Lives on the Ground

Lives on the Ground

New memoirs from Israel and Palestine offer the chance not to escape the political conflict but to grasp the way it impacts daily life.


Six decades since the birth of Israel and the demise of Palestine, fifteen years after Oslo, seven past the start of the second intifada, just months beyond Annapolis, and the mere mention of Holy Land politics will, more likely than not, cause even the sharpest of eyes to glaze over. The arguments for and against this particular peace plan or that interim solution have by now become so predictable that a macabre kind of repetition compulsion has set in, with all the parties behaving a bit like Karen, the doomed heroine of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Red Shoes,” who finds she can’t take off her weirdly possessed slippers and so dances herself to death.

Which isn’t to say that one should stop caring or paying attention. And here I speak not as an observer from afar but as someone who lives in Jerusalem and who continues–with a Karen-like helplessness I can’t deny–to start each day with a blast of bad news from the local newspaper and the tired rhetoric that inevitably attends the discussion of crumbling Knesset coalitions and Gaza power plays. The stories of individual people who live and breathe the sweeping political choices made by prime ministers and presidents are, however, another matter, especially when such eyewitnesses reflect on their lives in print. Memoirs of this sort offer readers the chance not to escape politics but to grasp the flesh-and-blood implications of all those generalizing gestures made on high.

Read side by side, two of the most celebrated recent autobiographical books from this beleaguered patch of land emphasize just how distinct two adjoining Middle Eastern microcosms can be. A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, and Once Upon a Country, by Palestinian philosophy professor and Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh (with Anthony David), offer drastically different views of Israel/Palestine and more specifically of the Jerusalem where both men grew up.

Since his third book, the darkly psychosexual and historically charged My Michael, appeared in 1968, Oz has filled the role of one of Israel’s most respected and “representative” novelists. Over the years, though, his high-profile public persona–ruggedly handsome, casually dressed, calmly articulate moral spokesman for the Ashkenazi center-left (he was one of the founders of Peace Now and has remained an unwavering advocate of a two-state solution)–has, in a sense, overshadowed his fiction writing. His allies and enemies alike tend to know his craggy visage and political positions better than the contents of his recent novels, and it is only half in jest that he is often called the chief rabbi of the state’s secular liberals. That said, Oz’s twenty-third title, an account of his humble beginnings in the Jewish Jerusalem of the 1940s, has become something else altogether–a “cult book,” as it has been described, snatched up by more than 100,000 Israelis during just the first two years following its publication in 2002. (Nicholas de Lange’s lucid English translation appeared in 2004.) It is one of Israel’s bestselling books of all time. Clearly, many identify deeply with both the personal and national story Oz tells; Israeli critics have compared his epic to those by Proust and Mann, and some local readers have even labeled it a kind of contemporary Israeli bible.

Hardly holy writ, A Tale of Love and Darkness is, in fact, an intimate exfoliation of the life of the author’s immigrant family–at the center of which rests the awful fact of his mother’s suicide when he was 12 years old. The book succeeds powerfully as an affectionate depiction of the hothouse atmosphere of this particular home and the wider (though still ingrown) community of prestate Jerusalem’s Jewish oddballs, nudniks and voracious readers. These were European refugees who embodied at the same time the most cosmopolitan sort of learning and the most profound sort of provincialism. Oz’s librarian father, Arieh Klausner, was a frustrated scholar who “could read sixteen or seventeen languages and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent).” He was also a man who, together with his dreamy wife, Fania, and precocious son, Amos, would spend months making arrangements and preparing mentally for the most solemn ritual of walking five minutes to the local pharmacy to telephone relatives in far-off Tel Aviv.

The peculiarly truncated sense of scale that Oz conveys–in which the entire known universe appears to exist within a few bedraggled blocks–is a perfect encapsulation of both a coddled child’s perspective and the true Jerusalem syndrome, familiar from those medieval maps that turned the town into the omphalos, the hub around which the rest of creation revolves. Libraries loom large in this cramped cityscape–so much so that Oz announces at one point, “When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book.” The line is amusing, though Oz’s aspiration to bookishness is also an indication of what ails his memoir, which despite its various charms is often oppressively literary.

A kind of horror vacui dominates, with Oz pumping his pages full of superfluous descriptions, similes, metaphors and words, words, words; his favorite mode is the rambling list. The book is too long by at least 200 pages, and the author repeats himself shamelessly. Every time borscht is served, for instance, there is an “iceberg of sour cream floating in it,” so that the epithet comes to seem downright Homeric. The same jokes are trotted out several times, as are the same grim anecdotes about European anti-Semitism. On one page, as part of a 101-word sentence (102 in Hebrew, a language known for its compaction), he describes the

opposite Jerusalem, the Jerusalem I hardly knew, the Abyssinian, Arab, pilgrim, Ottoman, missionary, German, Greek, brooding, Armenian, American, monastic, Italian, Russian Jerusalem, thick with pine trees, menacing yet fascinating…

Then, less than twenty pages later, and without any apparent self-awareness or memory of the lexical glut he has so recently unleashed, Oz sets out to account for the

other Jerusalem…the alien, aloof, shrouded Jerusalem, the Abyssinian, Muslim, pilgrim, Ottoman city, the strange missionary city of crusaders and Templars, the Greek, Armenian, Italian, brooding, Anglican…

He drones on this time for a full 134 words.

Oz’s tendency toward verbal excess–why use two words when twelve will do?–reflects self-indulgence of a fundamental sort. A deep-seated narcissism runs through the heart of this ultimately rather preening book, and it all too often blocks Oz’s view of the rich human scene he sets out to portray. More than a tribute to the lost world of Jerusalem’s refugee intellectuals, A Tale of Love and Darkness is really the author’s song–or opera–of himself. Which is not to say that larger political or social concerns are absent from the book. If anything, they’re inextricably bound to Oz’s sense of himself as shining representative of the Jewish state and its put-upon Eastern European founders.

To judge from the book’s runaway commercial and critical success, this is precisely the role that many readers want him to play: chief rabbi indeed–and maybe also poster boy for a kind of noble victimhood that many twenty-first-century Israelis cling to as a frantic form of self-justification. As Oz made explicit in various interviews published at the time of the book’s publication, he feels his parents’ class of impecunious, decidedly non-elite Ashkenazim, together with the entire Zionist project, has gotten a bum rap in recent years; his memoir is his attempt to set the record straight–and perhaps to assure his devoted local audience that they are not the bad guys, they are not to blame. The 1948 war was one “the Arabs started,” he writes. His parents and their neighbors were good but desperate people, with threadbare clothes and no other refuge from Hitler’s Europe but Palestine. A few days after the UN partition plan was announced, “hundreds of armed Arabs came out of the Old City, singing bloodthirsty songs, roaring verses from the Qur’an, howling ‘idbah al-Yahud‘ (butcher the Jews), and firing volleys in the air.” Pity me, pity us–Oz cries out: we suffered too. Like so many tales told in this part of the world, it is all about me and we. They still barely exist.

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.

A memoir is not just a record of what is remembered; it is also an account of what is seen. Nusseibeh was struck not by the fact that Oz had excised Palestinian Arabs from his childhood memories but that he’d hardly noticed their presence in the first place. As two other new memoirs make clear, such seeing (all seeing?) is a matter of choice. Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks (forthcoming in the United States from Scribner) and David Shulman’s Dark Hope have received much less press than the aforementioned volumes, yet both deserve serious attention. Each is a vivid and quietly devastating testament to the necessity of looking hard–and owning up to whatever one sees.

On the gradually expanding shelf of Palestinian memoirs, Shehadeh’s books deserve a special place. Since his first collection of diary entries, The Third Way, was published in 1982, he has been charting his people’s plight more steadily and honestly than almost anyone. Taken together, that first collection, along with The Sealed Room, Strangers in the House, When the Birds Stopped Singing and the volume at hand are almost like chapters in the same, ongoing saga. For Shehadeh’s frank, persistent and deeply grounded writing is part and parcel of a basic philosophy of staying put and bearing nonviolent witness to the difficult dailiness of Palestinian existence on the occupied West Bank. The notion of being samid, or steadfast, and remaining on the land no matter what hardships that entails is one that runs throughout all his books, becoming ever more fraught with time, as the political horizons narrow and the wall closes in. Like Nusseibeh, Shehadeh–a lawyer and human rights activist who writes in English and has both a Western degree and a foreign wife–could enjoy a much simpler life elsewhere, and many of his Palestinian colleagues, friends and relatives have made the choice to leave. But Shehadeh is a man of real principle, one who clearly believes he does the most good by enduring with dignity in the land of his birth.

Such dogged holding-on isn’t a given, and part of the sober force of Shehadeh’s approach comes from his willingness to admit his own uncertainty and even weakness. “In the uneasy first years of the millennium,” his new book begins, “I felt that my days in Palestine were numbered. But whether Palestine or myself would slip away first was an open question.” Palestinian Walks is a modest, often raw, book, conceived around a series of six rambles on which the writer, a lifelong hiker, set out over the course of several decades. Each leads him into a landscape at once tangible and imaginative. “A man going on a sarha,” he explains, using the Palestinian term for the sort of walks he likes to take, “wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself.”

That may sound like, well, a walk in the park–but as quickly becomes clear, a modern-day stroll through the Ramallah hills is hardly a form of escape, and Shehadeh is no mincing flâneur. While he writes in loving detail about the rock rose, the iris and the cyclamen, and lets his mind and prose meander over the stories of family and friends who have passed through these wadis and ridges over the years, his book is in large part the chronicle of a demolition job: the settlements and the wall are gobbling up his beloved land at a frightening pace. Even the thistle has been politicized. As he explains in one typically startling passage, the fact that Palestinian peasants use the poterium thorn, or natsh, for all sorts of practical purposes–as a broom or a mattress–matters little to the Israeli authorities, who have taken to using its prickly ubiquity on certain tracts of land as evidence that these plots are “uncultivated” and may therefore be appropriated for settlements. The book is full of such microcosmic atrocities, and though the small patches of flower and green that do remain seem still to lift Shehadeh’s spirits, his walks also force him to contemplate the near-hopelessness brought about by the infamous “facts on the ground” that lie at the heart of the Middle East conflict. Readers more accustomed to grayish newspaper generalities about the “situation” would do well to reckon with the painful particulars of Shehadeh’s account, which is at once gentle and angry, resolute and realistic.

The same could be said for Shulman’s brave and often searing book, which tells another, parallel story of sumud, steadfastness. The Iowa-born Israeli Jewish professor–a world-renowned Sanskrit scholar, translator from Tamil and Telugu, husband, father, grandfather, former medic in the Israeli army and 1987 MacArthur fellow–is not, by his own account, a natural activist. He is someone who made the choice as a young man to live in Israel because he had “fallen in love with the Hebrew language.” Yet after the 1977 electoral victory of Menachem Begin’s Likud Party, he found himself watching “in horror as Israel rapidly transformed itself into a paranoid, smug, and rather violent ghetto.” Things have gotten much worse since, and at a certain stage, Shulman felt he could no longer stand off to the side–for the sake of the Palestinians and for that of Israel, Judaism and maybe even humanity itself. (“Hell is realizing that one did not help when one could have,” reads the book’s epigraph.)

Dark Hope is a diary of his work, from 2002 to 2006, with Ta’ayush, the Palestinian-Israeli group that has taken up the most difficult and dangerous hands-on work of peacemaking: it brings convoys of medicine and food into the West Bank and helps Palestinian farmers harvest their wheat and olives, its members often placing themselves physically between groups of wild-eyed gun-toting settlers and Palestinian peasants simply trying to sow their fields. Like Shehadeh’s book, Shulman’s offers the record of a thousand piercing particulars, indignities too “small” to make the headlines but when taken together point directly to a systematic policy of injustice of the largest and most appalling dimensions. It is, indeed, this sense of skewed scale–the activists’ humble gestures pitted against a huge military-ideological machine–that makes the book so wrenching. (Reading Nusseibeh’s and Shulman’s books back to back, one is left with little doubt that the Israeli government and army consider nonviolent activists much more threatening than terrorists.)

In patient and often heartbreaking detail, Shulman charts the brutal police assault that the activists must endure on the cold winter day when they commit the high crime of attempting to deliver blankets to the Palestinian cave dwellers south of Hebron; the grotesquely symbolic morning they spend trying to gather up the vast quantities of rat poison pellets that settlers have deliberately spread throughout Palestinian fields (sheep and deer have begun to die, and the poison may already be present in the milk the peasants drink); a vicious physical attack by settlers on a Ta’ayush group that has come to the village of Twaneh to help the peasants plow. In this instance, an enraged settler wearing a skullcap and ritual fringe hurls Shulman to the ground and punches him “before moving on to his next target.” Shulman writes:

I feel pain, surprise, fear, rage. What is worse, I have seen their faces up close, and it is perhaps the most unsettling vision I have ever taken in, one I will later try to blot out, for these are not the faces of the usual human mix of good and evil, of confusion and clarity, of love and hate; the eyes are mad, killers’ eyes–it is like looking at something utterly demonic, something from the world of myth. We are staring not into an abyss–for all is here on the surface, present, evident, and horrible–but into a volatile vortex of pure hate. I have no doubt they will kill us if they can. They seem to hate us, the leftist traitors, even more than they hate their Palestinian victims.

This is vintage Shulman: at once focused keenly on the situation (dramatic, moral, sensory) in which he finds himself yet also attuned with a kind of fierce precision to his inner shifts and starts. And the author is just as likely to question himself and his own motivation as he is to doubt the wisdom of the Israeli High Court.

Beautifully written and emphatic in its calm insistence on the need to take both responsibility and action, Dark Hope is notable not just for the bleak picture it paints of the nightmare that the settlers and their sponsors, the Israeli government, have brought to millions of Palestinians but also, as its title suggests, for the faith it places in a basic human decency and in the belief that there must be another way. It is essential reading for anyone who wants–or hopes, however darkly–to grasp the lay of this punished land.

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