Along with the gnarled olive trees and squat cactuses that put a surprising range of greens into the landscape, the hills of historic Palestine have long produced a steady crop of tenacious myths. Most of the ones familiar in the U.S. take an Israeli point of view, from the early Zionist claim that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land” to the state’s current insistence that peace negotiations collapsed a year and a half ago because “Palestinians preferred violence” to Ehud Barak’s “most generous offer.”
Palestinians too, of course, cling to their own self-flattering understandings of complicated events. In Stranger in the House, his compelling memoir of growing up in the occupied West Bank, the attorney and human rights activist Raja Shehadeh unpacks the most damaging of them. Like his father—whose incomplete relationship with the author forms the central (and sometimes overwrought) theme of the book—Shehadeh has little patience for rhetorical excesses that often dominate the discourse. On a trip to the U.S. in 1979, he flops at a party full of Palestinian émigrés when he fails to provide “an inflamed passionate denunciation of the Zionist enemy as the source of all our troubles,” but he can’t find the words then to explain how “we were heroic not because of the great risks that we were taking but because of our perseverance in the face of small, daily, persistent harassments and obstructions to our life.”
For this reason, Stranger in the House will not satisfy readers who merely want hortatory affirmation of their radical positions. Nor does the book consistently have the elegant prose and touching self-scrutiny of a memoir like Edward Said’s Out of Place. But Shehadeh has much to offer. Providing a vivid description of life under occupation, a reality that American readers are seldom exposed to, and charting the surges of politically tinged tensions in his own household, he powerfully humanizes the Palestinian struggle. Even a right-wing Zionist could not fail to be moved by seeing how displacement, depredation, and deferred dreams play out in this prominent family.
Though Shehadeh traces his own desperate efforts to differentiate himself from his powerful and idealized father—he separates by going to university in Beirut, law school in London, and even, briefly, for yoga study in India—he develops ideas that clearly echo those of his dad, an attorney named Aziz. The younger Shehadeh, who in 1979 co-founded Al Haq, the Palestinian branch of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, to document human rights abuses of the occupation, might be speaking about himself when he writes of how Aziz “was tampering with a carefully nurtured official illusion” with his forward-looking political proposals.
In Aziz’s case, this tampering began shortly after 1948, when he fled his home in Jaffa for his mother-in-law’s house in Ram Allah as the daily shelling of the city by the Irgun became too much to bear. Like his compatriots, he expected to return within a couple of weeks after the hostilities had died down. Aziz figured that the worst that could happen would be the implementation of the UN partition plan, dividing the land into a Jewish and an Arab state, with Jaffa slated to be on the Arab side. “The two weeks stretched into forever,” Shehadeh writes, and Aziz came to wonder whether Arab politicians who repeated stirring slogans about the coming defeat of the Zionists really didn’t recognize that the state of Israel was there to stay.
“It was convenient to keep Israel at the level of the abstract rather than bring it down to the level of a mere enemy with whom one can find ways to battle, extract concessions, and possibly even coexist,” Shehadeh writes, describing his father’s reasoning. “Let Israel be the subject of fiery speeches in which the people’s rage could be articulated and released—they would be distracted from dealing with all that was wrong at home.” These were dangerous ideas. Aziz faced arrests by Jordanian authorities (who controlled the West Bank until 1967) and was later denounced as a traitor by revolutionary radio broadcasts from Damascus.
Early on, Aziz proposed a two-state solution, based on mutual recognition and a cessation of all hostilities. But, murdered in 1985, Aziz did not live to see the adoption by the PLO and Israel of at least the spirit of his once far-fetched plan.
The grave limitations of the principles agreed to at the White House in 1993, among other aspects of the peace efforts, are given a revealing and thorough analysis by Raja Shehadeh in his 1997 book, From Occupation to Interim Accords: Israel and the Palestinian Territories. If part of the purpose of that work was to insert Palestinian experience into historical narrative, the far more personal effort of Stranger in the House is nothing less than to assert a place for Shehadeh himself and for his generation in the Palestinian narrative. “Because the dream [of return] was stronger than the reality,” Shehadeh writes, ” . . . I had no reality of my own.”
Yet he supposes that Aziz understands this predicament well enough. “We didn’t allow the new generation to make a new life for themselves because we continued to impress them with the glory of what was, a magic that could never be replicated,” Shehadeh imagines his father thinking. “We allowed others to inherit all that had been established because we failed to see any of it as ours. We defined our loss as total, forgetting that we still had something; we had ourselves and a life to live.”
Shehadeh chronicles how he set out to make his own life possible. Through the journey, he contributes to building the life of Palestine.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Joy Press on The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing
J. Hoberman on Reading The Funnies: Essays On Comic Strips by Donald Phelps