Why UK politician Layla Moran brought the keffiyeh to the Mother of Parliaments
In our continuing series of inspiring life stories across continents, we hear how the British MP is guided by a proud Jerusalem heritage
Layla Moran’s earliest and fondest memories are of listening to tales of the days when the Ottomans ruled Palestine.
With a child’s fascination for the grisly aspects of life, she absorbed one particular story told of her great-grandfather’s first job accompanying the tax collectors. “They went to a village where someone hadn’t paid their taxes,” Ms Moran relates. “The man was dragged along the ground by his scrotum by a horse because he hadn't paid his dues. And this was all under the draconian Ottoman rule.”
The first-hand accounts of her great-grandfather, the composer, oud player, poet and chronicler Wasif Jawhariyyeh, were published in his celebrated memoirs that span an extraordinary period for Palestine, from Ottoman rule to the 30-year British mandate and the formation of Israel.
As a young girl, Ms Moran devoured every word, finding a deep connection to her Palestinian heritage.
Those roots have at times come to the fore in her role as the first British-Palestinian Member of Parliament and as the Liberal Democrats' shadow foreign secretary. Vividly so when she appeared in the House of Commons with a keffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf, wrapped around her neck, the first worn by an MP in the chamber.
Ms Moran explains that she wasn’t striving to make a statement, it was just that she’d had another impassioned discussion the night before about the plight of the Palestinians with her mother, who was born in Jerusalem.
“The next morning, I opened the drawer and saw the scarf. I thought, ‘I’m going to wear it for her and I'm going to wear it for us’ because it's so much part of our identity,” she tells The National.
It was only afterwards that she realised the full impact of what she had done when friends texted their commendations alongside the inevitable social media storm.
She owes much to her mother’s side of the family, not least her love of Arabic culture and language along with a willingness to be outspoken and what she confesses can be passionate gesticulations.
The influence of her mother, particularly from those youthful days of protest during the 1970 Jordanian unrest, is obvious. Randa Jawhariyyeh was living in Amman and would often slip out to show support for the Palestinian cause, and it was Israel's proposed annexation of the West Bank that they had been talking about the night before Ms Moran wore the scarf in September last year.
“She'll talk about it emotionally, but she won't cry,” she says. “She just passionately insists that Palestine is not about lines on a map, it’s about people.”
Though born in London, Ms Moran is proud of being a “Jerusalemite” of many generations’ heritage. Indeed, the Greek Orthodox family bible, signed in Arabic by every firstborn child of her Palestinian Christian antecedents, is a repository of names going back two centuries.
“It confounds people that I am not Muslim because they associate Palestine with Islam,” she says. “Then I point out that Jesus was born there and they go ‘oh, yes’ … It shows that the basic makeup of who is a Palestinian is very poorly understood internationally.”
The city at the confluence of the three major Abrahamic religions in Jerusalem has generated a rich and deep history; more than half a century of which was captured in the memoirs of Ms Moran's great-grandfather.
Jawhariyyeh recounted one period of relatively peaceful intermingling of Muslim, Christian and Jew between the two World Wars. He was a Christian but studied the Koran and counted many Muslims -- Turks included -- as well as the Europeans, as friends. His diaries refer to Jews as “abna’ al-balad”, meaning compatriots.
He was, by all accounts, an engaging and charismatic man who socialised with all, no matter their background.
His many sayings were repeated at home and passed down the generations. “Money doesn't matter, all that matters is beauty” is one that trips off Ms Moran's tongue with a smile as she speaks by Zoom from her London apartment. “He was writing those diaries from the perspective of someone intensely proud of his homeland,” she says.
While Jawhariyyeh walked in the steps of many powerful men and worked for the British mandate, he never lost the enjoyment of speaking to ordinary people. There was one occasion when he visited Ms Moran’s grandfather in Libya during which he was “lost” for three hours after becoming engrossed in conversation with a bin-man he’d met on the street.
“People are people, and that's where the joy in life is”, Jawhariyyeh frequently said, according to Ms Moran. “I think that very much carried through in a lot of the way my family sees the world.”
Perhaps this is why she takes offence that her elevation to becoming an MP might somehow make her superior to others. “It has never been about me, or status or how other people see me,” she says. “And if they see me in a way that is in any way elevated above them, that makes me very uncomfortable. I do everything I do out of a sense of duty to others.”
That sense of public service comes from both sides of the family. Ms Moran’s father, James, is a notable diplomat who served as the European Union’s ambassador to Egypt, among other countries
Hence, the young Layla spent a privileged childhood jumping around various states from Jordan to Ethiopia and Jamaica.
“I am British, I am Palestinian, but actually I spent the whole of my childhood living in other countries than those two,” she reflects. "So I'm very much what they call a third-culture kid, without geographic roots.”
Her upbringing meant that she had many encounters with “these extraordinary people” who came to the house. The then prime minister of Jamaica, she recalls, was among those who felt comfortable enough to take part in a good party.
Telling the story of my family will inject an element of humanity into the conversation
“I'd meet presidents and ambassadors and see them to be normal people,” Ms Moran says.
Her parents also insisted that the fabulous homes with swimming pools and staff were “borrowed”, so “don’t have airs and graces”.
Having been imbued with Arab and Middle Eastern culture, Ms Moran puts that to good effect in the Commons to inform and educate other MPs on the region. “The best thing I can do is to tell the story of my family and that will inject an element of humanity into the conversation that hopefully will make people stop and listen,” she says.
It is those times, she believes, when she has the greatest effect, even if her mother worries that people will judge her for it. “Don't say too much that you're Palestinian,” Randa would chide. “You're British and you are a British MP, and you just happen to have a Palestinian mother.”
Her mother has long had great concerns for the welfare of Ms Moran. In the Gulf War of 1991, when the family was in Athens, she kept nine-year-old Layla off school out of fears that the conflict would spill over into Greece.
Given how much politics was discussed around the kitchen table and her time in the region, the 38-year-old MP is confident about her understanding of the Middle East’s complexities. “I can speak with real authority about the region,” she says.
Some of that heritage has been digested in more ways than one, with Ms Moran claiming a skilled hand at Middle Eastern cuisine. She says she makes a mean Moulokhia that wards off cold British nights and gives her apartment an Arab-influenced aroma, especially pleasant after a hard day spent toiling over foreign affairs.
“But there's a difference between being a Palestinian girl who likes to eat Palestinian food and listens to Arabic music, and being a spokesperson about what are very complex issues in the area. And I'm very careful when I tread on to the latter ground,” she says, in reference to the post she’s held since August. “I'm taking it slowly because I want to get it right.”
Her presence in the Commons is a clear reminder to others that Britain has a history, a legacy and responsibility to the Palestinians. She points out that it was the British mandate that governed the area for 30 years after the First World War, giving way to the formation of Israel.
“We can't just give up on the region," she says. "Britain is integral to its history. I’m not saying we can solve all of its problems on our own. We absolutely cannot but we certainly can't throw our hands up and go away.”
My great-grandfather felt that the British utterly betrayed the Palestinians
Again, the conversation comes back to Jawhariyyeh's diaries, in which he initially expressed joy at working under the British rule. “There was elation in his words at the arrival of the British because they freed them from the Ottoman Empire, but at the end my great-grandfather felt that the British who he had worked for utterly betrayed the Palestinians, because they promised that they were going to do good by them.”
Despite attending Roedean boarding school in Sussex, mainly because of her father's transient life as a diplomat, Ms Moran went into politics to address the unfairness she witnessed in the British education system as a secondary school teacher in maths and physics.
She decided to do something about it and read every major party’s manifesto on education, deeming that the Liberal Democrats most closely fitted her own beliefs.
In the 2017 General Election, she took the Oxford West and Abingdon seat from the Conservatives by just 816 votes. Her straightforward and egalitarian views appear to have held sway with her constituents.
In the last election, her majority increased by almost 9,000 votes. Observers of events at the House of Commons, it seems, will have the chance of seeing that Palestinian scarf for some years to come.
Updated: January 26, 2021 03:44 PM