Book Review

Book Review: Once Upon A Country, By Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David

By Denebola
Published: September 2007

By Christine Busaba

It has been nearly 60 years since the creation of Israel and 40 years since the Six-Day War that gave all of Jerusalem to the Israelis. While to some this seems like distant history, for Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian from a prominent family in East Jerusalem, this history is all too real.

Nusseibeh, professor and president at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, was pulled into a life of politics, following years of family involvement with the Palestinian cause.  His new book Once Upon a C ountry , serves as a window into his life in Palestine. That life begins with his father’s life, growing up in East Jerusalem, into the creation of Israel when his family moved to Damascus where Nusseibeh was born in 1949. His story continues to the present day with the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister of Israel and the wall that Sharon built as a means to stop suicide bombings.

On his journey through the last 60 years, Nusseibeh discusses his personal life, political life, and his life as a Palestinian. His family was well known and respected in Jerusalem, able to trace their roots back to the 7th century. Traditionally, the Nusseibeh was the carrier of the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. His father, Anwar Nusseibeh, studied at Cambridge University and returned to Palestine as a champion for a Palestinian state. He was good friends with King Hussein of Jordan, and served as the Jordanian ambassador to Great Britain and as Jordanian minister of defense.

It was Sari’s father who encouraged him to enter politics following the Six-Day War in 1967.

Sari Nusseibeh’s story begins in Damascus, where his mother was living as his father traveled the world as a politician. He didn’t know his father much growing up. When the family moved back to Jerusalem, Nusseibeh attended an Evangelical school for boys and continued his study at Oxford University, and then Harvard University.

The interesting aspect of Nusseibeh’s life is that he never wanted to enter politics. As a teenager growing up in the 1960′s and 70′s, it was the height of political activism around the world, but he never troubled himself with such things. During intense political discussions in his family salon, Nusseibeh was never present, distancing himself as much as possible studying philosophy.

It wasn’t until he moved to England that politics began to put an imprint on his life. He met his future wife, Lucy, whom he later brought back to Jerusalem where they would raise a family.

Over the next thirty years, he worked as a professor at Birzeit University, created close ties with Yassir Arafat, and found himself in hot water many times over his political views.

Before opening the book, it would seem like the stereotypical misery story, coming from a Palestinian hoping for the return of his lost land. The truth is, Nusseibeh is a moderate. He doesn’t believe in the movements Fatah or Hamas, or violence as a means to win back to win back Palestinian lands.

He naturally finds himself in trouble for his moderation. Palestinians view him as a traitor, and Israelis view him as a fraud. Nusseibeh, however, believes in an ideal one-state solution. Though it isn’t plausible, it remains the perfect resolution in his mind.

He writes, “For me, a united Palestine was to include both Arabs and Jews…Half the Israelis looked as if they could be my cousins anyway. Many spoke Arabic because they came from Iraq or North Africa. We liked the same food and music and smoked the same tobacco in the same kind of water pipes. Why shouldn’t we share the same state?”

Nusseibeh was a hippy for much of his life. As a teacher, he came in in very casual clothes and sandals with messy, curly hair. His students, young and radical, never understood his views. Nusseibeh was a traitor to them, too. He was willing to negotiate with Israelis and settle for the two-state solution, something out of the question for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

His honest memoir offers a middle of the road view. He never curses the Israelis or wishes them ill. In fact, as he grows older, he realizes just how much he has in common with the “enemy” he was taught to hate.

In 1987, he met with Moshe Amirav, a right wing Israeli of the Likud Party, which landed him in hot water. Nusseibeh was attacked by some of his students at Birzeit University. He came out with deep cuts and large bruises, but that didn’t stop him from participating in politics and spreading his message of peace among Israelis and Palestinians.

He served as the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) representative at the Oslo Peace Process and fought for Palestinian Right of Return with a state made out of Gaza and the West Bank, disputed territories. At the same time, he believes that Israelis have a right to stay there. He’s denounced suicide bombings over the years, and doesn’t support killing civilians, for any reason whatsoever.

Once Upon a Country is written in very conversational language for an academic. It’s a long book, over 500 pages, but it’s written in very accessable language. Because the story comes from a man who experienced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly, the history is filled with true stories that enliven the overall book.

The concluding message is a reflection of the last few decades of his life, the pain and heartache he experienced as well as the happiness he experienced in a land he knew as his home.

At the heart of his book though, is Jerusalem, the home of his family for 1,300 years, and to him, the most beautiful city in the world. He keeps coming back to this city, this Holy City. He attended Elementary school in Jerusalem, and when walking through its winding streets, he felt his heart ache at the sight of it being split in half.

The ending leaves you, though, with a feeling of satisfaction. His life journey as a political activist leads him to this moment of reflection. His life-story is a moderate in a land of extremists.

Jerusalem closes this memoir, about a land he loves and about a peace he hopes for. Nusseibeh writes, “The Jerusalem I was raised to love was not a geographic dot on a map…it was the terrestrial gateway to the divine world, where Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prophets-men of vision and a sense of humanity-met, if only in the imagination.”

Read more

Like it? Share it!


Copyright © Denebola | The Official School Newspaper of Newton South High School | 140 Brandeis Road, Newton, MA 02459.
Site designed by Chenzhe Cao.