Resistance and Revolution as Lived Daily Experience: An Interview with Leila Khaled

By: Ziad Abu-Rish

(originally published at


The protests and uprisings that have taken hold across the Arab world have given new contours to processes of politicization, as well as the use of the term “revolution.” Before 2011, references to “the revolution” around the Arab World would conjure images of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Abdul-Karim Qassim, Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, George Habash, and Yasser Arafat, among others. Put differently, “the revolution”—and all that the term entailed in terms of hopes, dreams, belonging, solidarities, and conflicts—had for many of my generation felt like a distant past, one whose possibilities were foreclosed by a variety of forces; some structural and others contingent. Even those of us that self-identified as leftists, progressives, activists, and/or organizers understood ourselves to be working in a period and context far removed from that described by our parents, mentors, inspirations, and interviewees. As a historian of the second half of the twentieth century, I am often struck by how mobilized the average person was between the 1940s and 1960s, through a combination of political party affiliation, protest participation, and boycott action, to say nothing of simply bearing witness to all that defined those decades. Such degrees of politicization provided a sharp contrast to the effects of post-1970s depoliticization and demobilization across the Arab world as various regimes consolidated their rule and the regional and international order was institutionalized.

The trajectory of Leila Khaled, an icon of the “Palestinian revolution,” one of the tens of thousands that were politicized and mobilized, and an inspiration to many then and since, is one example of the multiplicity of ways in which individuals were politicized and mobilized. Listening to Leila Khaled narrating her experience of such processes was a turning point in my own political trajectory. Day after day of visiting with her, I slowly came to understand that it was not her membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), nor her hijacking of two airplanes (one in 1969 and one in 1970), that made her the person she was. Rather, it was a series of smaller events, processes, and discoveries, which she experienced well before her infamous acts, that politicized and mobilized her. She was neither innately radical nor a conformist.

As 2011 enters its final quarter, Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi has been added to the list of toppled Arab autocrats, while the Ba’thist regime in Syria—which claims the mantle of “resistance” and the legacy of “revolution”—is facing a threat from below the likes of which it has never faced. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, “the revolution” is no longer a signifier of a bygone era. It is a lived experience, a reality, and the present. The “revolution” has compelled many to claim and imitate it, in the Middle East and beyond — from Tel Aviv to Madrid and Wisconsin. As one insightful analysis put: “Politics, in short, has returned to the Arab world.” This is true in spite of, and partly as a result of, the varied contradictions of “the revolution”  across its different locals, as well as the ongoing struggles to define its scope and legacy.

However, we inhabit a very different world today, defined by different legacies, burdened by revolutions aborted and resistance abandoned. If the previous generation of resistance fighters and revolutionary activists were primarily informed by the experience of colonial rule and its aftermath, today’s generation is primarily informed by decades of indigenous authoritarian rule. Furthermore, those very political parties and ruling regimes that rose to prominence on the rhetoric—and, admittedly, programs—of social revolution and anti-colonial resistance, are now themselves accused of violating principles of social justice and national liberation. While such differences characterize the current processes of politicization and mobilization, the failures and limits of the previous generation’s promises and policies weigh heavily enough to circumscribe said processes with significant degrees of skepticism, cynicism, and fear of the unknown. Nevertheless, a dramatically larger section of the region’s populations are politicized and mobilized than before 2011. A new generation claims “the revolution.”

What follows is a translated transcription of a series of interviews I conducted with Leila Khaled during the summer of 2007. We have much to learn from her and the rest of her generation of activists and revolutionaries. More urgently now, I find myself returning to her experiences, in the context of the Arab uprisings, as we find ourselves confronted by and grappling with the hopes, dreams, demands, and strategies of resistance.
Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.

Click here to read Part 2 of this interview.

Click here to read Part 3 of this interview.


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