeared in the last decade, in which the personal experience of the narrator highlights unexamined features in the social history of the Ottoman and colonial periods. The distinctive feature of these subaltern narratives is that they invariably belong to non-elite groups—thus throwing new light on major transformations in society—and, more importantly, they are informed by conceptual paradigms that render them important tools in understanding the shifts and ruptures that occurred after World War I in the Arab East. Those ruptures include the nature of urban modernity in the Middle East, the manner in which the state and the colonial civil service constituted a basic instrument of socialization in the public sphere, and the redefinition of the relations between men and women who increasingly sought employment in the public sector.
Kimberly Katz was able, through her skillful editing and framing of this diary, to steer through this torturous route of ʿAmr's self reflections without passing judgment on his motivations or his political predicament. In doing so she has provided us with an interpretation of the diary in the context of his time, permitting the reader to appreciate why he wrote these utterances, and their meaning for the postwar generation.
"A Young Palestinian's Diary is a qualitative contribution to the rewriting of Palestinian history...Kimberly Katz must be credited for her invaluable contributions to the book. She provides detailed context for each event and, when necessary, 'Amr's reflections...Diaries like Sami 'Amr's serve as a rich and insightful resource for the study of the social and political life of Palestinians..."
Saleb Abdel Jawad, Journal of Palestine Studies (Spring 2013)
"An important contribution to the field. . . . Unlike most of the few published diaries and memoirs of Palestinians from that period, it does not bring the voice of an upper-class nobleman or PLO leader; it brings a voice that comes to us from the margins of Palestinian society. It provides the reader with information on a variety of daily life topics such as prices, relations between members of different religions, love, social life, and entertainment and constitutes a valuable source on Palestinian social and cultural history."
—Issam Nassar, Associate Professor of History, Illinois State University