By definition, the purpose of an autobiography is to document a life, yet certain circumstances tend to create exceptions to this rule. Can a chronicle of a life embroiled in controversy be, in its frank treatment of family, personal, and international history, free of that controversy? This seems to be the goal of “Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life,” written by Sari Nusseibeh in collaboration with Anthony David.
Yet though the story itself is not an argument, many of Nusseibeh’s views are embedded in its telling. He denounces policies of violence on both sides, recounting stories of unwarranted arrests, tortures, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes by Israeli officials, as well as suicide bombings and the culture of revenge that many Palestinian leaders breed.
He also tells of youthful idealism and particularly his early hope for a “single, secular Jewish-Arab state,” which eventually evolves into his strong faith in a two-state solution. He recounts how standing in the middle can put one at odds with both sides, describing how he was considered both “the Palestinian people’s Enemy Number One” and “the single most dangerous enemy of Israel” at two separate points in his life.
Nusseibeh was raised in a Jerusalem dynasty that can trace its history there back 1300 years to a female warrior who once defended the Prophet Muhammed and her brother, the first Muslim high judge of Jerusalem who was entrusted by Caliph Omar with the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He devotes the first third or so of the book to describing the rich religious, intellectual, and cultural history of Arabs in Palestine, and the time he devoted in his youth to studying it.
It is partly his understanding of this “serious intellectual history” that seems to drive Nusseibeh’s belief in a unique Palestinian identity as opposed to the Pan-Arabist beliefs his father expresses. Nusseibeh characterizes himself more as an academic than as a politician or activist. He studied at Oxford, Harvard, and Birzeit university in Ramallah, and is now the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.
Yet Nusseibeh somehow manages to evade every role into which he might be cast. As a child of Arab nobility, he chooses to marry an Englishwoman. As a Muslim studying Muslim texts, he enrolls in the Warburg Institute in London, a school founded by a Jew. As the chief representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Jerusalem, Nusseibeh continues to state his own opinions in public even though they don’t always align with those of the party.
Not surprisingly, the weakest parts of the narrative are those where Nusseibeh steps back from his own story, trying to draw attention to the absurdity of his own treatment or the irrationality of his society’s response to a particular event. More often than not, these moments are alienating as well as unnecessary.
The book’s final chapters criticize Hamas’s rise to power and the construction of the fence in the West Bank as two serious impediments to the peace process. In this case, the timing of the book’s publication seems auspicious: at a time when the situation seems as close to hopeless as it’s ever been, Nusseibeh combines inspiring optimism with a pragmatic analysis of the obstacles that lie ahead. In telling his story, Nusseibeh artfully details the knowledge and events that shaped his personal philosophy, perhaps hoping that by doing so, he can incite the same philosophy and the same passion for action in his readers.