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Jewish Journal

Books: Nusseibeh ‘Once Upon a Country’ memoir ends in disillusionment

by Howard Kaplan

September 8, 2007 | 8:00 pm

"Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life" by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $27.50).

Sari Nusseibeh's political memoir is a monumental achievement both in breadth and boldness. There is little like it on the Palestinian side, certainly nothing from Columbia University Palestinian academic Edward Said, now deceased, who found only the holes in Zionism but never the heart. Nusseibeh reminds me most of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's spokesman and novelist, Ghassan Kanafani, who before a Mossad car bomb obliterated him in Beirut in 1972 wrote seminally honest short stories and novels, such as the symbolic "Men in the Sun," whose Palestinian protagonists die in a water carrier in route from The West Bank to Basra, lacking help from their Arab brothers.

Nusseibeh never obfuscates, grandstands or justifies Palestinian excess. In a way no Palestinian has ever risked in print, he castigates the corruption of Yasser Arafat's leadership in the territories:

"Politically, the center shifted suddenly from the intifada activists on the 'inside' to returning PLO functionaries, and geographically from East Jerusalem to Gaza and the West Bank, where the 'outsiders' now lived. Needless to say, the bulk of the ministers were 'outsiders,' whereas their undersecretaries were, by and large competent local people, many of whom had worked in the technical committees and hence had two years of preparatory work behind them.... Unfortunately, they faced the reality of working with the returning apparatchiks. The new ministers, dazzled by the trappings of power -- the cars, the adulation -- had little inclination to study reports or listen to local underlings. Ignoring the multiple volumes already on their desks, our potentates preferred commissioning new reports, which is after all what ministers do. One favorite pastime of many ministers was to gather around Arafat's desk in Gaza, watching him conduct business and wanting to get their instructions directly from the Old Man. Some ministers, who behaved like demigods to the people under them, journeyed to Arafat's desk in Gaza, to get his permission to hire an office secretary."

Nusseibeh details the financial fraud of the ring around Arafat with painful precision -- automobiles bought abroad with public funds then sold to the local populace the profit pocketed, collusion with unscrupulous local Jews in smuggling in gasoline. He argues persuasively that Arafat gained no personal financial benefit and was not squirreling away millions as has been charged. However Arafat read every report, knew everything and turned a blind eye to the corruption. Nusseibeh characterizes Arafat as someone "playing the trapeze act, carefully balancing himself between moderates and militants, unwilling and perhaps unable to come down firmly on either side." Like many of us, his greatest strength was simultaneous his destructive weakness.

Painful for a Zionist like myself to read are the depictions of life in the West Bank and Gaza, something I frequently witnessed myself prior to the first intifada: roadblocks with yellow license plated settlers cars waved through while blue-plated Palestinians cars were stopped in a seemingly endless line at checkpoints; the squalor of the Dehasisha Camp near Bethlehem, where children were chased by soldiers for hurling a Palestinian flag in the electrical wires; the endless dusty dirt roads through the Gaza refugee camps in sight of the high chain-link fences of the settlements with sprinklers rotating over lush green grass. Failure to find sympathy for the Palestinians' human suffering is as impenetrable a roadblock to peace as any.

The scion of an aristocratic Jerusalem family, Nusseibeh traces his roots back 1,300 years to one of the tribal leaders who joined Mohammad on his seventh century pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A family member still shares jurisdiction over the entrance key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and twists the lock on those doors open each morning.

The idea for this memoir sprang from his reading Amos Oz's memoir, "A Tale of Love and Darkness," as Nusseibeh discovered that they had grown up 100 yards apart in Jerusalem separated by the uncrossable "no man's land" that partitioned the city from 1948 to 1967.

Oxford educated, a philosopher by training, happiest teaching and in metaphysical reverie, Nusseibeh is repeatedly forced into the political fray by its concrete existence around him. A good man in a turbulent sea, he is relentlessly tossed around, beaten by radical Palestinians for his moderate stance and jailed by the Israelis in Ramle Prison, charged with being an Iraqi spy who guided undirectable Scud missile launchings while in reality he hid under his kitchen table with his wife and children as the errant rockets regularly fell short and landed in Arab territory. To the Israeli right wing he was far more dangerous than an Iraqi spy; he is a thoughtful, passionate and fair-minded moderate.

Probably the most tragic segments of the book detail the Camp David accords and how the dual egotism of Ehud Barak and Arafat prevented an accord "by a whisker." Nusseibeh's political trajectory moved from support of a binational state to a two-state solution to a sadly disillusioned stance. He no longer finds the erection of a Palestinian state preeminent and now focuses on the achievement of freedom and human dignity. The politician has returned to philosophy but I suspect only the politicians can ultimately bring the freedom and human dignity he and his people seek.

Howard Kaplan is the author of three novels on the Middle East. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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