Palestinian activist Leila Khaled’s namesake recalls a life of politics

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Growing up with anti-apartheid activist parents and being named after the first woman to hijack an airplane left Leila Issel with alternative perceptions of the word ‘terrorist’.

Issel’s parents Shahida and John ‘Johnny’ Issel were prominent public voices against apartheid during the founding days of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and also the ANC.

Leila Issel, the daughter of anti-apartheid activists, was named after Palestinian activist Leila Khaled. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Leila Issel, the daughter of anti-apartheid activists, was named after Palestinian activist Leila Khaled. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Her mother named her after Palestinian activist Leila Khaled, who in 1969 hijacked an airplane on its way from Rome to Athens.

Khaled has been viewed as an activist for using the hijacking to raise awareness of the Palestinian struggle against Israel. Others have labeled her a terrorist for her stance against Israel.

Khaled is meant to visit Cape Town next month as part of a national speaking tour. This has raised debate among local pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups. The visit is meant to raise funds for a local group that promotes boycotts against Israel.

Issel has not yet met Khaled, but feels that she has a personal connection with her as “she was frequently spoken about in my upbringing”.

“Many people told me who I’m named after her (Khaled). People gave me DVDs about her. People spoke about her strength. She was young and strong in her ideas,” said Issel.

“Leila and other Palestinians inspired our freedom fighters in South Africa. My mom was inspired by her. She was a strong woman who stood up for what she believed.

“She felt something was wrong and she decided to do something. That gives strength where there is no hope. That’s a good thing, because when we see someone else standing up for something it makes us feel stronger.”

Issel said having Khaled and her parents – persons that she loved – named terrorists made her view this word differently.

“My reaction to the word terrorist is saviour, strength, someone who stands up for equality and human rights. My father always used to tell me, ‘I’m doing this because there are kids who don’t have fathers who can fight’. So that’s what a terrorist is,” she said.

“A terrorist is someone who stands up for poor people, for people who don’t understand the red tape. Because red tape can kill you. Someone who fights for equality. Someone who fights against occupation.

“A terrorist is an awesome person who is standing up for someone.”

Issel is not the only sibling named after so-called terrorists, in the eyes of western leaders. One of her brothers is named after deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Another is named after former Cuban president Fidel Castro.

As an adult, Issel did not follow her parent’s political footsteps, but since birth politics was all she had known.

“Just before I was a year old I was arrested. The police knew how to get to our parents. They would take the children to get them to come out of hiding. I was taken to prison to get my father to come out of hiding and he did,” said Issel.

“I went to a protest when I was nine. I was arrested and put into an adult prison. I didn’t understand what was happening.”

She added: “I blocked out a lot of things. I have verbal memory, but no visual memory. It was too psychotic for my space.

“My space was never age appropriate. My parents didn’t realise the damage it had done to us.

“I only know politics. Most people have religion in their house twenty-four-seven. We had police, meetings, torture, breaking down the house, banning orders, imprisonment, being on the run and moving from house to house twenty-four-seven.

“I didn’t learn how to pray. I had to learn that later in life. I learned politics. That was our code.”

Issel said her grandparents also introduced them to political life.

“My grandfather would hire movies for us like Battle of Algiers. Those were the types of movies we watched. It was insane. I have two daughters and I would never let them watch those things,” she said.

“We were at my grandparent’s place one evening and we were watching the news. My brother ran in and said, ‘They running on the TV after dada with big AK47s’. That was our life. It was normal. We didn’t cry about it.”

When Issel was nine she had to represent her father at the founding of the UDF, a gathering of civil society movements united against apartheid, in Mitchell’s Plain.

“My father could express with words what people felt in their hearts. That made people feel that he understood them. He had a huge following and that would strike fear with the apartheid government.

“He was vocal and that’s when he became an enemy of the State. He was called a terrorist. He was under a banning order and he said I should represent him at the UDF meeting. There were 10,000 people.

“I was asked to speak and share a stage with Helen Joseph, Allan Boesk and Trevor Manuel at the launch of the UDF. It was intimidating. I used to stutter as a child, because of the nervousness of everything.

“Later we found out he was inside the hall. Had he spoken, he would have been arrested.”

While John Issel died in January 2011 his wife Shahida is still alive.

Issel said she and her mother “are involved in social issues”.

“We are political. It’s in our DNA. It’s all we know,” she said.

Khaled will arrive in Cape Town on February 12, the same day as President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address. She is due to address locals at an event in Surrey Estate that evening.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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