Thursday, August 28, 2003

I am a feminist agnostic only child of divorced parents who grew up in the '80s -- you might not think I'd have much in common with a patriarchal Mormon-offshoot polygamous family of the '40s and '50s. But when I read Dorothy Allred Solomon's Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up In Polygamy, I found some unexpected similarities.

I believe in polyamory, myself, so my main objections to the groups who splintered off the LDS church so they could continue to practice polygamy is that only men are allowed to have multiple spouses (and women are supposed to marry for the purpose of being mothers) and that they seem to require plural marriage, instead of just allowing it as a choice. The author grew up in a family of one husband and seven wives, but herself chose a monogamous marriage despite opposition from some of her extended family members. She says that in her earlier biographical writings, she wrote that "persecution came from outsiders, not from members of the family. But now I had discovered another story to tell." Nonetheless, the lives of Rulon Allred and his many wives and children did seem as if they could have been nearly idyllic if it weren't for the outside world's hostility. (This, of course, is ignoring the first, sole wife who left Allred when he announced his new belief in plural marriage, and considering only those women who married him knowing what they were getting into.) Allred spent six months in prison of a five-year sentence for polygamy before Dorothy's birth, and both before and after that, Rulon and his wives fled to Mexico or scattered across several states when "polygamous roundups" threatened. While the father hid out from the authorities, he could not work, and his families scraped by in extreme poverty. Having to keep the structure of the family a secret meant no birth certificates for most of the children, no insurance or hospital visits for routine health care, and an atmosphere of secrecy that made real wrongs difficult to divulge. For example, in the household of one wife who was on her own with her children during the scattered years, there was a son who sexually abused his younger sister. Might it have been more likely that this sister could have told someone who could have stopped the abuse if they had been with the rest of their family, or at least if secrecy about things happening at home had not been so deeply ingrained into the kids? (Indeed, would the abuse have happened at all if that wife and children hadn't been packed off to an isolated house seventy miles from their nearest family member? One can never tell what makes a person develop into an abuser.)

But during these scattered years, the children's experiences seem to have been very much like mine, growing up with first separated, then divorced parents. Dorothy's feelings now about telling the family's bad times as well as good -- "silence is the death within death that none of us deserves" -- echoes my own feelings in speaking out about having been sexually abused.

Given some of the tragic things that happend either due from monogamists tearing themselves out of the family , or because of Dorothy's family's acquaintance with people whose polygamy was the least of their religious oddities, the author would probably have trouble seeing how I could see positives in the polygamy shown here. Indeed, things might not have worked even this well for some people in this situation. But it seems to me that the loving extended family whose bonds survived all the events they went through is an example of how responsible non-monogamy really does work for those who truly believe in it.

Friday, August 22, 2003

A land of people living where their ancestors had been for thousands of years, until foreign conquerors moved in and, with the implied permission of other foreign powers, take over. There are many places to which this description might apply, but to most of the Western world, Israel is far from the first location that comes to mind. Ghada Karmi's In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story could change that for its readers, for the Palestinians certainly feel their land has been taken over by foreign conquerors. This is an autobiography by a woman born in what was then Palestine. Her early childhood took place in Jerusalem in the 1940s when the area was ruled by British mandate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. At this time the fighting that was going on was essentially recently-arrived Jewish people versus British government, with the Arabs regarding both as foreigners.

But then came a big change. "The UN had decided to accord the proposed Jewish state 55 per cent of the land and the Arab one the remaining 45 per cent, though Jews made up only one third of the population," Karmi explains. Or as her father put it, "How could anyone imagine that they would want to give half our country to immigrants?" Is it any wonder Palestinian Arabs fought for their homeland and continue to do so fifty-five years later? After all, in what is now the United States, the Native Americans reacted exactly the same way to the colonist and pioneers who came to take over their homelands, once they realized where things were going. Karmi points out that Christians, at least in the British Isles where her family fled in 1949, tended to be steeped in the Old Testament enough to also see Palestine/Israel as the land of the Jews. This view combined with horror at the Holocaust to make the creation of a state for Jewish people in their ancient place of origin seem fair. However, just because Jewish people had been treated abominably and unforgivably does not mean that there was any reason that Palestinian Arabs should be mistreated either. The Karmi family's story gives a view less often shown in the U.S.

Karmi's years in England are also interesting to read about -- when is she "a dark-skinned English girl," having lived there since the age of eight, and when is she a Palestinian in a world that views Arabs as incomprehensible and just other? Her parents and particularly her mother always seem to have considered themselves Palestinian foremost, creating a circle of friends of the same origin, and in her mother's case, refusing to learn English. Things were very different for the children, a situation familiar to any reader of American immigrant stories but complicated by the fact that the parents did not really want to leave their home country, and also by the relatively few immigrants to England in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, events such as the Six-Day War of 1967 and the generally pro-Israeli feeling in Britain led Karmi to embrace her heritage. I dare say any Palestinian hearing Golda Meir of Israel say in 1969, "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist," would have felt the same way. Even the United States did not come up with such ridiculous statements about the existence of Indians being displaced.

Karmi seems to have mixed feelings about the use of violence by Palestinians for political aims: "The hijackings were indefensible; yet watching events in Jordan, I and many other Palestinians could not help but feel impressed." However, her frustration with Westerners who blame her personally for all violence by Palestinians is evident. She nonetheless manages not to stereotype all her opponents, keeping separate in her mind those who have wronged Palestinians and those who have not, and even mentions the small groups of Jewish people who have supported her views and pro-Palestinian activism.

The book ends with Karmi's visit to Israel, a place she has previously avoided since her childhood flight. Her description of the separate lives of most Arabs and Jews in the country now as essentially "apartheid" was shocking, but really hit home, given my upbringing in the U.S. in the 1980s where South African apartheid was universally considered wrong (the controversy was between people who believed it was America's business to work against it and those who felt we shouldn't police the rest of the world's internal affairs).

I don't approve of violence on anyone's part; an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. But after this book, I feel I understand more deeply the source of the violence over Israel. Most of all, I pity the nearly hopeless task of those actively working for peace there. However, I also admire them sincerely for taking on so thankless and difficult, yet needed, of a project.