[This is Part 2 of a translated transcription of a series of interviews conducted by the author with Leila Khaled during the summer of 2007. Click here to read the Introduction to the interview, and here to read Part 1.]
The 1940s through the 1960s were decades of intense social and political mobilization throughout the Arab world, ones in which strikes, protests, and marches were regular occurrences. They stand in sharp contrast to the post-1970s era, which was characterized by ever-decreasing mass political party affiliation, protest participation, and boycott action. Such a transformation was a product of intentional policies on the part of regimes—both ‘republican’ and monarchical—that sought to demobilize and depoliticize the general public as the former consolidated their rule. Leila Khaled’s recollection of her activism during her high school and college years is a testament to such a contrast. With very few exceptions, the idea of a general student strike to mark the nakba in the contemporary period would cause many would-be politicized and informed students—to say nothing of teachers, administrators, and parents—to question the efficacy of such an action. High schools and university campuses have become some of the most politically controlled spaces. Nowhere is the success of this strategy more prevalent than in the arguments of the region’s liberal elites, wherein they claim that schools are not the appropriate space for political debates, let alone political action.
In 1958, there was the Lebanese revolt against the term-renewal for President Camille Chamoun. This was a turning point in my life. I was fourteen years old at the time and was very much influenced by my eldest siblings’ involvement in the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM). Two of my brothers and two of my sisters were members of the ANM. In addition to the consciousness embedded by our parents, the political idea that we had to struggle to go back to our homeland was drawn from my siblings’ political activism.
When the revolt broke out in Tyre in 1958, the army besieged the city and clashes ensued. I took up the role of delivering food to the besieged people by bringing a big tray of food across one of the military checkpoints. When the soldiers questioned me, I would say that I was taking food to my grandmother and thus was able to come and go with some ease. At times, I would be caught in the cross fire and would have to wait until it subsided. Some times, the soldiers would actually help me.
This experience gave me a certain level of respectability, and so I asked to become a member of the ANM. The local ANM leadership said I was too young, that I could be a “friend,” and that after two years pass I would be examined and could become a member. So in 1959 I was accepted as a trainee. That same year, I went to school in Sidon to finish my high school. They required me to repeat the eleventh grade, as they did not want me to graduate from the school having only studied there for one year.
Towards the end of my first year at the new school, I told my fellow students that we needed to strike on 15 May. I was perplexed by their ignorance of the occasion. So I informed them of the anniversary of the Palestinian catastrophe. The school was a boarding school, and so I had to sneak around in the evenings to all the cottages to tell the other students. I coordinated with another student, an ANM member, to mobilize the students to strike. When the morning bell rang on the day of 15 May 1960, and no one responded, we knew that we had succeeded in making the whole school strike. The teachers were calling us to the assembly but we did not respond. The headmaster demanded that we attend. I went and informed her that on this day we were on strike. She asked me where I had learned that word. I told her that the day marks our nakba and that I thought she knew about it. She confirmed that she did but that never in the school’s approximately one-hundred-year history did the students go on strike. I had also sent a message to the boys’ section, some of whom were also members of ANM and other political parties, and who were also conducting a strike.
The administration of the school decided to negotiate with me; that was my first political negotiation. The headmaster wanted all the students to enter the chapel like we did every morning before we started classes to hear a sermon. On this particular day, I gave the talk and focused on the nakba and the reasons for our strike. I told them that this was something normal and part of out lives. The anniversary of the nakba, 15 May, the day of the Balfour Declaration, 2 November, and the anniversary of the UN partition of Palestine, 29 November were the three days every year where all students in Tyre would join with the refugees and protest. This, for me, had been something ordinary and it was unusual to see a school open for classes on one of these days.
At the American University of Beirut (AUB), the ANM was strong among the student body. Elections for the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) were being held during my first year at AUB in 1961. I ran for and was elected to the GUPS administrative committee along with several other people, including As’ad Abdul-Rahman, Bassam Abu-Sharif, Ibrahim al-Abed, and Marwan Baker. It was the first time a woman was elected to that chapter of GUPS.
This one time, we were supposed to organize regular demonstrations in 1963 in solidarity with activities that were ongoing in Nablus at the time. I was distributing pamphlets for the demonstration at night. One of the security guards caught me after curfew and asked me what I was doing. I responded with the fact that I was doing something for my country. He turned out to be a member of the ANM and opened the doors for me and helped me post pamphlets by being a look out. During that time, when AUB students declared demonstrations, the high schools and colleges would follow our lead.
From different parts of the city we gathered at the same point. It was usually the case that the women would be at the front of the demonstration because the assumption was that the police and army would not attack the women. We were a diverse group of Arabs from Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. The army came at us using water hoses and arrested some of us. It was half-past noon and I had to go to a class that started at one. I was drenched and ran back to class, ten kilometers away, getting there just in time. It was exam time for freshman and sophomores. I sat in my seat and received the exam. I turned to the person next to me and told her to let me copy her answers and I just cheated throughout the entire exam.
A few days later, the professor said that the results were in and that there had been a brilliant response. He asked me to stand. He then announced that I had received a grade of zero because I had provided the answers to the sophomore exam and not the freshman exam. I felt ashamed. I told him that I had earned the zero in terms of my answers but that he should appreciate the political work that was accomplished instead. He offered me a make-up exam and I scored very high on it.
Later that week, while in the post office, I received three notes requesting that I report to the Dean’s Office. While there, I was asked if I had read the regulations on the student identification card that prohibited any political activity. I initially denied my political activity, but the Dean confronted me about my pamphlet distribution and placed me on probation. I then told her that I did not accept her warning or her notes because I had been working for my country. I told her that I should be appreciated, as I was not only studying physics and mathematics, but also learning how to love my country. I rejected being reprimanded for working for my country.
Click here to read the Introduction to the interview series.
Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.
Click here to read Part 3 of this interview.
Click here to read Part 4 of this interview.