Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life

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9780374299507: Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life

A prominent Palestinian's searching, anguished, deeply affecting autobiography, in which his life story comes to be the story of the recent history of his country.
Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiography is a remarkable book—one in which his dramatic life story and that of his embattled country converge in a work of great passion, depth, and emotional power. Nusseibeh was raised to represent his country. His family’s roots in Palestine traced back to the Middle Ages, and his father was the governor of Jerusalem. Educated at Oxford, he was trained to build upon his father’s support for coexistence and a negotiated solution to the problems of the region.

But the wars of 1967 and 1973 spelled the beginning of the end for the vision of a unified Palestine—and Nusseibeh’s response to these events, and to those that followed, gives us the recent history from a Palestinian point of view as no book has done. From his time teaching side by side with Israelis at Hebrew University through his appointment by Yassir Arafat to administer Arab Jerusalem, he holds fast to a two-state solution, even as the powers around him insist that it is impossible. As Palestine is torn apart by settlements and barricades, corruption and violence, Nusseibeh remains true to the ideals of his youth, determined to keep hold of some faint hope for the life of his country.

Once Upon a Country is a book with the scope and vitality of an old-fashioned novel—one whose ending is still uncertain.

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About the Author:

Sari Nusseibeh, a philosopher, was the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief representative in Jerusalem from 2001 to 2002, in which role he advocated a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the president of and a professor at Al-Quds University, the Arab University of Jerusalem. Nusseibeh was educated at Oxford and Harvard, and was a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard for 2004–05. He is the author of two previous books.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue   A Fairy Tale   Almost forty years ago the Israeli army conquered Jerusalem, a city my family had lived in since the days of Omar the Great, and soon afterward I fell in love with Lucy. Everyone agreed at the time, including the two of us, that it was an odd match. We were both students at Oxford, which at least on the surface was where our similarities ended. Lucy was the daughter of John Austin, one of England’s mightiest modern philosophers, and I was the nineteen-year-old son of a man who had spent the last twenty years serving a Jordanian-administered Palestine, an entity recently wiped off the map in six brief days. Lucy was expected to marry into the British intelligentsia and to pursue a dazzling academic career of her own. By contrast, I no longer had a country, and the old ruling class my father represented had been plunged into a crisis from which it would never recover. The children of the privileged and educated, including all five of my siblings, began heading for the exits.    Had I intended to stay in exile, the love that Lucy and I shared perhaps would have raised fewer eyebrows. But I wanted to return, and I wanted her to go with me. But how do you ask the daughter of a famous Oxford don to follow you to the war-scarred, embattled, poor, and occupied city of Jerusalem? How do you break the news that your fate will be tied to one of the most volatile corners on the planet, with two major wars in its recent history and the Arab leaders worldwide calling for another? It seemed too preposterous even to try, so I wrote a fairy tale instead.    It was second nature for me to use myth to get across something so important. At the time I was, as I remain, under the thrall of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for in it I saw how a children’s yarn could say more than a dozen philosophical treatises.    Fairy tales are also in my blood, and how could it be otherwise, with my having been raised surrounded by such a timeless and magical landscape? When my ancestors arrived in Jerusalem from Arabia thirteen centuries ago, the city’s history was already so hallowed by time—and of course by the ancient Jewish prophets who once roamed its streets—that it left the newcomers from the desert in awe. That awe was so strong that as a child 1,300 years later, I couldn’t walk to the corner market without feeling it all the way to my fingertips. Sometimes, when I watched my uncle’s camels graze among ruins of Suq al-Khawajat, or Goldsmith’s Souk, which had belonged to the Nusseibehs from time immemorial, the sensation of being a character in an ancient story swept through me—as it did when I watched a different uncle, the doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, take a foot-long skeleton key and, as in the story that my Christian friends told me of St. Peter and the Pearly Gates, unlock a door thick enough to withstand a battering ram. In a city whose lanes were too narrow and crooked for a tank, this massive oak door still gave off a sense of impenetrability.    After snatching the city away from the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, Omar the Great made our family’s ancestor High Judge of Jerusalem, and from that point on my family has served the Holy City as judges, teachers, Sufi sages, politicians, and as doorkeepers to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.    With all this in my background, my fairy tale’s first line was as truthful as it was unsubtle: “Oh how I wish I could go to the Holy Land.” The rest of the story is about an angel on a flying donkey who takes an English girl named Louise on a ride to Jerusalem. The model for my story was Mohammed’s Night Journey to Jerusalem, my favorite childhood fable. One evening the Prophet mounted a winged steed named al-Burak, Arabic for “lightning,” and took a magical trip that over time would inspire the tales of flying carpets. Apart from the revelation of the Koran, in the only miracle ever associated with the Muslim prophet, Mohammed flew on al-Burak’s back over the endless dunes and rock deserts of Arabia to a land described in the Koran as holy and blessed.    The destination of the Night Journey was the site of Solomon’s ancient temple in Jerusalem and the place, according to Jewish tradition, of Abraham’s sacrifice. To be more precise, he and his steed landed on the rock where some say Adam was created, and where he first set foot on earth after his expulsion from Paradise. (They’ll also tell you that if you look closely enough, you’ll see his footprints.) It is from that rock that the Prophet then ascended to heaven to receive instructions for the Abrahamic message of Islam, or faith in the one God.    In the yarn I wrote for Lucy, after an angel wearing a turban and riding the magical donkey whisks Louise away to Jerusalem, she meets a variety of characters, including Mr. Seems, who is never what he seems to be. Another figure she encounters stands guard at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Since the time of the Crusades, this knight of the Holy Sepulcher has been asleep at the same spot, as rigid as the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, and just as teary eyed, because a thousand years ago he vowed not to budge until there was peace in the Holy Land.    While at Oxford, I never finished the tale. I got Louise as far as Jerusalem, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with her once she arrived. Would she help awaken the Crusader knight outside the Holy Sepulcher? Would she help bring peace to the Holy Land? I was stumped.    Anyway, Lucy didn’t need a fairy tale to fall in love with Jerusalem: before I wrote the story she had already spent time in the Holy Land, while on tour with an Oxford choir, and had begun to identify with the landscape, history, language, and people with as much avidity as a native.    And so for more than thirty-five years my tale sat in a drawer, untitled and unfinished, and the knight remained very much asleep. More pressing matters—academic work, family life, and three decades of war and upheaval—got in the way. It was only last year, as I was preparing for my upcoming fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, that I picked up the tale again. I asked my twelve-year-old daughter, Nuzha, bedridden with the flu at the time, for her opinion on its merits. An avid and critical reader of stories and an aspiring writer herself, she gave me the thumbs-up, and I packed the tale along with the rest of my things to take to America. So as the institute’s distinguished mathematicians, historians, and biologists pursued their academic and scientific endeavors, I worked on my fairy tale.    The aim, of course, was no longer to persuade Lucy to run off with me to Jerusalem. Now other motives had surfaced. Lucy and I now had our own children, who had to make their own decision as to whether to stay in a land far more mired in tragedy and seething with resentment than it was after the Six-Day War. Could I so easily say to my children, as I said to Lucy back then, that a life in Palestine would be an adventure? Even if I tried, they would never respond as Louise does in the tale. (“It would be so exciting . . . Just think,” she pleaded, with her palms pressed together as if in prayer.) The only way to convince them about the possibility of a future in Palestine was to make a good case that our conflict with Israel could be solved. Somehow I had to wake up the sleeping knight in front of the Holy Sepulcher.    Weeks of toil resulted in some new characters and a couple of mystical Sufi riddles. But I still didn’t know how to awaken the sleeping knight. No wonder, for after decades of effort, the magical formula for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed more elusive than ever. The Goldsmith’s Souk, my favorite haunt as a child, had been taken over by a sect of messianic Israeli settlers, who had turned the ruins into a flourishing colony—but also a strategic dagger thrust into the center of the Muslim Quarter. More seriously, the country had been ruined by armed conflict. Suicide bombers had invaded Israeli cities, and the Israeli army had responded by reoccupying the West Bank. The Oslo Agreement was in shambles, and whatever was left of Arafat’s rule in the Occupied Territories was being challenged by Islamic extremism. Meanwhile, the Israelis were using terrorism as a pretext for erecting the “Security Fence,” a twenty-foot-high concrete wall that began to weave its way through the West Bank like some malevolent snake. Each time I returned to Jerusalem for important meetings at Al-Quds University, where I work, I had to be shadowed by my two bodyguards, ubiquitous, like characters in Kafka’s The Castle. Far from peaceful New England, my bodyguards reminded me just how asleep my fictional knight remained.       The solution to the riddle came to me on a plane returning to Boston after Chairman Arafat’s funeral.    A few days earlier, I had been at the Skidmore College lodge preparing for a lecture I was to deliver the following day when an urgent message came from Jerusalem. Chairman Arafat, enfeebled and holed up in his destroyed compound encircled by Israeli tanks, had succumbed to a mysterious illness. Chairman Arafat hadn’t been a well man for some years. The last time I met with him, before leaving for my sabbatical, he had looked gaunt and frail. When he fell ill this last time, he was flown to Paris, where a few days later he died. The Old Man, as he was known, was gone. That evening I cut short my stay in beauti...

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