It’s 2012 and Leila Khaled can still manage to stir-up controversy. In May, the staff members at Manchester’s branch of the Blackwell’s bookshop were inundated with phone calls; the company’s multi line system was essentially under blockade. On the end of each of their telephones were aggressive campaigners, on the line to express distaste at a book launch set to take place in the shop. The book was Sarah Irving’s new biography of Leila Khaled.
In the famous image of Leila, she looks away from the camera, her black, shiny hair visible at the hairline and slightly beyond before a black and white Palestinian keffiyeh (the traditional scarf) covers it, the corners wrapped around her neck, the ends falling over her shoulders. In her hands she carries an AK-47 rifle casually. Leila looks neither sad, nor happy.
The photograph has become an icon for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a resistance movement formed in 1967 to struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine – for which Leila was an activist and leader. It is fitting, then, that Sarah Irving’s new book ‘Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation’ has a pencil sketch of the photo on the front cover of her book.
Who knows if, when that photograph was taken in 1969, she had any idea about the impact she would have through her activism: that she would become the subject of a documentary by Lina Makboul; a book launch in Manchester; or that her picture would form a mural in the West Bank City of Beit Sahur. As far as I can gather, she does not regret her actions.
What Leila Khaled is perhaps most famous for is the part she played in two aircraft hijackings, one in 1969 followed by six sessions of plastic surgery so that she wouldn’t be recognised in order to carry out the second one in 1970.
The first is described in the introduction to Irving’s book; a woman wearing sunglasses and a hat, dressed in a white suit waits at Rome airport. Her comrade Salim Issawi is also in the waiting room yet both behave as if they don’t know each other. Later that day they board and then take over a passenger plane, originally bound for Athens, and manage to divert it over Haifa in Palestine, Leila’s home town, and finally towards Damascus. Most of the passengers alight unharmed, but two Israelis are kept as hostages to be swapped later for Syrian and Palestinian prisoners.
According to Leila, nobody knew what Palestine was before this. She describes her journey on the bus after the first hijacking when someone said, “I don’t understand. Who are the Palestinians?” Leila and Salim believed, after the first operation, that they had achieved exactly what they set out to achieve: “To bring the plight of the Palestinian people to the world’s attention.”
Perhaps this string of events demonstrates one of the biggest questions that has surrounded Leila’s life story: is she a terrorist, who spread fear amongst the passengers on the planes she hijacked, or is she a freedom fighter, intent on bringing the injustice of the Palestinian question to the international world’s attention? At once she made the Palestinian cause known throughout the world and yet encouraged the unfortunate stereotype that “Palestinians are terrorists”.
Irving’s book is part of the “Revolutionary Lives” series, introductions to radical political figures and the parts they have played in history and the present. The biographies try to uncover why people devote their lives to radical movements and the impression this leaves on their lives.
Leila grew up in Haifa, Palestine. She was four in 1948 when the city was attacked by Zionist forces and her mother and siblings ran away to the South of Lebanon, across a border that was open at that time. Zionists spread rumours that anyone staying in Palestine would be massacred and people left on foot, by boat or in cars and lorries. Growing up she learnt, through her mother, that certain milestones in her life, such as wearing a white dress for a wedding, could not be celebrated until they returned to Haifa, to their home.
That Leila’s life and the experiences she had were hard is unquestionable. Though her background may go some way towards explaining her attitude and approach, this is not the end of the story.
In this book it is hard to catch a glimpse of Leila beyond her ties to politics – what was she like with her friends; did she have interests outside the movement she belonged to? It is through her roommate at the American University of Beirut that we catch a small glimpse of this. Judy appears just fleetingly, and it is through Leila’s awe at her “amorality” and her collection of boyfriends that we see a flicker of something about Leila that moves beyond the political warrior she is painted to be on every page.
Despite leading a radical life, Leila faced the same challenges as other women. She was not allowed to fight when it became known that she was pregnant, and she had issues with balancing work and family life. When she fell in love the news even reached the Guardian… but she also fell out of love.
In fact her position as a woman in the struggle is prevalent throughout the book. Irving describes when her mother became concerned about the reputation of the family, yet her father supported Leila’s activities. Her mother hid her clothes to prevent Leila from going to meetings and she was reprimanded by her fellow fighters for dressing inappropriately, and she was slapped by her mother.
So what were the campaigners who called Manchester’s Blackwell’s store in March concerned about? Sarah Irving herself is not so sure, but perhaps she is accused of glorifying terrorism. Ironically, the campaigners managed to stop the launch being held, yet succeeded in gathering more publicity for the book.