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Hard Truth About Palestine

Sari Nusseibeh’s chronicle of a life “lived in a broken and violated land” reads at times like an unfinished nineteenth-century novel. In it there are villains and victims, patriots and fools, war and peace, betrayal and corruption, and an inevitable romance. We don’t know how the story will end. The book dramatizes recent history in Palestine as few others have done. It begins forty years ago in 1967, during a war rashly named after the Six Days of Creation. The Israeli army conquers East Jerusalem, the city where Sari Nusseibeh’s family is said to have lived for more than thirteen centuries. Two years later at Oxford he falls in love with another student, Lucy Austin, the tall, strikingly good-looking, fair-haired daughter of the famous Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin. The young lover ponders how he could possibly ask her to follow him to a war-scarred city in one of the most volatile corners of the world, with two major wars in its recent history and Arab leaders worldwide calling for a third. It seems preposterous even to try. He composes a romantic fairy tale instead. It works.

Nusseibeh was a nineteen-year-old philosophy student at the time, the scion of a Palestinian family with vast land holdings, or what was left of them after the wars of 1948 and 1967. The first Nusseibeh was said to have arrived from Arabia with Omar the Great in 638 AD, though the author’s father, a sensible, forward-looking man and a former Jordanian minister of defense, would occasionally quip that they came “from a long line of thieves.” Patrician families in Jerusalem commonly outdid one another with tales about their ancestors. “It was extraordinary how many ‘direct’ descendants of the Prophet lived in Jerusalem in those days,” Nusseibeh observes wryly.1 Sultan Omar made the Nusseibehs hereditary custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Today one of Nusseibeh’s uncles still holds the foot-long key to it; at specific times, he is called upon to ceremoniously lock and unlock the the door.

Born in 1949, Nusseibeh grew up in the Jordanian-controlled part of Jerusalem, then a divided city much like Berlin at the time, in a large house with precious carpets and chandeliers, often filled with people seeking his father’s advice or soliciting his help. The no man’s land between Jordanian East and Israeli West Jerusalem, a grim expanse of mines, ruins, barbed wire, and anti-tank obstacles, ran directly behind the Nusseibehs’ garden wall. The UN-monitored cease-fire was often violated. The young boy could look out across the spires and crosses at the nearby Israeli sector and the massive buildings of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, an armed Israeli enclave at the time. Hebrew voices drifted in with the wind from the other side. He would tune in to Israel radio to hear the Beatles. His parents’ taste in education was ecumenical. Sons were sent to the Anglican St. George’s School in Jerusalem, and later to Rugby in England; daughters went to French Catholic and German evangelical schools.

Jerusalem at that time was little more than two drab provincial outposts still formally at war with each other. Neither sector was any longer the cosmopolitan, or bizarre, place it had been before 1948 under the British mandate, when several nationalities, Jews, Arabs, and Armenians, a dozen religious sects, Weimar Republic intellectuals, exiled kings and their entourages, and high-ranking British, Czech, Polish, and Greek officers had coexisted with one another. West Jerusalem was modern and dull; East Jerusalem, with most of the holy places, breathed history and faith. With worldly parents and so many competing holy places a mere stone’s-throw from one another, within easy walking distance of his house, it is no wonder that Nusseibeh grew up a freethinker. He was well aware that the great Jewish prophets had also walked these same narrow lanes, a fact, he writes, that must have left his own ancestors, newly arrived from the desert almost fourteen centuries ago, in a certain amount of awe. Sultan Omar’s great Dome of the Rock stood on the very spot where the Jewish Temple had once risen.

In the years before the Six-Day War, Palestinian nationalism was ripening. There were frequent demonstrations and clashes with Jordanian soldiers. Relations between Palestinians and Jordanians were tenuous, often edging toward rebellion. Still, when he was in town, King Hussein would drop in for lunch with the Nusseibehs.

Sari’s father, Anwar Nusseibeh, had lost a leg during the first Arab–Israeli war of 1948. He was left with little faith in the ability of the neighboring Arab countries to restore Palestinian rights; to him, their generals were simply “grinning apes.” He was disillusioned with the PLO too. He believed that Israel was a fact and that Palestinians would have to learn to live with it. He knew Yasser Arafat, who on one occasion had been hidden from the Jordanian police at a relative’s house in Amman. Immediately after the Six-Day War, he had sent Arafat a message “to go straight for negotiations with Israel for a two-state solution. And do it now. If you wait, the Israeli position will harden” (my italics). It was a prophetic warning. The PLO ignored the advice.

Anwar Nusseibeh’s first instinct after the Six-Day War was to extend his hand to the Israelis, not obsequiously but as a proud nationalist. He was soon courted by Israeli journalists and liberal politicians. In the fall of 1967, he told me that Jordan would readily make peace with Israel if it withdrew from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Alternatively, a two-state solution with a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank would also be feasible. He was sorry, he said, to see that Israel was reluctant to accept either one. Israel was still vainly looking for a deal with Jordan that would keep East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank in Israeli hands.

On his first trip back to Jerusalem from Oxford three months after the war, the young Nusseibeh was astonished to find that the Israelis he met were not as fierce or “Wagnerian” as he had been led to expect. Flying in an El-Al plane, with its large Israeli symbols of statehood, seated tightly packed among triumphant young Israelis going home to a state that was suddenly enjoying mythic status, was a little unsettling. But he confesses that “the experience of sitting among Israelis inside an enemy machine and being served by frankly gorgeous Israeli airline hostesses would leave a permanent mark on my approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Upon arrival, he was amazed by the apparent disorderliness of Israeli life and the sloppy clothes people wore: “How could such a badly dressed, ill-mannered people, who couldn’t even stand in line for a cab, defeat all the Arab armies?” Palestinian East Jerusalem seemed to him moribund and uncertain of itself, pretty much as he himself was. His side of the city had been annexed to form Israel’s “eternal” capital. It was not under harsh military rule, as was the occupied West Bank; neither was it fully free like the rest of Israel. Almost overnight East Jerusalem Palestinians found themselves aliens with revocable residence permits in the city where they had been born. His own status as a resident was open to question since he had been absent during the war. The first Palestinian boycotts and protest strikes broke out during his first visit back. He was eager to discover what made Israelis tick. What gave them their dynamic energy? He entered an ulpan, a school for intensive study of Hebrew, and worked for a while as a volunteer on an Israeli archaeological dig. With his father’s encouragement, he spent a month on a kibbutz in the Galilee and was impressed by the high caliber of the people there. The kibbutzniks had a museum and an art collection. They paid little attention to the Palestinians:

We had hardly existed in the minds of these fine people. This absence wasn’t a product of malevolence or ill will. Physically, we simply weren’t part of their world, with most Arabs having been cleared out twenty years earlier. Morally speaking, it was a case of out of sight, out of mind. Their humanism never had to face us.

Back in Oxford, he would soon meet another philosophy student, the future Hebrew University professor Avishai Margalit, an Israeli more conscious of the Palestinian predicament than most. The two saw each other occasionally in a tearoom and scribbled possible solutions to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict on napkins. In later years they would meet on various joint peace initiatives. Nusseibeh felt that Israel, because it was more powerful and held all the cards, should be the first to recognize the PLO. He published articles to this effect in Israeli newspapers. By now the first settlements in the occupied territories—most with and some without government support—were being built. In 1973, Israel was nearly defeated in the third Arab–Israeli war. The occupation was becoming more and more entrenched. Earlier hopes of peace faded. The Palestinians made their first terrorist attacks on Israelis, both at home and abroad. Nusseibeh and Lucy were about to graduate from Oxford and had to decide what to do. He could have stayed in exile, he writes, as so many other children of privileged and educated Palestinians did. All eight of his brothers and sisters actually settled in Europe or America. But he was anxious to return and Lucy was eager to join him. Upon graduation both moved back to East Jerusalem.

Once Upon a Country is a passionate, well-written book, an altogether fresh, subtle, and often humorous approach to what Nusseibeh calls the “selfish contention between two ethnocentric tribes.” (It is a real shame that as fine a publisher as Farrar, Straus and Giroux did not equip this remarkable, politically and historically important book of 542 pages with an index.) If only, he laments, they would realize their potential as strategic allies! Both sides, he claims, are right and both are too often wrong. He found it difficult to take a Manichaean view of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict, Nusseibeh claims, since all too often when the enemy actually does something right for a change, your own side shoots itself in the foot. He blames both sides for the collapse of the Oslo agreement. Yitzhak Rabin and his successors undermined it with their extensive settlement projects on expropriated land in the occupied territories and Arafat did not do all he could to prevent suicide bombings.

As for President Clinton’s Camp David conference in 2000, Nusseibeh recalls Arafat’s response after the invitation was issued “that the two sides weren’t ready. The back-channel contacts with the Israelis didn’t yet promise a successful summit.” “For once,” he writes, “I agreed with Arafat.” Rather than a summit meeting “fated to failure,” he proposed, along with the Israeli writer and academic Mark Heller, that

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    After fourteen centuries, chances are that all of us can claim to be “descendants” of whatever great man we choose to adopt. The continuing claims among prominent Muslims that they are “direct” descendants of the Prophet Muhammad—e.g. the King of Jordan; the Aga Khan; Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah; the Ayatollah Khomeini, Mohammad Khatami, and other Iranian clerics—are reminiscent of claims by the Hapsburgs and other European royal families during the late Middle Ages to be “direct” descendants of Aeneas of Troy.

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