Lives on the Ground
If Oz is interested in forging a myth of his own origins as well as of his country, Sari Nusseibeh prefers to debunk. While he, too, was raised in a hothouse, as the privileged son of one of Jerusalem's most distinguished and ancient Muslim families (since the seventh century they have held the literal key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), he has perhaps a bit less to prove and never once casts himself as the victim. On the other hand, as a Palestinian--and a Palestinian writing in English, for a foreign audience--he starts out as something of an underdog, and he and co-writer Anthony David have clearly set out to make a subtle political point or two to a readership that is probably much more familiar with Israel's saga than Palestine's. But the book is not a polemic. It's very much the story of Nusseibeh's political and intellectual growth, told in a mild and good-naturedly self-deprecating tone and cast against the backdrop of his people's troubled history.
Once Upon a Country was inspired, he says, by Oz's memoir, which, in the generous terms typical of Nusseibeh, he calls a "masterpiece." Although he grew up "no more than a hundred feet away from where Oz lived out his childhood," he was struck by the fact that "there were hardly any Arabs in [Oz's] story, and not a hint of the world I knew as a child." (Born in 1949, Nusseibeh is ten years Oz's junior.) His book attempts to tell something of what went on across the road while also offering a cleareyed reckoning of the state of the Palestinian national movement. There are no heroes here, even though Nusseibeh himself might reasonably be viewed by readers as one: he could easily live a much more carefree life elsewhere but has chosen to stay in Jerusalem and work not just for his people's independence but also for what might be called, without condescension, their education. With admirable humility and a pair of mismatched socks, he goes about the business of helping shape a university (Al-Quds), a state, a civil society.
Nusseibeh is an unpretentious and endearing character whose seeming contradictions may in fact be his greatest strength. A product of the old aristocracy, he's a forward-thinking democrat who weeps when he reads Thomas Jefferson. He's at once an idealist and a pragmatist, a bluejeans-wearing graduate of Oxford and Harvard who admits that the "thought of being burrowed for days in library stacks or chain-smoking...over a pile of notes in a café has always been far more alluring to me than jockeying for position and power." Yet time and again he finds himself at the eye of the political storm. An almost accidental activist, he risks his hide to write and circulate political leaflets during the first intifada; he also serves as a central figure in various behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts, at one point becoming the PLO's man in Jerusalem and later founding, with former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, the People's Choice, a grassroots Palestinian-Israeli peace movement. Imprisoned by the Israelis on trumped-up charges, his family menaced by the authorities, his university campus threatened with Israel's decision to run its "security wall" right down the middle of the school's soccer field, he continues somehow to maintain his sense of humor and purpose.
Nusseibeh is also a Palestinian patriot with a genuine admiration for what he calls the "dynamic energy" of Israeli culture. His first encounter with actual (and not bogy-man) Israelis takes almost comic form when he disembarks from an El Al plane in Tel Aviv, just after the 1967 war, and finds himself faced with the ragtag demeanor of the purportedly all-mighty enemy. He wonders, "How could such a badly dressed, ill-mannered people, who couldn't even stand in line for a cab, defeat all the Arab armies in the same number of days it took God to create the cosmos?" He suspects he may be in the presence of fellow Beatles fans. "They were normal people like us," he decides.
Sometimes, however, one admires Nusseibeh more than his book. The initial historical sections--which bounce along from the Caliph Omar's seventh-century conquest of Jerusalem through the early twentieth-century emergence of the Young Turks, and on through Nusseibeh's birth--are riddled with basic errors, names scrambled and the stories of important events told incorrectly. To take but one example: the Islamist militant Sheikh Izz a-Din al-Qassam's name keeps changing from Qassam to Cassam; he is repeatedly called "a simple village cleric," which he wasn't (he was a highly learned religious scholar who studied at Al-Azhar in Cairo and was a major figure in the 1921 Syrian revolt against the French in that country); and the famous circumstances of his death are completely garbled. Inspired by Qassam, the entire 1936-39 revolt of the Palestinian Arabs against British rule and Zionist settlement is treated breezily and as a kind of joke--"something straight out of the Three Stooges"--which, when one reads in any depth the history of Palestine, one learns it was not. Even if one considers this gross mischaracterization in the context of Nusseibeh's patrician background and the class tensions that marked the revolt (the urban aristocrats felt threatened by the rebels, who came mostly from the poor peasantry), it seems tonally bizarre for a man who has spent much of his life involved in grassroots Palestinian politics to dismiss with such casual cynicism the twentieth century's first Palestinian uprising. Whether this is a product of Nusseibeh's attitudes or his co-writer's sloppiness is impossible to know. The footnotes very oddly cite just a single source for almost all of the pre-'48 material: a historical survey written by an English journalist.
Equally strange is the book's almost entirely Western cultural orientation. Aside from his devotion to medieval Arabic philosophy and contemporary Palestinian politics, Nusseibeh seems indifferent to the rest of Arab, and specifically Palestinian, culture: references to Lewis Carroll, Bertrand Russell, Hegel, Auden, Walden and Monty Python abound, but when he mentions a novelist, it's C.S. Lewis (or Amos Oz!) and not Palestinians Ghassan Kanafani or Emile Habiby; Handel and Hendrix are both here, but not a single oud. And when an occasional Palestinian artist or thinker is mentioned, there are jarring mistakes or misplaced emphases--such as the description of the Arab nationalist, educational reformer and eloquent diarist Khalil Sakakini as "a poet." (An important figure in other respects and one of Palestine's finest prose writers, Sakakini composed a handful of conventional poems but certainly was no poet.)
Nusseibeh is entitled to his literary and musical tastes, of course, and he is not alone in being a Palestinian grandee whose education was so very European. But it seems peculiar, to say the least, that an intellectual who has given his life to Palestine wouldn't evince more interest in its living culture. It's not a matter of Nusseibeh's being cosmopolitan and bigger, somehow, than national boundaries--but of the fact that he maintains a studied distance from his own culture. This is a culture that, it should be said, has long woven protest into its poetry and poetry into its protest, and I cannot think of a single significant Palestinian writer who isn't somehow engaged with the various ways that the local landscape and lore are bound to history and politics. Not so for Sari Nusseibeh, whose real audience for this flawed yet moving book lives, it seems, not on the West Bank but on the Upper West Side. If Oz is too obsessed with us, Nusseibeh seems overly concerned with them.