Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (Reviewed May 2008)

Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (2007) [*****] I put Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian on my short-list as soon as I read Gordon's review (and if he felt the need to apologize for the length of his review, I clearly do too!) In 1986 I participated in Earlham's Jerusalem Program, and lived and studied in the Old City, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for about four months. So much has happened since then, and I am ashamed to admit that I have not kept up. Upon reading Gordon's review, I thought this would be a good re-introduction, and it was. Of course, I trusted Gordon's recommendation, and was interested to read a Palestinian he admires, but I didn't expect this to be such a page-turner; I had trouble putting it down. So much of it took me back to my own time in Jerusalem, which I haven't thought about so intensely in a long time. (Nusseibeh's efforts to make a human Palestinian-Israeli chain on the Green Line brought to mind some of our sillier moments, when my pals and I would sing "Take a walk on the Green Line" a la Lou Reed: "And all the Palestinians go: doo do doo do doo do doo..." Also of note is that we studied with the Israeli peace activist Janet Aviad, with whom Nusseibeh worked during the first Gulf War.)

This story is framed as a fairy tale, but it reads much like a spy novel -- a genre that Nusseibeh loves, and aspires to write, especially when he is feeling tired and wants to escape (i.e. much of the time). Nusseibeh has a rare ability to think both strategically and tactically, a combination of skills which are bound leave one profoundly frustrated, especially in the bureaucratic and corrupt world of the Palestinian Authority. Nusseibeh's relentless optimism and energy are sort of mind-boggling. I admire this book for all of the reasons Gordon did, and agree with his review almost entirely. I, too, found Nusseibeh's affection for Arafat curious, especially given his otherwise withering assessment of Arafat's leadership -- he certainly doesn't spare Arafat for his incompetence, paranoia and ultimate lack of vision. (As for Chompsky, no matter what else you can say about him -- and I don't dispute that he may be a charlatan -- his criticism of the Olso accord for its failure to halt settlements, noted by Nusseibeh, seems pretty uncontroversial). I would have liked to hear more of his wife Lucy's story -- there are hints that their work is often a partnership, but her role in the partnership is almost entirely untold.

I'm sure the analogy falls apart on many, many levels, but reading Nusseibeh's analysis of the violence, despair, nihilism, and corruption that runs rampant in Palestine, I couldn't help think of the parallels to my own experience of living with and working with Black and Hispanic folks living in poverty in this country -- not to mention the corrupt and incompetent local government (mostly Black and Hispanic) that utterly fails to serve them. Nusseibeh insists that Palestinians and Israelis are natural allies, and that the only way to move forward is for both peoples to enter into a true negotiation -- that is, a dialogue that allows both sides to go "off-script," to really be able to talk and get to know one another, and to be willing to put even sacred cows on the table for the sake of peace. Nusseibeh also insists that any interpretation of religion that is used to dehumanize others does violence to faith itself. I think there is much in Nusseibeh's analysis that is pertinent to us here in America today. Any of you who are moved by Obama's calls to unity and hope really should read this book. You won't be Sari (yuck yuck!)

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