|Iraqis remember my aunt as a martyr – the first Iraqi member of the PLO to die for the Palestinian cause|
As a young girl I remember rummaging through a box of old family photographs from 1940s and 1950s Iraq. There was one of my grandparents on their wedding day and others of exuberant young girls in pearl necklaces and smirking boys in ironed shorts. Everyone seemed to be smiling – hinting at a more carefree era in Iraq’s history.
But one particular photograph jumped out at me. It was of a young woman with a piercing gaze. This, I was told, was my aunt and the more I asked about her, the more fascinated I became.
Hers is a story of a spirited young woman growing up in 1950s Iraq; of a woman who entered the predominantly male world of politics and committed herself with revolutionary zeal to the Palestinian cause; of a woman who chose the path of resistance and who died in circumstances that remain unclear to this day.
I pieced her story together from the still-tender memories of family and friends, although it was not always easy to make sense of the fragments I was told.
Determined and fearless
Hana al-Shaibani was born on August 27, 1942. She was the only girl in her family, having two older and two younger brothers. Her father, a politician and journalist, doted upon her and played a large role in shaping the woman she grew up to be.
In 1956, Iraq’s Ba’ath party started to grow in popularity. Its slogans proclaiming liberty, Arab socialism and unity attracted the younger generation, including Hana. Although she was only 14 years old, she enrolled as a member of the party – juggling her education with her political activities. During her university years, she worked for the Ba’ath party during the day and attended classes in the evening.
In 1958, following the overthrow of Iraq’s monarchy, Hana rose through the ranks and was chosen to lead the party’s female members. She was just 16. Two years later, she was selected as one of three representatives of the Iraqi Ba’ath party to attend the Arab National Ba’ath Party Conference, held that year in Beirut. Still just a teenager, she had already achieved more than most women from her region could ever imagine.
By all accounts, she was determined and fearless. One of the most memorable family stories tells of the time in 1959 when she left the house to join a protest rally against the autocratic rule of the then prime minister, Abdel Karim Qassim. The atmosphere was tense and a number of the organisers of the rally would later be killed. But Hana was resolute in her decision to attend.
Sensing trouble, she hid the gun she carried beneath her skirt as she walked down the stairs. Her father pleaded with her not to go. He explained that as a patriot he understood her sense of duty, but added that his love for her transcended all else. Hana replied: “Papa, you were once a patriotic man and when you were called upon to fight, you did. Please understand, so that I may go with your blessing rather than without.” Her father could not stop her.
Finding her calling
Despite coming from a middle class family, Hana chose to work in factories and on farms so that she could better interact with the people and understand their plight. She seemed to attract the underdog and would give a large portion of her salary to a family who lived in a poorer district of Baghdad.
But in a predominantly male workplace she also had to be tough. She demanded and won the respect of her male colleagues, and became known as someone who would fight any injustice and never compromise her ideals.
In 1961, Hana was disappointed to hear reports of corruption within the Ba’ath party. She was deeply affected by the allegations and, feeling that she could not make any real change, left the party. She knew this would make her enemies.
This was around the time that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed. The new revolutionary movement had set up bases in Jordan and Lebanon in its aim to liberate Palestine through armed struggle. As a passionate Arab nationalist, it was a cause Hana held dear and she soon found her calling.
Wasting no time, she travelled to Lebanon and Jordan, where she attended seminars and conferences run by the PLO and met with Yasser Arafat, the PLO chief, and other leading figures in the movement.
When factions splintered from the main body of the PLO, Hana found common cause with a new group called the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which she believed was more ideologically driven. When she flew back to Baghdad, she told her brothers that she was moving to Jordan and had joined the DFLP.
Dreaming of death
In Jordan, she immersed herself in the Palestinian community, disguising her Iraqi origin. She took on the alias Amal and spoke in a Palestinian accent, believing that people would be more inclined to talk to her if they believed she was Palestinian and that she would, therefore, be better placed to help them.
She lived in a refugee camp, wrote articles for the DFLP newsletter and helped women develop skills that would assist them in finding work. But she began to feel uneasy – she felt guilty for keeping her work with the DFLP a secret from her mother and started to doubt whether the group was really making a difference. While she remained committed to the cause, her friends have speculated that had she returned to Baghdad at that time she might have left the group.
March 1970 was the Muslim holy month of Muharram when Shia Muslims mourn the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein. When in Iraq, she would often attend the ritual ceremony mourning his death. In the Palestinian refugee camp, she listened to the radio broadcast of the commemoration with two comrades and during the stirring lamentations told them that she had dreamed of being dead and imagined how her mother would feel if she returned home in a coffin.
The dream proved prescient. Just a few days later on ‘ashura’, the day when Shia mourning culminates, Hana died. It was March 17, 1970 and she was just 28 years old.
To this day there are different versions of how she died. What they all agree on is that she was in the town of Irbid, in northern Jordan. One story has her dying during a routine DFLP training exercise, when she was accidentally struck by live ammunition. A variation on this suggests that she accidentally dropped her gun, which fired on impact with the ground, killing her. A detail common to all accounts is that when her body was identified in the morgue, the only sign of death was a bullet or shrapnel hole through her heart.
The price of freedom
The family was devastated. The Iraqi government proclaimed her a martyr – the first Iraqi member of the PLO to die for the cause. She came home as she had dreamt – her coffin draped in the Palestinian flag. Thousands came to pay their respects. As her coffin was carried to the cemetery, women scattered chocolates and sweets over it.
That was 40 years ago now, but to me as an Arab woman, Hana remains an enduring inspiration. She fought for a cause she believed in and refused to sit on the sidelines. She lived in the Middle East at a time when it seemed more progressive.
Many refer to her as a martyr, a fighter and a source of pride for Iraqis. But never was she labelled a ‘Muslim’, ‘Sunni’ or ‘Shia’. It is only in today’s wretched times that such labels seem to have become fixed in the minds of people and the media.
I cherish the photograph of my aunt that I found so many years ago. The same picture was made into a poster after her death and displayed on walls across Iraq with a quote from her printed below. It said: “Death is inevitable. However, we should reject death if it was given for no price. And the most precious price is freedom ….”