Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (Picador, 2008)
Inside the ancient gates of Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher sits tucked away among stone paths worn smooth by thousands of years of footsteps and towering walls that shade the city from the sweltering Middle Eastern sun. Jerusalem’s old city, a maze of streets teeming with tradition and history, is the site of contemplation for Sari Nusseibeh as he weaves his way through the development of the conflict between Israel and Palestine in his memoir, Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life.
“In an ancient world such as ours, the truth inevitably gets embellished with a thick layer of legend,” writes Nusseibeh, rooting his story—an autobiography adorned with a touch of fantasy and the weight of history—at the doors of the near mythic church where Ubadah ibn al-Samit, the first of his ancestors to settle in Jerusalem, served as doorkeeper, and where a fairy-tale knight falls asleep and refuses to awaken until there is peace in the country. As the book progresses, his family history, a fairy tale about Jerusalem, a shifting political landscape, and a wish for the future mingle, culminating in a memoir that is aching with tragedy, yet insistently hopeful.
Nusseibeh, the current president of Al-Quds, the only Arab university in Jerusalem, a longtime advocate of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an academic with a degree from Oxford, uses his personal memoir as a guide for narrating the Palestinian side of the conflict. His story, an impressively comprehensive depiction of the struggle for nationhood, is at once enthralling and inevitably heartbreaking, no matter your political bent. Though present-day events assure that the knight will not awaken by the end of the book, Nusseibeh writes about the struggle for and attachment to the land with such an air of enchantment that even the most pessimistic reader cannot help reveling in the possibility of a happier future.
As an intellectual, a philosopher, and someone who has spent a significant amount of time ferrying between political and academic gatherings in both the east and the west, Nusseibeh offers a rare perspective on a political situation that has become so mired in disappointment and mistrust that the prospect of writing objectively about it is nearly absurd. Unfortunately, in an attempt to maintain his position as an intellectual bystander reluctantly thrown into politics, he brandishes the reader with an image of himself that can’t help but feel forced, as he interrupts fluid passages about the mystique of Jerusalem and poetic musings on Islamic philosophy with repetitive imagery of his own messy hair, mismatched socks and affinity for cheap cigarettes. From time to time, tucking his reputation as the frazzled professor under his arm, Nusseibeh proffers statements that rebuff his insistence upon non-violence and his demand for ubiquitous tolerance.
Writing with well-founded anger about the humiliation of checkpoints, Nusseibeh at times infuses the text with subtle racism, referring to “Russian-born eighteen year olds barking out orders to old women,” taking a jab at Israel’s lower class immigrant population. And, of the growing international terrorism of the 1970s, he writes, “no one could deny that the world took notice of our plight only when passengers in first-class seats on airplanes began fearing they could end up in Beirut instead of Tokyo. Terrorism put the Palestinian issue on the map…” One of several points in the text when he explains away terrorism by invoking the desperation of circumstance, it undermines his persistent demands for peaceful solutions. Though he has a complex understanding of the conflict, and a great deal of sympathy for the human suffering on both sides, he does not always lend enough empathy to the Israeli cities riddled with suicide bombings and qassam rockets, which suffer from their own desperation of circumstance as well.
Nonetheless, in a region where both sides are better at exporting propaganda than generating truth, and where publications frequently read like hyperbolic press releases, Nusseibeh is able to pierce through the layers of contrived “information” to the core of what is basically true. From beginning to end Nusseibeh advocates for a two-state solution and is rigorous in his desire to maintain dialogue not only between the Palestinians and Israelis, but within the Palestinian population as well—goals that are both admirable and necessary for eventual peace.
By the book’s end, amidst religious fundamentalism on the part of Hamas, and right-wing extremism on the part of the Israelis, Nusseibeh’s sentences are heavy with frustration and constructed out of near tangible pain. Nusseibeh, a woefully hopeful optimist, seems ready to throw up his hands and cede defeat to the possibility of a future peace. Yet he still manages to reconcile his story with a message of hope and the belief that with tolerance and a respite from violence, peace isn’t entirely impossible. As the conflict in the Middle East continues to plague the front pages of newspapers across the U.S., it is comforting to know that within the region there are still people kindling belief in a better future, if for no other reason than an undying love for the magic of Jerusalem, where “ancient alleys, wonder and surprise are always lurking around the corner ready to remind you that this is not an ordinary place you can map out with a surveyor’s rod. It is sacred.”
ABBY MARGULIES is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.